Ukraine Situation Part 1

The Ukraine Situation

Many of you have seen in the news the horrifying and sad events in Ukraine these past months.  We have been intently following the whirlwind of events happening in Ukraine. There have been a few protests in Transcarpathia (the province where we live while in Ukraine), but from what we have heard things have remained quiet and calm in Transcarpathia. Life goes on for the schools and students that we work with.  I imagine that for many of the Hungarians in Transcarpathia, the Crimea (over 800 miles away) and Kyiv (over 500 miles away) must seem a world away in both culture and geographical distance.  Yet I imagine even from this remote outpost of western Ukraine, which looks to Hungary and central Europe, these must be terrifying times. Even with a separation of culture, language, and mountains, to hear of the traumatic events and rumors of war in your country can only fill a heart with fear and wonder at what the future may hold.  Protests have turned to violence, violence and protests have toppled the government, a toppled government has led to a Russian occupation of the Crimea; all these events seem surreal.  These events feel like something we should be reading out of a history book, not something seen played out in front of our eyes. The situation seems to have escalated to levels never dreamed of just weeks ago and raises questions of how far this will go and if true change and revolution can occur in Ukraine. As I mentioned these events are playing out in a theater hundreds of miles from our home village in Transcarpathia, Ukraine.

Like many things in Ukraine it is hard to know what to make of these protests in Kyiv and now the Russian occupation of Crimea.  What you see on the surface in Ukraine is often very different from reality.  I have been confused and not sure what to think of the protests in Ukraine at times.  Russia and the disgraced former leaders of Ukraine paint protestors and resistance as fascists, nationalists and extremists.  This seems untrue and exaggerated as most protestors seem to be genuine and motivated by a desire for a democratic change in a corrupt society.  There are however stories that conflict this.  A number of friends from Ukraine have told us that some of the antigovernment and pro-reform protestors are simply being paid to be there and to protest.  If this is true, who would be paying these people, and where is the money coming from?  Is it western money from those wanting Ukraine to lean West?  Is it from the in-country rivals of President Yanukovych?  The government justified a crackdown on protestors claiming protestors were antagonizing a fight.  Some claim these “protestors” were government hired thugs posing as protestors to give the idea that protestors were violent and threatening.  In the heights of the violence on the streets of Kyiv, snipers were shooting and killing people from roof tops.  Who were the snipers?  Likely the snipers were following orders from Yanukovych or someone in his ranks.  There are, however, reports (how substantiated they are I am not sure) that the snipers were hired by opposition leaders attempting to frame the government, while others claim they were Russians attempting to incite a civil war and giving cause for a Russian invasion.  So many claims, stories, and emotions at hand, it is hard to find clarity.

Despite remaining peaceful and hundreds of miles from the action, Transcarpathia can still feel the effects and worries of a country in turmoil in other ways.  From what I have heard daily life continues on as normal for most.  However, the biggest changes have been economic as the Ukrainian Hryvnia, the national currency, is declining in value as goods become more expensive.  News of military enlistments and men, 18-45 years old, being called up to fight has many Transcarpathians concerned as well.   The new Ukrainian government has quickly taken legislative measures against the Russian language, an action that some perceive as a threat.  In the past, nationalist movements to promote the Ukrainian language at the expense of the Russian language have also hurt other minorities including the Hungarians we live and work with. 

Lviv, a major city of 800,000 inhabitants in western Ukraine around 150 miles from our home base of Peterfalva, has seen some publicity in news coverage as pro Ukrainians have taken over government buildings.  Many from Lviv had gone to Kyiv to join in the protests or work as aid workers. Lviv, a center of western Ukrainian culture and never under Russian rule until WWII, seems to have avoided any violence due to its near universal antigovernment sentiment.  From what I understand, at least thirteen of the dead in Kyiv were from Lviv and their bodies were brought home in heroic fashion in recent weeks.

On the Global Stage 

I write this not as any kind of an expert on Ukrainian/Russian politics and history.  I write my opinion from my experiences living in Ukraine and from books and publications I have read.  I really do not anticipate this to grow into a civil war, a Russian-Ukrainian war, or an East vs. West war, but I have been surprised at how big this has gotten.  Putin’s actions have in some ways been surprising to me and certainly hard to grasp.  Putin who just weeks ago seemed concerned about building up his image during the Sochi Olympics, seems to care enough about events in Ukraine to throw away any positive international press and image rehabilitation that he gained from the Olympics.  Putin’s ambitions and true intentions seem unclear.  Some world leaders who have spoken to Putin including Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, have described him as if he is in another world.  Others have described him as delusional, while some, including Robert Gates, claim Putin knows exactly what he is doing.  Any claims by Russia to be protecting Russian populations in Ukraine seem exaggerated as it is difficult to see any true threat to Ukrainian citizens who speak Russian as their mother tongue. It must be remembered that the vast majority of Russian speakers in Ukraine are currently Ukrainian citizens who speak Russian and are not Russian citizens needing protection from Putin.  There has been talk of Russia granting Russian citizenship and handing out passports to Russian tongued Ukrainian citizens, but this would seem to be nothing but a justification tactic for Russian action. Similar to what occurred in Georgia in 2008.  I have certainly been surprised by the escalation of events leading up to the Russian occupation of Crimea.  It begs the question of what is behind all this, what are the motives and goals, and what will the end result be?

I have been quite shocked, surprised and saddened by the developments over the last weeks and months. There has been a whirlwind of activity. Events are happening so fast that it is hard to keep track of all the names, places, and developments. In the last weeks alone, protests, violence and killings, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko being released from prison, President Yanukovych being impeached and on the run, and now a warrant out for his arrest on war crimes, these have been staggering and unexpected changes to the course.  Now the invasion of the Crimea is an even bigger turn of events.  It has all played out in more spectacular fashion than a fictional novel.

Please see the blog entry Ukraine situation 2 for a continuation of this post.

About Eric Hoeksema

Stacey, my wife, and I are located in western Ukraine, living with and working among a Hungarian population in Transcarpathia, Ukraine.

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