Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ukrainian Crisis

By Stephen Wilson

Muscovites are in an anxious and alert wait and see mood!

(Moscow, Russia) -  'Don't read newspapers' a man warned Olga, a programmer after she grew angry at his laid back attitude to the latest events in Ukraine and the falling value of the ruble.  Many fear the ruble is set to suddenly plummet. The  man might have been echoing the doctor's word from Bulgakov's novel 'Heart of a Dog'. If you want to be happy, never read newspapers. The doctor might have added, if you want to comprehend the Ukraine, don't read or listen to the media. 

Much of the media is simply echoing the strong prejudices and simple minds of people who don't understand the complexity of the situation in the Ukraine. The man Olga spoke to might     not have been so indifferent, but just leaving life to 'fate' and getting on with the mundane life of making a living. Nevertheless, we see two distinct reactions. The first believes that not much can or should be done because you can't change the system and another who might well join a demonstration, or strongly vent very strong emotions. One thing is clear. Most Russians don't want to witness a war between Ukrainians and Russians which would turn out to be a ghastly fractricide.

            It would be wrong to claim that Moscow is in a state of panic or hysteria in regard to savings. Yes, there are people who are rushing around frantically attempting to convert their rubles (the normally average of 34 rubles to the dollar has risen to around 36-37) but most are anxious, alert and a little angry that politicians from Europe, Ukraine and Russia have messed up negotiations and fanned the fire of tensions rather than pacified them. Olga herself told me 'I was accepted for a promising job, only to be later told by the employer he could not hire me because he has already lost some money he had in a bank and is unsure of how things will go'.

            My daughter advised me, 'You have to ask your English students to pay in dollars rather than rubles'. I retorted I did not want to go to the trouble of converting them back. For many people, like myself, this is de ja vu!

            We have already witnessed the crisis of 1998 and 2008 in Russia. The standard response of most Russians to this is 'Somehow, we will manage'. It might sound banal but it tends to sum up the attitude of most Russians not just at present, but 16 years ago. Daniel Ogan, an American teacher and storyteller, told me that in one day of the early 1990's, when everyone's savings were lost, he witnessed three suicides. He saw one man jump before a coming metro train with his suitcase of money and another leapt from a high rise building. I'm
glad to say I have not come across any such incidents and don't want to. The stoic attitude where Russians endure suffering without complaint or hysteria seems far more down to earth in an economic crisis.

All the time I have heard many Russians say 'A strong man never complains, moans or whines about his predicament. He just puts up with it and carries on. He has to endure life like a soldier'. This is not like Scotland. In Scotland they might view this as cowardly indifference or passively condoning injustice. Complaining is positive in that it shows you care about things and address issues. Perhaps it is better to claim courage manifests itself in different ways. Sometimes silence is death, other times it is a feat such as when you control your anger.

            Not everyone is feeling under the weather. In fact, many people in Moscow are splashing out on holidays abroad before they lose their savings. Tourist companies in Moscow have noticed a sharp rise in early bookings for summer holidays. Some Russians are even welcoming the decline in the ruble. An economist, Oleg Kuzmin stated, 'Some of the consequences (of the Ukrainian crisis) can be for the better. First of all, it is the weaker ruble which will slow down the growth of imports'. This will be good for local manufacturers who claim the market is flooded by rubles. Olga told me 'After the devaluation of the ruble in 1998 I could afford to go to a beautiful and expensive restaurant and eat wonderful luxurious meals. Everything was served at a huge discount.

            When I once spoke to a managing director of a Russian computer game company 'Akela', he also expressed similar sentiments. 'The crisis allowed me to purchase many things I could not previous;y buy!'

            It is doubtful whether such views are shared by managers of struggling firms or the poorest people in the regions of Russia. It is always the poorest people who have to take on the worst burden. If they lose a job it can represent a real crisis, for a well trained banker and consultant, the loss of a job might mean 'going on holiday' until the next vacancy come up!
When I asked people what they thought of the war in the Ukraine, some Russians vented anger at what was happening there. For instance, the recent events in Ukraine did not surprise my wife. 'Those people can be very aggressive and hate Russians. When I was a school girl, I met a Ukrainian who started to curse me simply because I was born in Moscow. 

Her old school friend, Takhir, blamed the west for all the turmoil. 'The Americans want to take over Ukraine by inciting disorder and rebellion. They will then try to do the same in Russia! The situation is very rotten there involving a complex web of sinister mafia clans and politicians.'

         Anyone watching the Euronews might be forgiven for believing that the demonstrators (the Maidan), are fighting for an abstract 'democratic idea' and a much more modern and cleaner democracy. That the predominant aim is to join the European Union, they view this as a crude fairy-tale struggle between oppressed Ukrainians who want self-determination and freedom from a Russian backed government. This is largely nonsense. It represents a protest against wide-scale corruption which infects both Ukrainian and Russian politicians. Most of the demonstrators warned that if the revolution was betrayed again, they would take to the streets again. If so, it seems that Ukraine will fall deeper and deeper into the abyss. It is already in a desperate plight and a central reason for the protest was deep economic problems. There are practically no jobs and wages are often low. That is why so many Ukrainians are in Moscow!

            The ex-president ,Yanukovych, is hated by both Russians and Ukrainians. He has done a great disservice to both sides. The scale of corruption is staggering! Anders Aslund,an expert at the Peterson Institute in Washington, calculates that the president and his relatives may have embezzled between $ 8 billion and $10 billion a year since he assumed power in 2010. His abandoned 136 hectare estate shocked visitors. The man had wasted his money on exotic animals, marble mansions and golf courses at a time when ordinary people were suffering intense poverty. Now the country is in yet more debt and is begging for help. If the country accepts European help, it will only worsen the situation of the poorest people. Accepting loans from the International Monetary Fund comes with strict conditions, such as cutting schools, closing hospitals and firing lots of civil servants. A sobering examination of Greece, Spain and Italy will also dispel any illusions about the European Union! Those countries are already afflicted by mass unemployment.

            The people don't trust their new government and nor should they. The people might well take to the streets again and resort to the old methods of 'Collective bargaining by rioting'. Without a clear and formulated economic and social programme, the rioting could just turn into a  wanton outburst of aimless anger.


            The residents of Crimea also don't believe in the new government, the Rada. One of the first acts this government did was to disqualify Russian as one of the official languages of Ukraine. This means in effect that Russians have practically been disenfranchised. The fact is there is not one Ukraine, but two, maybe even three. American and European politicians have largely been silent about the Russian minorities. They might as well not exist as far as they are concerned.What is more, European politicians were actively supporting and attending the demonstrations, encouraging them to act bolder.

            Would the Russian Foreign secretary get away with visiting Chicago and supporting striking school teachers defending their jobs? If he did this, many Americans would be incensed. Yet that is what American politicians do in Kiev.

            If Russian troops have moved into Crimea to defend the Russians it comes as no surprise. Crimea has always been perceived by Russians as part of Russia. They fought a war over it from 1854-55 against the British,French and Turkish forces. After hearing that some Ukrainian nationalists are chanting racists slogans and taking down World War Two monuments, and not just toppling statues of Lenin, they don't want to find themselves strangers in a strange land.

            A quarter of a million Russian soldiers of the Crimea war lie buried in mass graves. The historian Orlando Figes wrote 'Pride in the heroes of Sevastopol, the 'city of Russian glory', remains an important source of national identity, although today it is in a foreign land, a result of the transfer of the Crimea to Ukraine by Nikita Krushchev in 1954 and the declaration of the Ukrainian independence on the dissolution of the Soviet union in 1991. The loss of the Crimea
has been a severe blow to the Russians already suffering a loss of pride after the collapse of the Soviet Union.'

            Nobody asked the local Russians in Crimea whether they wanted to become part of Ukraine in 1954. They had no vote and no voice. Nobody is asking them now. It is doubtful whether the European Union would condone a planned referendum in Crimea. Oksana Chebotareva, whose mother is from Ukraine, told me 'It was the stupidest thing Kruschchev       ever did. To give Crimea as a present to Ukraine in 1954!'.

            There is nothing inevitable about an impending war. It could be avoided. Up to now, the diplomacy of Europeans and Americans has been deplorable. For instance, issuing an ultimation to the Ukrainian government 'that you must choose between Europe and Russia 'may have provoked the tragic turn of events to the worst. Why must people be forced to take one side or the other? Why not let the people decide for themselves, and that includes Russians
having a say.The Russians can't be treated as invisible or conjured away with a magic wand.

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