Guest: Brian Milakovsky on the life in the Donbas.
Carl Schreck, journalist who has been reporting on Russia for fifteen years. He’s worked for the Moscow Times, RIA Novosti, and currently for RFE/RL. His most recent article is “Poison Puzzle: A Search For Answers In Kremlin Critic’s Mysterious Illness.”
Music: David Bowie, “Moonage Daydream,” The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972
Brian Milakovsky, a volunteer with refugee aid organizations in Kiev, Kharkiv and the Donbas. Brian Milakovsky first traveled to Ukraine in 2009 with the Fulbright program, and for the past five years has worked in Russia as a forest ecologist. This year he returned to eastern Ukraine for three months to volunteer with refugee aid organizations and learn more about the humanitarian crisis there. He blogs about this experience at http://milakovsky.livejournal.com/ and is author of “Time for a Lousy Peace in Ukraine” published on the National Interest.
By William Risch
I have made three trips to Ukraine since protests began there in late November 2013. On January 18, I found myself taking Ukraine’s revolution into a new direction. In the city metro stations, I helped activists spread leaflets denouncing the dictatorship laws issued by the authoritarian regime of President Viktor Yanukovych. Our leaflets and placards called on people to attend a mass protest the next day. Some of the protest’s attendants participated in the violence that night that ultimately led to the Yanukovych regime’s collapse. However, there have been two revolutions going on. One has produced the specter of extremist right-wing nationalists seizing power from a democratically elected president, leading to justifications for Russia’s invasion of Crimea and provoking pro-Russian revolts in eastern Ukrainian cities. The other revolution, the one that I participated in, faces the danger of being ignored.
You can sum up these two revolutions in portraits I saw next to one another this week on the Maidan, the center of Ukraine’s protests: one of Viacheslav Chornovil, the other of Stepan Bandera.
Chornovil, a journalist who became a dissident in the late 1960s, came in second in Ukraine’s first presidential elections in 1991. Leader of the People’s Movement of Ukraine (Rukh), he died in 1999 in an auto accident that the authorities allegedly arranged. Bandera was one of the leaders of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), accused of collaboration with Nazi Germany and murdering thousands of ethnic Poles during World War II.
Assassinated by a Soviet agent in West Germany in 1959, Bandera has become the ideological godfather of two right wing organizations prominent in Ukraine’s new government, the Freedom (Svoboda) Party and the paramilitary group Right Sector. Chornovil’s followers consist of a rump leftover of his former political party, which had already split on the eve of his death.
Yet Maidan activists have followed the practices of Chornovil, even if they know little of him. Chornovil had advocated Ukraine’s peaceful separation from the Soviet Union, the defense of human rights, and the protection of Ukraine’s ethnic minorities. His life began as a dissident when, as a journalist, he became outraged by secret trials that violated the Soviet constitution. A young dissenting journalist, Mustafa Nayyem, upset with his country’s leadership, summoned Kyiv’s first Euromaidan protest. Organizations like Civic Sector, the Student Coordinating Council, and all-Ukrainian forums of Euromaidan activists have embodied the spirit of peaceful protest, negotiations with people in power, and long-term changes to the state’s institutions, laws, and practices.
Svoboda and Right Sector have also talked about fundamentally changing the state, but in practice, they have already been engaged in worrisome behavior. This week I saw Right Sector activists occupying buildings on Kyiv’s main boulevard, including a hotel, a sporting goods store, and a cell phone outlet. Men in paramilitary gear, and sometimes even 14-16 year-old children, have been guarding the premises outside. On March 18, Svoboda’s member of the Supreme Rada’s committee on freedom of speech bullied the head of Ukraine’s state-run TV agency, Aleksandr Panteleymonov, into resigning, threatening to beat him up if he refused. A Youtube video shows this man questioning the ethnic origins of entertainers connected with the agency before he barged into Panteleymonov’s office.
This is not the revolution that we activists spreading leaflets in the Kyiv metro wanted. It would not have been the revolution Chornovil would have wanted. Because of Ukraine’s extremely weak opposition parties, and because Svoboda and Right Sector advocated violent resistance after the regime harassed, assaulted, kidnapped, tortured, and killed protestors, Svoboda and Right Sector have become prominent forces in the new government.
Fortunately, the revolution embodied by Chornovil lives on. Ukrainian media widely condemned the attack on Panteleymonov. Singer Sviatoslav Vakarchuk from the rock group Okean El’zy, whose music has become part of the Maidan’s soundtrack, called on Ukraine’s new leaders to choose officials on professional merit and not party affiliation, engage in a dialogue with all of Ukraine’s regions and social classes, and uphold the rule of law. The international community needs to support the revolution of Chornovil while scrutinizing the revolution of Bandera.
William Risch is an Associate Professor of History of Georgia College and author of The Ukrainian West: Culture and the Fate of Empire in Soviet Lviv (Harvard University Press, 2011)
As I noted in my Nation article on the gay propaganda law (which, by the way, has been nominated for a GLAAD Media Award), there have only been few instances where the law has been enforced. This seems to be changing. Last week, Nikolai Alexeyev, Russia’s most well known gay activist, paid the first fine in the law’s history after his appeal was thrown out in an Arkhangelsk court. Also, Molodoi dalnevostochnik, a newspaper in Khabarovsk, was recently fined 50,000 rubles for violating the law, the first publication to be prosecuted. “Gay propaganda” is even turning up in the strangest of places. A prosecutor in Stavropol has found “gay propaganda” in a children’s game “Fanti.” Now Lena Kilmova, the founder of Deti-404, a social media group that supports LGBT teens, has been served an “infringement notice.” As reported in the Advocate:
The formal charges against Kilmova claim she “had registered a web page propagandizing non-traditional sexual relations among minors, which took form of distribution of information among minors aimed at forming of non-traditional sexual affirmations, attraction to non-traditional sexual relations, distorted conceptions of social equality of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations,” according to the Straight Alliance for LGBT Equality.
“In light of general trends in the country, I am not surprised,” said Kilmova in a statement from the Straight Alliance. “But it is very sad that letters from LGBT teenagers themselves are called ‘homosexual propaganda among minors.’ It is absurd! Milonov, the complaint initiator, has two demands: to fine me and to close the group. If it will be closed, LGBT teenagers will lose the only place where they can openly speak about themselves and receive advice they need to live. It will be a catastrophe.”
Are we finally witnessing an uptick in the law use?
Finally, Slon has a revealing infographic concerning gay propaganda. Slon compared references of homosexuality in the media with popularity of searches of the terms “homosexuality,” “gay,” and “gay propaganda” on media sites between January 2009 and January 2014. Apparently all the media discourse has not contributed to any increased interest in searching homosexuality. This is what Slon came up with:
My new Russia Magazine column, “Sochi’s Workers: Invisible and Expendable,”
“The final stage in such a massive undertaking is always difficult,” Putin told officials in a meeting during the waning days of November. “A lot has been done, but it’s still a long way from perfection… [there is] still work to be done. We have the New Year and Christmas holidays ahead of us. I’d like to say, I think it should be clear that for you, New Year’s will come… on March 18 [the last day of the Paralympics]. For you and for everyone who is working on the Olympic venues.” With that, Vladimir Putin cancelled the Christmas and New Year’s holiday for some 95,000 people making the final push to ready the Sochi Olympics. A lot is riding on the Olympics, which begins in less than two months from now. It’s the most expensive Games to date, an estimated $46.1 billion—almost four times Putin’s initial estimate of $12 billion (Putin’s Games, a new documentary on corruption in Sochi estimates up to 50 percent of construction costs go to kickbacks), and the completion of this mega-construction project will come down to the wire. The stadium slated to host the opening and closing ceremonies isn’t finished, the pedestrian zone is half built, electricity goes in and out with a good portion of it powered by generators, pipes line the roads, signs reading “coming soon” dangle in restaurant fronts, and the drilling, stamping, and hammering are incessant.
The backdrop to all of this is a wide range of abuses. Human Rights Watch has cataloged those ranging from exploitation of laborers, forced evictions, harassment of civic groups, activists and journalists, environmental damage, and of course, the anti-homosexual propaganda law. While the last has gotten widespread coverage, I want to draw attention to the exploitation of laborers without whom Sochi would be impossible.
There is an estimated 70,000 laborers working in construction, 16,000 are foreign labor. They work long hours and for little pay. In its detailed report on worker abuses, HRW reported that workers got typically paid $1.80 to $2.60 an hour with a monthly average salary of $455 to $605. Their pay is routinely delayed, and sometimes they’re never paid at all. One HRW respondent, Yunus, said “I have no written contract. I got paid only in February: 2,400 rubles [$77] for December. I wasn’t paid after that. I worked for 70 full days without pay. We worked from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. with no days off.” He quit before receiving the wages owned to him. Milorad Rancic, a migrant from Serbia, told HRW, “We got paid in pieces. For 10 days, maybe we would get $400. The rest of the month, we would get rubles, around 2,000 rubles [$63] at a time. Then, at the end of the month, when you tried to establish the balance owed, the employer would say, “Oh, we never kept track of it. We don’t have any record of it.” “Almost all employers routinely withhold wages for two months,” Semen Simonov, who works for Memorial’s Migration and Rights project, toldNovaya Gazeta. “People are used to this and don’t even bother. But there are people who’ve come to us who’ve worked in five Olympic sites and never received any money at all.” “There are 500 companies represented in the Olympic sites,” he continued. “I can’t say all of them don’t pay. But we can put together a list of those that don’t because people come to us every day and the list is growing.”
Will Pussy Riot, several Bolotnaya participants, and all Greenpeace activists be amnestied?
So reports Izvestiia:
The president has jointly decided with human rights activists who will be amnestied for the 20th anniversary of the Russian Constitution. According to the decree on amnesty, which the president sent to the State Duma, the criminal cases of some 20,000 – 22,000 people will be halted. Among them are seven participants in the Bolotnaya case, participants of Pussy Riot, and Greenpeace activists. The articles for which the blogger Alexsei Navalny are charged will not be amnestied. As those in the State Duma leadership told Izvestiia, the amnesty will be enacted at the end of the year. It will take up to six months to implement.
According to the amnesty draft bill available on the Kremlin’s website, Natalia Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina would fall under point 6.2 which states:
“Women who have not lost their parental rights and have minor children under 18 years old on the day of the decree goes in effect fall under the action of the decree on amnesty.”
Tolokonnikova has a 5 year old daughter and Alyokhina a 6 year old son.
Vedomosti, however, reports based on the copy of the bill it received that three articles of the criminal code are exceptions, meaning those charged or convicted will be automatically freed. Two of the three pertain to Pussy Riot, the Bolotnaya participants and the jailed Greenpeace activists:
There is an exception for three articles of the criminal code: those convicted or on trial for them will be released and exempt from punishment regardless of age, sex or social status. There is Article 212 parts 2 and 3—the participation in mass disorder and calls for it (a maximum sentence of eight years). Participants in the Bolotnaya case fall under it. Earlier a source in the Presidential Council on Human Rights said the amnesty will extend to nine defendants in the case and will not affect those accused of using violence against police and OMON (Article 318 of the code, maximum 10 year sentence).
The second exception is for Article 213—hooliganism (up to seven years. Thus freedom would come early for Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot. Also, [it includes] all Greenpeace activists who participated in the action in the Arctic: they are now charged with disorderly conduct, not piracy.
Of course, it’s too soon to celebrate. Plus, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are due to be released in a few months anyway. They might be out before the amnesty is implemented. Still it’s some hope and given the sources for these stories, Izvestiia, which has solid Kremlin connections, and Vedomosti, which does damn good journalism, I feel more positive than negative about this.
The passage of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 last December sent US-Russia relations into a dramatic tailspin. To many, the law and its subsequent list would finally demonstrate that the world’s preeminent democracy had enough of Putin and his gang. Forget all about the “reset.” Enough with the US divorcing its “interests from values” in dealing with Russia. Putin, of course, wasn’t going to take the Magnitsky Law in silence. In addition to its usual charges of hypocrisy, Moscow responded by banning US adoptions of Russian orphans, a callous and misdirected act that left many wondering who exactly Putin intended to punish. Nevertheless, thanks to William Browder’s crusade and whatever he did to cajole Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) to get them to “listen,” US-Russia relations are at a nadir. (I hope that one day an enterprising journalist will uncover exactly how Mr. Browder got so much pull with McCain and McGovern.) For years, pundits have proclaimed that US and Russia were steeped in a “new Cold War.” The Magnitsky Law is now a pivotal symptom in this diagnosis. Yes, four years after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented her plastic “peregruzka” (sic) button to Sergei Lavrov, the reset now looks in rewind.
Maybe the reset is dead, maybe it’s not. Either way, we’ve witnessed this shuckin’ and jivin’ before. Rather than choreographing a new routine, the US and Russia seem satisfied with rerunning the same old minstrel. The US points its crooked finger at declares “Villain!” at Russia for its poor human rights record. Affronted, Russia cries “Pecksniffery!” followed by a laundry list of equitably egregious offenses. But really, it’s all a game. This is how the big geopolitical boys play in the sandbox. It’s what David Kramer and Lilia Shevtsova call the “Let’s Pretend” game. This is where the West feigns caring about human rights to bolster its own sanctimonious image, but could really care less. For the West, and for the US in particular, human rights are a weapon, like a rhetorical Sword of Damocles, and when economic interests dictate, a casus beli against the baneful. Russia, thanks to the orientialist discourse, is forever cast as devil, a dark mirror against the occidential mirror of light. It plays its part well, even when it’s sincerely revolting against its subaltern status. Given this dance, is anyone surprised that the Magnitsky Law entered with a diplomatic bang, but the Magnitsky List resounded with a pitiful whimper? Every drama needs its rising action, climax, and falling action. When it comes to the US and Russia, however, the denouement is eternally postponed.