Ekaterina Taklaja, editor of ERR’s Russian-language service, is bothered by the nature of the public debate on the events in Ukraine, and says in a recent piece here on ERR that the truth is somewhere in between. I say that while it may be in between, it is certainly not in the middle.
I have been following Euromaidan since the start, being a native Russian-speaker with friends in Kyiv who were intimately involved in events. As an active citizen from Estonia, I also have a wealth of experience arguing on the Internet that goes back to before our own Bronze Soldier riots. This taught me to calmly look at what’s actually there, rather than what I expect to see, and to avoid using tabloids and comment threads as a reliable gauge of public opinion.
Taklaja believes that in Estonia, there can only be one officially sanctioned opinion on Ukraine; that “Yanukovych is a scoundrel, Putin always lies and Savisaar is the main enemy of Estonian statehood. Those who doubt it, are traitors of the Estonian state.” Aren’t these three separate issues? Just because one of them is true or false, it doesn’t mean that all are.
Yanukovych is indeed a scoundrel. He is a convicted felon twice over, a superbly corrupt politician, and an astoundingly terrible president. He bankrupted his country, made a promise to his people and broke it, and sent in riot police to break up the initial, peaceful student demonstration in December. Even then he could have stepped back from the brink and hung on until the presidential elections scheduled for 2015, then ascond to a private island. Instead, he tried increasing levels of violence, made everything worse, then ran. His political opponents in Ukraine may also be unpleasant, but he’s still a scoundrel.
Putin does not always lie, but he probably exists in a bubble of things he wants to hear. When he says that the “little green men” in Crimea are not Russian soldiers, this lie is so blatant as to not be deception, but political doublespeak befitting a world leader.
Savisaar is not necessarily the enemy of Estonian statehood; he is simply very bad for the country. His myopic populism does not have to coincide with Russia’s official position to cause outrage; he is perfectly capable of coming up with terrible ideas on his own. It is his desire to oppose Ansip in all cases that leads him to spew Kremlin propaganda. Savisaar is not an idiot, but to Putin, he is a useful one.
Ukraine’s new leadership is not a “bunch of illegitimate thugs”, but elected members of parliament acting in lieu of the absconded president, and one of their first actions was to call new presidential elections as swiftly as reasonable. In our democratic state, Savisaar is entirely free to express his opinion without being beaten up – unlike in Yanukovych’s Kyiv – but he is the leader of a major political party, and should absolutely be called to task for statements on record in an interview. Unlike, say, the remark of Foreign Minister Paet in an off-the-record phone conversation, where he does not express that Estonia’s official position is counter to reality, but mentions a disturbing rumor he’s heard and encourages his colleague to investigate it. (A rumor since dispelled by the very person Paet says mentioned it to him.) Anyway, Paet has been condemned for his unfortunate, if private, rumor-mongering – he would have been a front-runner for the Prime Minister’s seat if the tape had not leaked.
Those who disagree with the majority opinions are not traitors to the Estonian state unless they are desperately looking for someone to say they are, so they can feel the moral satisfaction of being persecuted without the practical inconveniences.
As for the truly free media in Russia – well; Lenta.ru has been gutted, and its entire editorial staff is looking for new jobs. TV Rain (Dožd) has been cut off by cable operators under pressure from the Kremlin, on a laughable pretense. Newsru.com is run out of Israel. As of now, Russian authorities have taken measures to block any website critical of Putin or Russia’s actions in Ukraine, including both news outlets and private blog platforms. Echo of Moscow is still ticking over, but its parent company is a division of Gazprom, and it exists entirely on the sufferance of the Kremlin. Don’t change the channel, we’ll be right back; or maybe we won't.
Yes, there are uncomfortable facts about Maidan. It started out peaceful, but in the face of police brutality, called on football hooligans and far-right groups, who were not meek and gentle with captured Berkut officers. Yes, the new leadership of Ukraine has murky pasts and occasionally still makes bad or corrupt decisions. It’s up to the people of Ukraine to keep them in check, but a military invasion is not helping that.
When it comes to a popular uprising, citizens are indeed legitimate experts on the situation, especially ones who dare to speak publicly on it; this, specifically this, is democracy. (And General Laaneots has not exactly been prevented from speaking out.)
I agree that Estonians putting Ukrainian flags on their userpics can be a bit fake, but that’s a personal aesthetic choice and I won’t condemn anyone for doing it. And I would much sooner fly the blue and yellow of Ukraine than the black and orange of the (misnamed) ribbon of St. George, now widely employed in Crimea.
I do not believe Ukraine is a democratic country with no corruption; the point is exactly that it isn’t and hasn’t been – but now it has the chance to be. I do not know if the new Ukrainian government can be trusted, but the Maidaners have no intention of trusting it, but rather of verifying, monitoring and controlling it, and that impresses me greatly.
I’m not intrinsically troubled by the idea of a Crimean referendum, no more than I am bothered by the idea of a Scottish or Catalan one – as long as it is conducted without “little green men” patrolling the streets, without the beatings of opposition activists, and without turning away OSCE monitors with gunfire. I have a bottle of excellent Scottish whisky here that I am willing to bet on this Sunday’s referendum being called in Russia’s favor. Any takers?
A conflict is usually not black and white, but it is very rarely 50% greyscale. It is a tempting logical fallacy that if two sharply conflicting opinions exist, then they are equidistant from the truth. The truth is indeed out there, but it is rarely in the middle. To quote an overly emotional wording that’s been going around the Russian-speaking social media in the last few days, some people believe the Holocaust didn'thappened, and some people believe that Jews drink the blood of Christian babies; and guess what? The truth is not somewhere halfway.
A longer version of this piece can be read on AnTyx, Andrei Tuch's blog.