Charting the historical development of protest in Soviet and post-Soviet Armenia

Yerevan 1988

Yerevan 1988

While the recent Baghramyan Avenue protests in Armenia over electricity price hikes may have surprised many observers, they are arguably part of a broader tradition of civic activism in Soviet and post-Soviet Armenia.

How do the Baghramyan protests compare to other historical protests in Armenia? These latest demonstrations reportedly brought out as many as 30,000 people into the streets of Yerevan last week. This is a larger number compared to the 2013 post-election protests in Armenia, led by the pro-Western Raffi Hovannisian, which brought out at most 10,000 people into the streets. At the same time, the Baghramyan number is smaller than the 2008 post-election protests, led by Armenia’s former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, which reportedly brought out about 50,000 to 100,000 people into the streets.

Of course, none of these protests compare to the sheer size and scale of those of the Karabakh Movement during perestroika, in which as many as one million men, women, and children went out to protest on the streets of Yerevan in February 1988. That is approximately one-third of Armenia’s entire population. Of course, the reasons and circumstances for such massive protests were quite exceptional (as was arguably the era in which they took place).  For Armenians, Nagorny Karabakh (or Artsakh) is an existential issue.

Below are figures showing the growth of the perestroika-era protests in Armenia, from September 1987 to February 1988. These figures are derived from data compiled by Mark R. Beissinger, a political scientist at Princeton and author of the book Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State (Cambridge University Press, 2002):

1987:
September: 200
October-December: 2,000-1,000

1988
:
January (early): 5,000
January (early-mid): 30,000
January (mid): 200,000
January (late): 500,000
February: 1,000,000

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How Moscow views Nagorny Karabakh

We Are Our Mountains monument in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorny Karabakh.  This statue is widely regarded as a symbol of Karabakh’s identity

We Are Our Mountains monument in Stepanakert, the capital of the Nagorny Karabakh Republic. This statue is widely regarded as a symbol of the identity of Nagorny Karabakh. (Photograph by this writer)

One of many hotspots in the former Soviet space is the region of Nagorny Karabakh in the Caucasus. I have written about Nagorny Karabakh in the past, but this time, I would like to focus precisely on Russia’s view of the situation.

What is Nagorny Karabakh?

Nagorny Karabakh is a majority-Armenian region in the Caucasus. Its landscape is forested and mountainous, dotted with numerous historical Armenian monuments and churches. It is one of the most beautiful places in the former Soviet Union.

The region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but is a de facto independent state, closely allied with neighboring Armenia. Armenia, which does not officially recognize Nagorny Karabakh, maintains that its local Armenian inhabitants have the right to self-determination (whether or not to be an independent state, part of Armenia, or an autonomous region of Azerbaijan). This position is supported by the area’s majority-Armenian population. By contrast, Azerbaijan argues for the principle of territorial integrity and that Nagorny Karabakh’s future should be determined only within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan. Supported by Armenia, Nagorny Karabakh gained its de facto independence from Azerbaijan after a war in the 1990s, one of a handful of post-Soviet ethnic conflicts. Today, the status of Nagorny Karabakh is frozen and can be best described as one of “neither war nor peace.”

The name of the region, a testament to its checkered history, is a Russian, Turkish, and Persian amalgam, which literally means “Mountainous Black Garden.” The “Nagorny” or “Mountainous” aspect is important because this distinguishes the area from the traditionally majority Muslim Azerbaijani Lowland Karabakh. The term “Karabakh” is often liberally used as shorthand in the West to refer exclusively to majority Christian Armenian “Mountainous Karabakh.” However, the term “Karabakh” can also be used to refer to both the Mountainous and Lowland areas in totality. To avoid confusion, I will refer to the area as Nagorny Karabakh (henceforth NK).

NK is also referred to by its historical Armenian name, “Artsakh,” by Armenians in Armenia and in NK. The local Armenian population of NK speaks a unique dialect of Armenian that even standard Armenian speakers have difficulty understanding.

Tsar Peter the Great saw great potential in expanding Russia into the Caucasus.  Portrait by Paul Delaroche, 1838.

Tsar Peter the Great saw great potential in expanding Russia into the Caucasus. Portrait by Paul Delaroche, 1838.

Why is Nagorny Karabakh important to Russia historically?

With regard to Russian history, NK is part of the reason that present-day Armenia (historical Eastern Armenia) and the South Caucasus generally became part of the Russian Empire. In the 18th century, Khachen (as NK was then known) and Syunik (today southern Armenia) were the only parts of historic Armenia that were able to retain a semi-independent status amid Armenia being overrun by the Mongols, Turks, and Persians. Formally, the two principalities were semi-independent vassals of Persia. Their princes (meliks), together with the king of eastern Georgia and the Armenian Orthodox Patriarch (Catholicos), formed a coalition beseeching Tsar Peter the Great to liberate their lands from their larger Islamic neighbors.

Peter was interested in the Caucasus not only to help fellow Orthodox Christians, but also as a means for Russia to secure access to profitable trade routes to India, in order to gain access to silk and other riches. Thus began the relationship between Russia and the Caucasus that would eventually culminate in the annexation of eastern and western Georgia (starting in 1801), the further incorporation of historical Eastern Armenia and present-day Azerbaijan in 1813-1828, and the conquest of the North Caucasus in the 1860s.

What are the origins of the present-day dispute over Nagorny Karabakh?

The origins of the present-day dispute over NK date to the Sovietization of the Caucasus in the early 1920s. It is important to understand how the dispute originated in order to comprehend the dynamics of the conflict today. There are two different theories in this regard that are widely repeated in the media. Neither is supported by factual evidence, but both fit conveniently into dominant political narratives.

Anastas Mikoyan, Joseph Stalin, and Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Tbilisi, 1925.  Though often blamed for assigning Nagorny Karabakh to Azerbaijan, Stalin's actual influence was not a major factor in the final decision.

Anastas Mikoyan, Joseph Stalin, and Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Tbilisi, 1925. Though often held chiefly responsible for assigning Nagorny Karabakh to Azerbaijan, Stalin’s actual influence was not a major factor in the final decision.

One theory asserts that the dispute began when Stalin personally decided to assign NK to Soviet Azerbaijan during the Sovietization of the Caucasus. Those who support this theory have given different possible explanations as for Stalin’s exact motivation for such a step. Some claim that he wanted to appease Turkey, hoping that under Atatürk, Ankara would develop into a communist state. Others allege that Stalin had an anti-Armenian bias. However, most proponents of this theory claim that the motivation was for Moscow to divide-and-rule Armenia and Azerbaijan. Overall, this theory is undermined by the fact that Stalin was far from the zenith of his power and was not the sole decision-maker in determining NK’s fate, even though he was the Commissar of Nationalities at the time. Moreover, he had good relations with Armenian communists like Mikoyan and was actually sympathetic to Armenian claims over NK.

The second theory holds that the Soviets assigned NK to Azerbaijan because it was economically dependent on the city and surrounding area of Baku during Tsarist times. However, if this was true, then the Armenian provinces of Syunik and Tavush (which, together with NK, were part of the Tsarist-era Elizavetpolskaya Guberniya) would have been logically assigned to Azerbaijan on the same basis. Instead, they became part of Soviet Armenia.

In reality, according to recent research by Caucasus scholar Arsene Saparov, the actual reason behind NK’s assignment to Azerbaijan was the fact that, despite its majority Christian Armenian population, it was controlled by Azerbaijani forces at the time of Sovietization. It was therefore easier for the Soviets to sanction the existing situation on the ground, while also offering the “compromise” of local Armenian autonomy. Hence the “Nagorny Karabakh Autonomous Oblast” of Soviet Azerbaijan was established. Again, it is important to emphasize that the Soviets were desperate to secure control of the region at the time and, being communist-internationalists, they believed that national borders would one day be abolished anyway. There were no sinister imperial schemes or machinations behind the assignment of NK to Azerbaijan.

How does Russia view Nagorny Karabakh today?

Today, Moscow ultimately wants to see some sort of resolution, but it realizes that devising one is virtually impossible right now, given current conditions. It therefore favors the status quo and continued peace talks.

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Along with the United States and France, Russia is a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group which facilitates talks on the NK issue. Both the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments are committed to these talks. However, the present government of Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan, which has engaged in high military spending and bellicose anti-Armenian rhetoric, is unwilling to compromise on anything short of NK’s total return to Baku. Armenia in turn has stood firmly in favor of Karabakh’s self-determination. The unrecognized NK Republic is currently not involved in the negotiations, but states that it should be, due to the fact that it is the representative of the local Armenian population.

As of a result of the NK war of the 1990s, the NK Republic also controls a handful of districts of Azerbaijan proper, giving them contiguous frontiers with Armenia and Iran. A potential compromise solution may require forfeiting some of these districts, such as Aghdam. The status of refugees and other issues also need to be discussed, but the main sticking point for both sides remains the determination of NK’s ultimate status.

It is important to note that Armenia relies on Moscow for security vis-a-vis Azerbaijan and Turkey, both of which have closed their borders with Armenia since the 1990s. However, Turkish-Armenian relations have improved significantly since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (or AKP) came to office. For instance, though Turkey still denies the 1915 Armenian Genocide, the issue is no longer a taboo in Turkish society and is now openly discussed. However, largely due to pressure from Turkey’s domestic nationalists and from official Baku, the border between Turkey and Armenia remains closed, despite the obvious benefits for both Ankara and Yerevan. Nevertheless, Turkish-Armenian relations will continue to improve and will be further helped by growing cooperation between Ankara and Moscow on issues such as the proposed Turk Stream gas pipeline.

Meanwhile, relations between Yerevan and Baku remain tense. In this regard, Armenia looks to Moscow for security and is therefore a close ally of Moscow and Russia’s main “center” in the South Caucasus today. By contrast, Azerbaijan was engaged in a flirtation with the West for some time, especially with oil lobbyists and neoconservative politicians in Washington eager to undermine Iran and Russia. The latter two groups have been very interested in creating alternative energy pipelines from post-Soviet Central Asia through Azerbaijan and to Europe, at the expense of traditional energy routes from Russia.

The mountains of Nagorny Karabakh. (Photograph by this writer)

The mountains of Nagorny Karabakh. (Photograph by this writer)

However, Azerbaijan’s flirtation with the West appears to have diminished in recent years, amid mounting criticism regarding Baku’s human rights record. Baku has therefore engaged in new thaws with Moscow and Tehran. However, it is unlikely to join the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union any time soon, given Aliyev’s interest in keeping Azerbaijan independent of any supranational union or alliance. However, Baku has a finite supply of natural energy reserves and will have no choice but to turn to regional cooperation, compromise, and economic diversification in the future. In this respect, it would do well to discard the bellicose discourse and adopt a more balanced and constructive approach.

In Moscow’s view, a resolution of the NK dispute is not only desirable for regional stability but also for Russian security. Russia continues to face challenges on its troubled southern frontier in the North Caucasus with Islamic extremists. In order to help contain and isolate this threat, Russia seeks to solidify its position in the former Soviet South Caucasus states. A strong “buffer zone” of secure and friendly countries to the south of the North Caucasus is therefore an important vector of Russia’s policy toward the region.

Russia is also concerned about the potential expansion of NATO in the South Caucasus, particularly in Georgia. Additionally, it is concerned about the expansion of US-supported energy projects designed to undermine Russian energy exports to Europe. Moscow is puzzled by these American-backed steps, which are viewed as a throwback to Cold War “containment” and as a provocation intended to isolate and weaken Russia. They are also regarded as spurning potential cooperation on serious matters such as fighting Islamic extremism in the area. Indeed, Georgia has recently faced problems with Islamic radicalism in the Pankisi Gorge and attempts by ISIS to woo the region’s local population of ethnic Kists (a Chechen subgroup). Notably, the infamous ISIS commander Omar al-Shishani is originally from Pankisi. Given such concerns, it is clear that if Moscow, Tbilisi, and Washington all worked together to combat this common threat, the benefits would be optimal.

Whatever the future, for Moscow, the Caucasus remains an important area within the post-Soviet space and a potential flashpoint for future conflict. Despite the dispute over NK, Armenians and Azerbaijanis have co-existed and lived together side-by-side in the past. Peace is possible, and indeed NK would greatly benefit from cooperation between Russia and the West.

The Georgian Who Would Be Governor: Saakashvili in Odessa

Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP-Getty / Jim Watson)

Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP-Getty / Jim Watson)

On 29 May 2015, the current Ukrainian government made a jaw-dropping move. As if Kiev’s controversial de-communization laws were not enough, the new government decided to appoint Georgia’s provocative ex-president Mikheil “Misha” Saakashvili to the post of governor of the Odessa Oblast. Immediately prior to this (literally within hours), Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko granted Saakashvili Ukrainian citizenship, thus making him eligible for the governorship. On Twitter and Facebook, future governor Saakashvili expressed his love for Odessa.

Needless to say, Saakashvili is no Prince Vorontsov.  Unabashedly pro-Western and hawkishly anti-Russian, Saakashvili is regarded by many as one of the most unstable politicians in the entire former Soviet Union. It was he who recklessly launched the disastrous South Ossetian war in 2008. Currently, he is a wanted man in his native Georgia, charged with abuse of office. In fact, Prosecutors in Tbilisi are seeking an Interpol Red Notice for his arrest. Further, Russia, acting on behalf of Georgia’s breakaway province of South Ossetia, is also seeking the arrest of Saakashvili in connection with war crimes from the 2008 war. This has not prevented Saakashvili from periodically threatening to return to Georgia via revolutionary means, despite the fact that he is widely unpopular in Georgia.

Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko hands Mikheil Saakashvili his identification card, identifying him as the new governor of the Odessa Oblast. (Press office photo)

Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko hands Mikheil Saakashvili his identification card, identifying him as the new governor of the Odessa Oblast. (Press office photo)

However, Saakashvili is very popular among officials in Kiev, where he retains many ties from his university days. As a supporter of the Maidan from the very beginning, Saakashvili became an advisor to the Ukrainian government. Many officials from his former administration in Georgia, including some also wanted in Tbilisi, have joined him. This has sparked protest, outrage, and indignation from Georgia, its breakaway province of Abkhazia, and Russia.

None of this seems to have fazed Kiev, which appears to dismiss and act in defiance of these protests, especially those from Tbilisi. In fact, not only has Kiev refused to extradite Saakashvili back to Georgia, but it is also widely believed to be obstructing the Interpol Red Notice arrest issued against Zurab Adeishvili, Georgia’s controversial former Justice Minister under Saakashvili.

There is also the question of Saakashvili’s Georgian citizenship. According to Georgian law, Saakashvili cannot be both a citizen of Georgia and a citizen of Ukraine simultaneously.  As such, Saakashvili will have to be excluded from the Georgian political process because under Georgian law, foreigners cannot participate in Georgian politics.

This will also mean that Saakashvili will have to resign as chairman of the pro-Western United National Movement (UNM) opposition party in Georgia. That party has already seen a string of resignations this past week and declining popularity in Georgia in general. If Saakashvili resigns as the UNM’s chairman, it may further diminish its presence in Georgian politics.

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (Newsday.ge)

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (Newsday.ge)

Saakashvili’s appointment by Kiev as the governor of the Odessa Oblast has already prompted strong reactions from Tbilisi. Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili was at a loss for words regarding Saakashvili’s acceptance of Ukrainian citizenship. “I want to express my strongly negative stance” on the issue, he told reporters. By relinquishing his Georgian citizenship, he added, Saakashvili “humiliated the country and the presidential institution. From my point of view, values are more significant than a career… Georgia’s citizenship represents such a value.” To President Margvelashvili, such a step was “incomprehensible.”

Davit Saganelidze, the leader of Georgia’s parliamentary majority, told reporters that the decision to appoint such a “deranged person” to the post of governor of Odessa was a “very serious mistake on the part of Ukrainian authorities.” He also stated that he sympathized with the Ukrainian people.

Even overtly pro-Western political figures in Georgia were critical of Saakashvili’s new governorship. Georgia’s Defense Minister, Tina Khidasheli, the wife of the Georgian Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, said that Saakashvili “showed everyone his so-called devotion to Georgia” and that “now everyone can see he doesn’t care about the citizenship of his own country.”

Russia too also reacted to Saakashvili’s appointment. On Twitter, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev tweeted that “the circus comes to town… Poor Ukraine.”

As if this were not enough, the oblast to which Saakashvili has been appointed to govern is a hotbed of anti-Kiev activity and resentment.  The memory of the terrible Odessa Massacre of May 2014 is still very fresh in the minds of many Odessans.  In that massacre, 48 people were killed, largely anti-Kiev activists. Most were burned to death in the Odessa House of Trade Unions. Independent research confirms that Right Sector (Praviy Sektor), together with far-right football hooligans known as the Ultras, were responsible for what had happened. However, official Kiev, which is allied with these nefarious groups, has tried to downplay the tragedy and instead blame it on the anti-Kiev activists, contrary to the evidence.

As such, opposition to the Kiev government is seething among many in this multicultural port city, a Black Sea cultural center renowned for its sense of humor and its mixed Russian, Jewish, and Ukrainian heritage. The recent Trade Unions massacre re-awakened bad memories of World War II. This is due especially to the presence of far-right groups, like Right Sector, within the Ukrainian government. Kiev relies on these extremists to clamp down on free expression and political dissent in Odessa. This has created much anger that is barely contained by the Odessan public.

Monument to Duke de Richelieu in Odessa (ua-travelling)

Monument to Duke de Richelieu in Odessa (ua-travelling)

It is this city and its surrounding area that the overtly pro-Western Saakashvili will be governing. The situation brings together one of the most volatile personalities in the former Soviet space with one of the most high tension regions of Ukraine. The potential for instability is high. “Governor of Odessa? What a great idea,” sarcastically remarked Fred Weir, Moscow correspondent at the Christian Science Monitor. “Take a divided city, in the midst of an existential crisis, and send in Mikheil Saakashvili to run things.”

As for President Poroshenko, his move has certainly “left a large number of political observers at a loss for explanation,” remarked the BBC. “Many are struggling to see the strategy behind naming a former leader of another country to run a provincial government… The move could be a stroke of genius on Mr. Poroshenko’s part — or a blunder of breathtaking magnitude.” Many Georgians who know Saakashvili all too well would most certainly agree with the BBC’s latter assessment.

“In Russian folklore,” quipped Vladimir Golstein, a professor of Russian literature at Brown University, “there are tons of Odessa jokes and there are equal amount of Georgian jokes. But only one person managed to combine the two. And it ain’t funny.”

There have been different possible explanations as to why Poroshenko decided to appoint Saakashvili to be the governor of the Odessa Oblast.  Some have speculated that the “chocolate king” (as Poroshenko is known) sought to simultaneously annoy Moscow and send a message to controversial oligarch and former Dnepropetrovsk governor Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who finances many of Ukraine’s notorious volunteer battalions. Others regard it as a desperate move by Kiev, amid a growing thaw between Washington and Moscow, to regain full but diminishing Western support in a belief that Saakashvili still commands a “hero” status in the West.

Others believe that the appointment of Saakashvili to the Odessa governorship may signal a sort of “demotion” for Saakashvili’s status in Kiev and that Poroshenko’s ulterior motive was to get him out of the capital.  In a press conference with reporters, Georgian Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, who had just returned from a working visit to Kiev, seemed to favor this latter explanation.  After telling reporters that legal efforts to extradite Saakashvili back to Georgia had been exhausted, given his new Ukrainian citizenship, she added:

I saw that Saakashvili’s team has failed to succeed there [in Kiev].  Reforms are on hold; the Ukrainian people and the media have serious questions about these so-called experts. He was sent away from Kiev because he was unable to carry out reforms. I have no doubt that he will not do any better in Odessa. It’s a message of warning for the Ukrainian people and media.

Overall, whatever the motives for Kiev’s move, the appointment of Saakashvili has certainly raised eyebrows among serious observers of the region. Yet, whether it raises eyebrows for Kiev’s Western backers and supporters will remain to be seen.

Five myths of the Soviet effort in World War II – debunked

Raising a flag over the Reichstag (Yevgeny Khaldei)

Raising a flag over the Reichstag (Yevgeny Khaldei).  This iconic wartime image has been compared to the famous Joe Rosenthal photograph of the US Marines raising the American flag at Iwo Jima.

This Saturday (9 May) marked the 70th anniversary of World War II (or the Great Patriotic War) in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Yet, misconceptions of the Soviet involvement in the war and its legacy persist in the West. Here are five of them – debunked:

1. The Americans won World War II in Europe. While one can justifiably state that the Americans won World War II in the Pacific, in fact it is clear that the Soviet Union unambiguously won the war in Europe. The battles of Stalingrad, Kursk, Kiev, and other cities, as well as the sieges of Leningrad and Sevastopol, will be forever burned in the collective memory of the people of Russia and the former Soviet Union. The major Soviet sacrifice in the war can be best illustrated factually by the sheer statistics. At least 27 million Soviet citizens, or 14% of the USSR’s prewar population, died in the war, compared to less than 1% of the British prewar population and less than 0.5% of the American prewar population.  3 million Soviet soldiers from the war remain missing in action action to this day.

Noted Russia scholar Dr. Stephen F. Cohen of NYU and Princeton stated in a recent interview on the war that “when the Germans came in June 1941 and there was an emergency call-up, they called up the class that graduated that May-June from high [secondary] school. 18 year old boys. And sent ’em off to fight. Of every 100 high school boys who went off to fight in June 1941, only three came home… What that meant was, as life went on after the war, was that millions of Soviet women never had a husband, never married. And there was actually a name for them. They were called ‘Ivan’s widows.'”

2. The Soviet victory of World War II in Europe was a Russian victory alone. In fact, the victory of the Soviet Union was not a Russian victory alone. Even though Russians formed the highest number of military casualties (close to 70%), soldiers of other Soviet nationalities also sacrificed greatly for the victory. Ukrainians, Belarusians, Jews, Armenians, Georgians, Kazakhs, and others made major contributions to the war effort. Some of the greatest heroes of the war were non-Russians, such as Marshal Semyon Timoshenko and Marshal Ivan Bagramyan, who were Ukrainian and Armenian respectively.  Belarus, the Soviet republic that served as a major center for partisan activity during the war, proportionally suffered the greatest loss of life against the Nazi onslaught – over 25% of its prewar population. The Soviet soldiers who raised the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in the famous World War II image were from Daghestan (Abdulakhim Ismailov), Ukraine (Aleksey Kovalev), and Belarus (Leonid Gorychev) while the photographer, Yevgeny Khaldei, was a Jew from the Ukrainian Donbas.  To this day, Victory Day is a major holiday in all non-Baltic former Soviet republics.

3. The war is viewed very differently in Ukraine than in Russia. In reality, this only applies to those areas of Western Ukraine, annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939, where the Ukrainian nationalist movement was active and where the Red Army was seen as an “oppressor.” By contrast, throughout the rest of Ukraine, primarily in the Central and Southeastern parts, the war is remembered as a patriotic endeavor against the hated Nazi German invader. The war saw major figures emerge from these parts of Ukraine. They included not only Timoshenko, but also Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, Marshal of Armored Troops Pavel Rybalko, General Mikhail Kirponos, fighter ace and Chief Marshal of Aviation Ivan Kozhedub, and the sniper Major Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who was immortalized in song by the American folk singer Woody Guthrie. The different perceptions of the war in the different regions of Ukraine is perhaps best illustrated by Dr. Ivan Katchanovski of the University of Ottawa in his study on the subject.

4. The Americans liberated the prisoners of Auschwitz. While it is true that the Americans liberated the prisoners of Buchenwald, it was in fact the Soviet Red Army that liberated the prisoners of Auschwitz on 26 January 1945. Further, the Holocaust itself largely took place on the Eastern Front.

5. The orange-and-black St. George Ribbon sported by Russians and other former Soviet peoples on 9 May is a recent invention. In fact, the St. George Ribbon has a history dating all the way back to Tsarist times in the late 18th century. During World War II, the ribbon was later re-adopted by the Soviet military. The ribbon gained greater visibility and public significance in Russia under Putin, beginning in the mid-2000s as a symbol representing the war effort, part of a greater campaign focused on reviving Russian patriotism after the chaotic Yeltsin years.

Since the Ukraine conflict in 2014, the ribbon has become associated by the Ukrainian government and its supporters with the pro-Russian rebels of Donbas.  In response, the Ukrainian government has controversially adopted a new symbol to commemorate the war – the red-and-black poppy common in the UK, Canada, and the British Commonwealth. The poppy is favored by nationalists in the Ukrainian government because the red-and-black colors match those used on the flags of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) which collaborated with the Nazis during the war.  According to Ivan Katchanovski, the red-and-black colors “in turn were adopted from the Nazi blood and soil colors.” The move has consequently met with much controversy in Ukraine, especially among veterans of the Red Army and the pro-Soviet partisan movement.

Equalization and Dehumanization in Eastern Ukraine

Donbas refugees in Rostov Oblast, Russia. (Reuters / Maxim Zmeyev)

Donbas refugees in Rostov Oblast, Russia. (Reuters / Maxim Zmeyev)

Dehumanization is a central component of war propaganda. By removing the humanity of individuals and reclassifying them as anonymous “others,” it becomes easier for combatants in a war to kill them. Such is the case with eastern Ukraine, a conflict rife with dehumanization.

In the Ukraine conflict, the greatest victims of such dehumanization are the 5.2 million Russian-speaking civilians of the industrial eastern Ukrainian region of the Donbas. Lifelong residents, they are caught in the crossfire between the pro-Russian rebels and the pro-Kiev militias. Regardless of their political sentiments, the locals have been cast by officials in the Kiev government variously as “terrorists,” “Colorado beetles,” “Moskali,” and “subhumans.” Very little distinction is made among the civilians, the actual rebels, and the rebels’ supporters in Moscow. Civilians who remain in rebel-held territory are often considered “traitors” by the mere fact that they chose to remain in their homes.

This lack of clarity, combined with attacks against east Ukrainian civilians by far-right battalions (accused of war crimes by Amnesty International), has driven the majority of the population to support the rebels. If they were ambivalent toward the rebel cause before, the rhetoric and actions of the Kiev government and its supporters changed their stance. Further, since the start of the conflict, the dehumanization has extended to anyone in Ukraine deserting the army, dodging the draft, or explicitly voicing opposition to the war, like the journalist Ruslan Kotsaba.  He was arrested by Ukrainian authorities for openly expressing his views in a YouTube video and now potentially faces 15 years in jail for treason. Amnesty International has declared him a prisoner of conscience.

The dehumanization of eastern Ukrainians has also spilled into the discourse of Western politicians, pundits, and analysts. One of the most vocal of these, the Ukrainian-American academic, Alexander Motyl, has called the people of the Donbas “the most retrograde part of [Ukraine’s] population” and has attempted on more than one occasion to draw parallels between them and white US southerners who supported Jim Crow. His discourse has only fueled the flames of the conflict, pitting Ukrainians against Ukrainians. It also drew strong criticism from Lev Golinkin, a writer originally from Kharkiv, in The Huffington Post.

Motyl was not alone. Other Western commentators have also dehumanized the people of eastern Ukraine. Further, this dehumanization has seeped into a general dehumanization of all things Russian. From the start of the crisis in Ukraine, the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement was presented to Western readers as a “civilization choice” for Ukrainians between a “civilized Europe” and a “barbaric, Asiatic Russia.” During the Euromaidan protests in December 2013, Sweden’s former Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, the co-architect of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) program, tweeted that the growing conflict between the protestors and police symbolized “Eurasia versus Europe in [the] streets of Kiev.” Even more extreme, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili declared Moscow to be the “new Tatar-Mongol yoke.”

Such characterizations and stereotypes imply a superiority of one people, culture or civilization over another. They allude to destructive racial ideologies from the darker chapters of the 20th century. The implicit message is exclusion and separation, not cooperation and engagement. These discursive Social Darwinist formations have absolutely no place in the discourse of the 21st century. Yet, somehow they persist.

There is also dehumanization in the Russian media. However, it is important to highlight the distinct nuances here. Dehumanizing rhetoric in the Russian media has largely concentrated around liberal oppositionists who are derided as “fifth columnists” and potential “traitors.” The discourse is purely internal, though it is undoubtedly exacerbated by external affairs. Western policies toward Russia and the former Soviet space since the dissolution of the USSR have fueled greater distrust and suspicion on the part of the Russian government toward the opposition, making freedom of speech more difficult. In this respect, one can make a very strong case that Western policies like NATO expansion, missile defense, the unilateral cancellation of the IBM treaty, or the sponsorship of pro-Western revolutions in ex-Soviet states have harmed the development of democracy in Russia, not helped it.

This stands in contrast to the dehumanization of east Ukrainian civilians and Russia by the present Ukrainian government and its supporters in the West. In fact, official Russian-backed media has refrained from engaging in any dehumanizing rhetoric toward the people of Ukraine proper. True, they have liberally used terms like “Nazis,” “fascists,” and “Banderists.” However, they have not used these terms to describe the Ukrainian people as a whole. Rather, they have used them to describe the government in Kiev, a very important distinction. In Moscow’s view, there is a clear delineation between what is regarded as “the government” and “the people.”

Indeed, in the Russian worldview and discourse, the Ukrainian people are seen as either a deeply kindred people or an extension of a greater East Slavic whole, along with Russia and Belarus. Further, a larger partition of Ukraine, which would certainly involve more conflict, is decidedly not in Russia’s interests. Therefore, Moscow has little to gain from dehumanizing a large number of Ukrainian civilians through the mass media. This explains why they have been careful to distinguish between the government of Ukraine and the people. In fact, in the Russian narrative, the people of Ukraine are often presented as being “naive” or “duped” by Western policies, though their struggle against corruption is viewed understandably.

By contrast, the distinction between the breakaway governments of Donetsk and Luhansk and the locals living there is barely made by the Ukrainian government. This is why the dehumanization of civilians in the Ukrainian media and in the Russian media simply cannot be compared or “equalized.” Equalization often has the intended goal to bring people together. By creating a false symmetry, the thought is that people will recognize the flaws of “both sides” and work toward peace. The goal is indeed noble, but the aims of achieving it, which obscure the facts of a given situation, are questionable.

Analytical equalization has likewise been applied to another part of the Soviet Union: the conflict over Nagorny Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia is a hybrid regime among the ex-Soviet states, embracing elements of liberalism and authoritarianism. Yet, it largely has a free press and free media (including a Daily Show-style satirical news program). Armenia simply cannot be described as an “authoritarian state.”

This is in contrast to Azerbaijan, which is indeed an authoritarian state. The country boasts a pervasive personality cult of the ruling Aliyev family, especially the current president Ilham and his father, Heydar. Dissent is systematically muzzled and there is little room for free expression or free speech.

An objective assessment would illustrate the differences that exist between the two states. Yet, Western commentators, eager for an immediate peace over Karabakh, gloss over these differences and instead generalize that “both are exactly the same.” Such a formation excludes critical thinking and prevents one from observing nuances between the conflicting parties. Consequently, the search for that all-elusive resolution becomes even more challenging.

Overall, the key to ending any war or conflict is to first and foremost stop the senseless dehumanizing and malicious rhetoric. Dialogue becomes possible when people begin to realize their common humanity – that which they share. Consequently, instead of talking in exclusionary terms of “Europe” vs. “Eurasia,” “West” vs. “East,” we should be reflecting collectively in terms of cooperation among all peoples on the vast Eurasian landmass, from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Only then can there be true peace.

Correction (8 March 2015): It has been called to my attention that I made a typo on this piece.  I accidentally referred to Amnesty International declaring Ruslan Kotsaba as a “prisoner of consciousness” as opposed to a “prisoner of conscience.”  This has now been fixed, but the mistake was somewhat ironic, given concerns of Europe “sleepwalking into war.”  Kotsaba was indeed “conscious” enough to see that danger.

L’affaire Stephen F. Cohen – and Academic Dissent and Division on Ukraine

Stephen F. Cohen and Katrina vanden Heuvel (New York Historical Society)

Stephen F. Cohen and Katrina vanden Heuvel (New York Historical Society)

In recent weeks, renowned veteran Russia scholar, Professor Stephen F. Cohen, and his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, have been at the center of a controversy involving the Association of Slavic, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES).

Much has already been written about this matter. For some background, see the article published in The New York Times on 28 January here and a listing of articles related to the situation, compiled by Sean Guillory, here.

However, within the context of this controversy, I would like to focus on one specific issue, i.e. that of Ukrainian academics, their reaction to Cohen’s work, and their suspected role in the ASEEES affair.

It is true that Cohen is not a specialist on Ukraine, though he does have some background on the country.  Overall, though, within Russian and Soviet studies, his primary focus has been, and continues to be, Russia itself rather than the other ex-Soviet republics.

Nevertheless, some Ukrainian academics in North America have used this perceived “weakness” as a means of discrediting Cohen’s views on Ukraine. One observer cited two Ukrainian-American scholars in this regard, Alexander Motyl and Serhii Plokhii, both of whom are known for their more nationalistic views. The observer alleges that such “aggrieved” Ukrainian-American academics have likely been at the forefront of the ASEEES’ considerations regarding Cohen. This may be correct, but it is important to clarify some significant aspects of this issue.

The narrative of Cohen being a Russianist who is “disconnected” from Ukrainian affairs and the post-Soviet republics is exceedingly problematic and over-simplistic. In fact, to criticize Cohen on his views on Ukraine simply on the basis that he does not specialize on the country is misleading and unfair.

Knowing Cohen personally, I can say that during this entire crisis, he has carefully and scrupulously consulted Ukrainian sources and made contact with specialists on the post-Soviet republics for his writings.  As someone who studies the former Soviet republics and the history of the Soviet nationalities policy with a tangential interest in Ukraine, I can confirm that what he has written on domestic developments in Ukraine is indeed factually sound.

Volodymyr Ishchenko

Volodymyr Ishchenko, lecturer of Sociology in the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

Further, the narrative of the “disconnected” Cohen also excludes dissenting views on the dominant narrative within Ukrainian studies. In fact, at least two Ukrainian academics, Ivan Katchanovski of the University of Ottawa and Volodymyr Ishchenko of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, would agree with many of Cohen’s viewpoints on Ukraine’s domestic politics.

Indeed, while many Ukrainian academics have hailed the Maidan as a “liberationist” movement, the more skeptical Ishchenko has instead characterized it as a “pro-neoliberal [and] pro-nationalist” movement led by elites who do not necessarily represent the interests of the people.  Both Katchanovski and Ishchenko, like Cohen, have also been highly critical of the presence of the far-right in the Maidan Revolution.

They are not alone. There are other Ukrainian academics who have dissented from the prevailing narrative as well. In their search for an objective reality of events, they often contradict nationalist viewpoints which have found a warm reception among influential anti-Russian hawks and members of the war party in the US political establishment. Indeed, the works of Motyl and the Canada-based, OUN-affiliated Taras Kuzio are prominently featured in Foreign Affairs, the main publication of the US foreign policy establishment. By contrast, dissenters, like Katchanovski and Ishchenko, have not received such privilege, despite the more objective and factual nature of their research.

Given their views, dissenting Ukrainian academics have often found themselves in difficult positions. Not only do they face difficulties with their more nationalistic and ideological colleagues in Ukrainian Studies in North America and Europe. They also face repercussions in post-Maidan Ukraine as well.

Ivan Katchanovski

Ivan Katchanovski, professor of Political Science at the University of Ottawa

For instance, the over 100-year-old Czech-built family home of Ivan Katchanovski in Lutsk, the center of historic Volhynia in northwestern Ukraine, has been unlawfully appropriated by the Kiev government. The beleaguered professor believes that his research on Ukraine’s far-right and on the Odessa and Maidan Snipers’ massacres was most likely the reason for this action. The aim, he believes, is to prevent and intimidate him from conducting further research on these subjects in Ukraine. His thorough investigation into the Maidan Snipers’ massacre is especially significant. It found that the snipers who shot and killed both protestors and police on the Maidan were most likely far-right activists. This inconvenient truth contradicts the official Kiev line which blames the massacre on former President Yanukovych.  On 11 February, a report by the BBC World Service seemed to corroborate Katchanovski’s investigation.

Katchanovski suspects direct involvement from officials in Kiev in the seizure of his property due to the fact that the original decision came from higher-ups.  Further, according to Katchanovski, Mykola Sorokopud, the head of the lawyers’ association of the Volyn Oblast, was directly involved in falsifying evidence against him in order to confiscate his property. Sorokopud is affiliated with the far-right group Right Sector (Praviy Sektor) as well as Ihor Palytsia, the current governor of the Odessa Oblast. Another Lutsk native, Playtsia is also connected with Right Sector. He runs the foundation “New Lutsk”, headed by Sorokopud’s wife, that finances members of Right Sector fighting in the Donbas in the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion.

As these facts demonstrate, the ASEEES-Cohen affair is not strictly about issues relating to free speech, censorship, and much-needed funding for a much-needed but neglected discipline. Ironically, this debate is also indicative of how the Ukraine crisis has divided the Slavic, Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian academic communities, much like in Ukraine itself. These divisions exist on multiple levels, whether they are between those willing or unwilling to take into account Moscow’s point of view, or between those who are pro-Kiev or anti-Kiev.

Indeed, in their official correspondences, the ASEEES has expressed concern regarding “splits within the organization.” One hopes that these “splits” are not so profound as to affect the objective judgment of the ASEEES, an organization that professes to encourage discussion and debate among its members.  Unfortunately, this seems to be the case.  Evidently, the crisis in Ukraine has cast a long shadow over a respected academic association that should know better.

Full disclosure: I am a proud member of the ASEEES and a MA graduate student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, focusing on the history of the Caucasus (especially Armenia and Georgia) in the Soviet era. My academic advisor is Ronald Grigor Suny, one of the signatories of the ASEEES letter in defense of Cohen and of the reply to the ASEEES. Like Cohen, he is a fellow scholar in the revisionist school of Soviet and Russian historiography.

Do the Donbas Rebels Want to Establish an Overland Corridor to Crimea?

Map of the Donbas and Crimea (based on a 2015 UN Map of Ukraine)

Map of the Donbas and Crimea (based on a 2015 UN Map of Ukraine)

Numerous observers of the recent events in Ukraine and Mariupol have concluded that the Donbas rebels seek to establish an overland corridor (or “land bridge”) to Crimea on behalf of the Kremlin. The claim, often repeated by pundits in the West, was also echoed by at least one Russian political analyst (Sergey Markov).

However, is this really the case? Do the Donbas rebels really want to establish an overland corridor to Crimea?

The facts and realities of the situation indicate, simply, “no.”

First and foremost, the Donbas region as a whole (including both Kiev-held and rebel-held areas) has no geographic link whatsoever with the Crimean peninsula (see the above map).  In order to establish a land bridge to Crimea, the rebels would need to invade the neighboring oblasti of Zaporozhia and Kherson on the Black Sea, both of which are not considered part of the Donbas.

Such an action would create a serious escalation of the Ukrainian conflict, something that Moscow has continuously stressed it wants to avoid.  There is also the question regarding the rationale for the creation an overland corridor to Crimea when Russia has already invested a lot to build a bridge to the peninsula across the Kerch strait to the Krasnodar Krai.

Even more importantly, since August, the rebels, especially the leader of the Donetsk Republic, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, have made it clear on numerous occasions that they do not have any territorial ambitions outside of the Donbas region.

In fact, in light of the most recent fighting between Kiev and the Donbas rebels, Zakharchenko vowed to push the front to the borders of the Donetsk oblast so that “no shells can fall on Donetsk.”  The recent Mariupol hostilities need to be comprehended in this context.

Mariupol is important to the rebels, not as a potential part of an overland corridor to Crimea, but as part of the Donbas region and part of the Donetsk oblast more specifically.  In fact, it is the second largest city in the Donetsk oblast after Donetsk.  It is also a major port, giving the rebels another “life line” to Russia.  These are the reasons for its importance.