[lg policy] Brotherly Ukraine Answers Back
haroldfs at gmail.com
Wed May 8 11:43:09 EDT 2019
Brotherly Ukraine Answers Back
THOMAS DE WAAL <https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/experts/479>
Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s use of soft power can cause the Kremlin problems.
- May 07, 2019
- PRINT PAGEComments (1)
The delight in Moscow at seeing the back of Ukrainian president Petro
Poroshenko has not lasted long.
In Volodymyr Zelenskiy the Russian leadership got the kind of Ukrainian
leader it said it wanted—a Russian speaker from outside the old political
elite, who talked more emollient language about the Donbass conflict. Some
corresponding Western comments portrayed a Zelenskiy win as a victory for
Thomas de Waal <https://carnegieeurope.eu/experts/479>
De Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern
Europe and the Caucasus region.
This notion vanished on first contact with reality. In his first victory
speech, Zelenskiy encouraged Russian voters
wake from their slumbers, saying, “as a citizen of Ukraine, I can say to
all countries in the post-Soviet Union look at us. Anything is possible!”
The warmest response in Russia to Zelenskiy’s victory came not from the
Kremlin but from opposition leader Alexei Navalny (the two men are almost
exact contemporaries) who praised Ukrainians
<https://twitter.com/navalny/status/1120021727550017541> for their exercise
Putin followed up with an extreme provocation, offering Russian passports
to residents of the two Moscow-backed breakaway territories in eastern
Ukraine. In answer to this, outgoing Petro Poroshenko would probably have
doubled down on patriotic rhetoric. In the first shot of what has been
called a game of state-level ping-pong, Zelenskiy’s response was masterful.
He announced that he was offering Ukrainian passports to dissident
Russians, then, in a measured Facebook post
told Russians why his was a much better offer than Putin’s.
“Ukraine is different in particular because we Ukrainians have freedom of
speech, a free media, and internet in our country. Which is why we clearly
understand what a Russian passport really offers someone: the right to be
arrested for a peaceful protest; the right to not have free and competitive
elections; the right to forget about your natural rights and human
The medium was as important as the message itself, being conveyed in both
Ukrainian and Russian.
Ukraine’s language politics since independence has been, to put it mildly,
a mess. Under Poroshenko there has been a new push to cement Ukrainian as
the language of the state, while offering far too little to the millions
who still speak Russian by choice. A new language law
adopted by the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, on April 26, made use
of the Ukrainian language in public places, businesses, the media, and
education mandatory. Zelenskiy was critical, saying that “the government
should enable development of the Ukrainian language by establishing stimuli
and positive examples, and not bans and punishments.”
A native of eastern Ukraine, Zelenskiy belongs to the social group that
mixes the two languages freely, who do not like Russia but still speak it
as their first language of choice. In “Servant of the People,” the sitcom
that propelled him to the presidency, most of the characters speak Russian,
while switching back and forth to Ukrainian.
Essentially this is a rejection of the flawed notion, shared by both
Ukrainian nationalists and Russian politicians, that using the Russian
language in Ukraine constitutes a political affiliation to Russia.
If he gets the chance, we can expect Zelenskiy to promote a more nuanced
language policy, promoting Ukrainian as the state language but without
seeking to penalize use of Russian.
How much does this matter? Raw power matters more, people will say, and
Russian military hardware is still in the Donbass. The Russian
establishment will find ways of undermining Zelenskiy. No doubt we will
hear a Russian media message that the new president is “hostage” of
It does matter, however, because Ukraine policy in Russia is about more
than the elite. The public has a view too, and consistently a more pacific
one than its leaders. Since 2014, Putin has spun the idea that Russia is an
embattled fortress, with Ukraine its most hostile frontline state. The
message is that “brotherly Ukraine” was captured in a coup d’état by
pro-Western stooges who are trying to drag their country into NATO and
oppress its Russian speakers.
Putin told American correspondent Charlie Rose
2015, “[Ukraine] is our closest neighbor. We’ve always said that this is
our sister country…What I believe is absolutely unacceptable is the
resolution of internal political issues in the former USSR Republics,
through “color revolutions,” through coup d’état, through unconstitutional
removal of power.”
A smiling Ukrainian leader, with a big democratic mandate, rejecting
Russian state aggression but reaching out to the Russian public in its own
language, makes a mockery of this narrative.
The evolution of Georgia since 2012, the year it voted out the party of
Mikheil Saakashvili, is an interesting precedent.
The Georgian Dream government has fashioned a fairly successful dual-track
policy of distinguishing between the Russian political elite and Russian
society as a whole. On a high state level, since the 2008 war, Tbilisi has
kept diplomatic relations with Moscow suspended and defended its red lines
on Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But Georgia’s recent leaders have refrained
from Saakashvili’s inflammatory rhetoric and have cultivated trade and
tourism. Up to one million Russian tourists visited Georgia last year
Russian attitudes to Georgia have changed, surely in large part due to this
deployment of Georgian charm. Levada Center polls
<https://www.levada.ru/2018/06/14/druzya-i-vragi-rossii-3/> show a
precipitate drop in the number of Russians who consider Georgia to be an
“enemy country”—from 62 percent in 2009 to 8 percent in 2018.
The Kremlin can still try and pick a fight with Georgia, and intervene in
Ukraine, but it is not going to win any votes by doing so.
To put it another way, on a modest level in Georgia and perhaps now in
Ukraine, Putin’s regime is dealing with a new phenomenon—soft power from
its neighbors. Beware brotherly Ukraine!
Harold F. Schiffman
Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305
Phone: (215) 898-7475
Fax: (215) 573-2138
Email: haroldfs at gmail.com
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