The escalating violence in Ukraine has led to escalating political rhetoric in global media.
A pro-European integration protester throws a Molotov cocktail towards riot police during clashes in Kiev January 20, 2014. Photo: Reuters
In the coverage of the bloody Kiev showdown in the mainstream Russian media, you could sense emotions simmering and then boiling over, leading to a flare-up of anti-American sentiment and strongly worded political posturing.
Take the popular national tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, whose editor-in-chief worked for Vladimir Putin during the latest Russian presidential campaign. While KP preferred neither to take sides nor rush to conclusions in its editorial remarks that came along with the timeline of the clashes, pointing out cryptically that “who started the fighting with the police is a question left unanswered,” its op-ed palette speaks for itself.
“You’ll say the Berkut [riot police] blew their top? But protesters gave them a good reason for it. They went on the offensive with axes. And hacked like crazy,” KP correspondent Yevgenia Suprycheva wrote from Kiev.
Looking back at “how it all began,” Suprycheva put the blame on somewhat half-hearted opposition figures, omitting the role of the Yanukovych administration.
“Maidan pleaded: Give us a leader who’ll lead the columns. People waited for a real action plan, but in vain. They’ve been camping out there for two months – now they’re sick of it,” Suprycheva wrote. “And while some napped by the bonfires, others, namely nationalists, were busy working on their action plan. Some of them would whisper in my ear, “There’s something worth writing about coming up.”
A columnist with KP, Alexander Grishin, elaborated on the implication that Ukrainian opposition leaders were involved in the eruption of violence.
“Ukrainian journalists are stressing that the leaders of the protest stood up for peaceful forms of protest and against violence to the bitter end,” Grishin wrote. “But this lie appears especially obvious if one recalls Klitschko’s statements on Maidan where he not only threatened the incumbent Ukrainian government with the fate of Ceausescu and Gaddafi but also called for holding early presidential elections and forming new parliament and new local government bodies. Simply put, it’s called a coup.”
Grishin also lashed out at the U.S. administration for a statement by the National Security Council urging “all sides to immediately de-escalate the situation.” The increasing tension in Ukraine, the statement suggested, is a direct consequence of the Ukrainian government failing to acknowledge the legitimate grievances of its people.
“In the words of the spokesperson of the White House’s National Security Council, Caitlin Hayden, setting people and vehicles on fire has to do with “the legitimate grievances of people,” and Washington believes that “the Maidan movement has been defined by a spirit of non-violence,” Grishin wrote. “May Victoria Nuland come to Kiev again and give away cookies to the burned and wounded police, explaining to them that hitting them on the head with metal rods actually is a non-violent form of protest.”
Another columnist of KP, the leader of the banned National Bolshevist Party of Russia Eduard Limonov, resorted to blatant insults in his piece titled “Don’t poke your American mug into Ukraine.”
“Caitlin Hayden, this disheveled representative of the national security council of the U.S., is demanding, note, this biddy is DEMANDING to withdraw the riot police from Kiev, or the United States will impose sanctions against Ukraine,” Limonov wrote. “For those who saw how “peaceful” the protest they’re having there in Kiev – and the whole world saw it – this biddy’s words sound scornful. If something like this were happening on the streets of Washington, the national guard would be firing all their cannons, machine guns and “tomahawks” at the “peaceful” buddies of American Tyahnybok (let’s imagine it) and the death toll would be in the thousands, not even the hundreds.”
That wasn’t the only op-ed on Ukraine by Limonov that KP published over the past few days. In the most recent one to date titled “Take a chance and break it up, Victor Yanukovych!” Limonov argued that it is in the interests of Russia to see the “uprising on Maidan quelled.”
“It’s an anti-Russian uprising, and it’s not for no reason that the United States is stirring it up and backing it,” Limonov wrote. “After the Maidan, Russian-U.S. relations and Russian-European relations can only deteriorate, which would be no wonder. How would the United States react if we egged on a Maidan in, say, Mexico City or in another city in Mexico bordering on the States?”
Behind the scenes of the Ukrainian protests
In sharp contrast to KP and its columnists, the top-selling broadsheet Kommersant refrained from running any opinion pieces as such or soliciting comments from political analysts and presented its readers a very thorough live coverage from the streets of Kiev, as well as statements by the Ukrainian presidential press service, remarks made by members of Victor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, opposition leaders and activists and some of the Russian MPs that have been drafting an official statement on the situation in Ukraine.
This detached style has become characteristic of Kommersant in the past few years, when quite a few seasoned journalists and top managers resigned after becoming embroiled in conflict over editorial policies with the owner of the Kommersant Publishing House, Russia’s richest businessman Alisher Usmanov, who is believed to be close to Vladimir Putin. Last summer, for instance, Usmanov was decorated with the Order of Merits to the Fatherland by the president.
Because the Maidan started with Yanukovych’s backtracking on the pledged EU deal in favor of closer ties with Moscow, analysis of the recent developments in Ukraine can’t possibly be complete without the role of the Kremlin, which appears to be quite a sensitive subject for the Kommersant editorial board.
One of the quality papers that does offer some in-depth analysis of the political crisis in Ukraine is Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Recapping the events of the past two months in Ukraine, an NG author, political analyst Sergei Zhiltsov, wrote, “The trigger for the escalation of the political situation was the government’s decision to postpone the signing of the agreement of association with the EU.”
The NG correspondent in Kiev, Tatyana Ivzhenko, put it point blank: “Ahead of the 2015 elections, President Victor Yanukovych placed his bet on the “hawks” in his circle and on the use of force in an attempt to resolve the ongoing political crisis.”
The turning point, Ivzhenko said, was the passing of a package of laws last Thursday that mirror restrictive legislation adopted in Russia over the past two years in the wake of a series of mass anti-government protests. Ivzhenko pointed out that the laws were passed in violation of the standard procedure (the lawmakers voted by raising their hands instead of using an electronic voting system) and called the new legislation draconian, turning Ukraine into a country “less democratic than, for instance, Russia or Belarus.”
“Courts are now allowed to pass verdicts in the absence of the accused,” Ivzhenko wrote. “Introduced in the Criminal Code are articles on libel and extremism that allow for a very broad interpretation of these notions.”
Some of the penalties introduced by the Ukrainian lawmakers are tougher than in Russia. For instance, libel carries a fine in Russia and two years of imprisonment in Ukraine now. “Organizers of mass unrest” can be sentenced to terms ranging from four to 10 years in Russia and from 10 to 15 years in Ukraine.
“The Rada has simplified the procedure for stripping an MP of immunity, which may threaten members of opposition with arrests in the near future,” Ivzhenko wrote. “It has also introduced the “foreign agent” term for NGOs – the text of this law is an almost verbatim translation of its Russian analogue. It was the passing of these laws that provoked another wave of popular indignation.”
Sociologists cite approval ratings as a factor that could have prodded the Yanukovych administration into tightening the screws. The head of the Democratic Initiatives think tank, Irina Bekeshina, told NG that Yanukovych’s rating was on the decline throughout last year and picked up 5 percent after Kiev signed a deal with Moscow in late December that suggests granting Ukraine a 33 percent discount on the price of Russian gas and lending it $15 billion from the Russian budget. “The electorate in the east and the south of Ukraine again sees Yanukovych as their politician, their hero and winner, and they expect him to clamp down on Maidan and get things in order,” Bekeshina told NG.
A big question is whether the current crisis may lead to a breakup of the country. The most recent surveys carried out ahead of the clashes in Kiev showed that over two-thirds of Ukrainians would like the government and opposition to start negotiations, but figures may have changed in the past few days, sociologists say. “In western and central Ukraine, protest sentiment is rising – people are ready to take radical measures to defend their rights and democratic norms and to prevent the country from sliding into a dictatorship,” Bekeshina said.
Ukraine's new and dark chapter
English-language authors almost unequivocally condemned the raft of measures that limit the right to protest and are calling for an end to violence and for immediate negotiations.
“Last week, laws were rushed through the Rada which bode ill for basic freedoms in Ukraine,” said a recent editorial in The Independent. “The immediate aim is evident: to clear the protests that have been a feature in Kiev since December. But there are suggestions that the laws could also be used to keep Mr. Yanukovych in power after next year’s elections, even if voters wish otherwise.”
The Independent warned Yanukovych against letting his country slide towards catastrophe. “As the violence escalates, so too does the risk that the protests will spread nationwide,” the editorial said. “The most immediate priority is to rein in the bloodshed – and that means restraint on both sides, no matter how serious the grievances may be. But it is Mr. Yanukovych who must lead the way to a desperately needed political solution.”
Forbes’ Katya Soldak sees little chance for the situation to be resolved peacefully.
“When a democratically elected president starts using firearms against his own people in the capital of the country, it can mean only one thing: Violence is his only means of clinging to power,” she wrote. “Having at his disposal riot police and external military forces gives him a substantial advantage over rebels with Molotov cocktails and democratic slogans. All eyes are now on which side will show the greatest resolve.”
The Economist put its readers in the thick of it showing a vivid and dreadful picture of the skirmishes in central Kiev. “The buses formed a barrier behind which the protesters then dug in, throwing Molotov cocktails and paving stones at riot police on the other side,” said a piece headlined “A New and Dark Chapter.” “The police fired the same things back, plus tear gas canisters, sound grenades and rubber bullets. It now looks as though they are no longer firing only rubber bullets.”
The author found it most striking to see how willingly liberal, middle class Ukrainians, who had hitherto been steadfastly insisting that the protests remain peaceful, rallied to the violence.
“Crowds amassed to watch. Men who did not wish to go to the front prepared cobblestones for others,” the author said. “Some set up a medieval-style catapult whose entire ill-fated career was filmed by several smartphones. Grandmothers provided tea and sandwiches, as well as milk to counter the sting of tear gas.”
The Washington Post offers an array of articles on Kiev, from a short one with the flippant headline “Why some Ukrainian protesters are wearing kitchen colanders” (answer: colanders serve as helmets, outlawed for street protesters by the new laws) to an editorial criticizing Yanukovych, Putin and the West.
“Western governments cannot control events in Ukraine, whatever Mr. Putin may think. But they could be doing much more than they are to prevent a nation that was headed toward integration with the democratic West from becoming an autocratic Kremlin colony, like neighboring Belarus,” the editorial said. “Demoralized European Union leaders seem to have abandoned Ukraine at just the moment they should be acting to stop Mr. Yanukovych’s repression.”
The Washington Post is calling on the EU to prepare sanctions against Yanukovych and his circle and to dispatch “a special envoy to press both sides to take seriously what so far are desultory negotiations.”
“The Obama administration has been a little more active, calling on Mr. Yanukovych to repeal the anti-protest legislation and hinting that sanctions may be forthcoming. But Washington also ought to recognize Mr. Putin’s role in attempting to impose his autocratic model on a country that has been struggling to become a genuine democracy — and hold him accountable for it,” the Washington Post said.