Soviet ghosts and dead politicians: Ukraine is on the brink 

William Echols

At least eight former government officials dead in two months, two journalists killed in Kyiv since Monday, another pro-Russian former deputy shot dead outside his home this week, controversial laws meant to whitewash history, and a shaky ceasefire in a civil war that risks engulfing the entire nation — Ukraine is on the brink, and no one appears willing or able to stop the descent into disintegration.

Whatever you think of the Putinbots, vatniks, trolls, or true believers caught up in the digital miasma regarding the Ukrainian crisis, on one point they appear to be correct — a spat of mysterious and not so mysterious deaths to befall Ukraine since late January appear to have been underreported in the Western press.

Within a day’s time, 45-year-old Oles Buzyna, a journalist-cum-pro-Russian activist who made an unsuccessful 2012 parliamentary run on the Russian Bloc ticket, was the victim of a brazen drive-by shooting in the courtyard of his apartment building in Kyiv on Thursday afternoon.

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On Wednesday, 52-year-old Oleg Kalashnikov, a former deputy in ousted president Viktor Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, was shot dead on the landing of his apartment in the Ukrainian capital. And on Monday, Serhiy Sukhobok, a journalist who covered business affairs in eastern Ukraine, reportedly died during a fight with neighbors within whom he had a history of bad blood.

Between January 29th and March 14th, eight former government officials are alleged to have committed suicide, though theories have emerged that some were forced to take their own lives. Many were former political allies of Yanukovich and under investigation for a litany of crimes. Members of the marginalized pro-Russian opposition claim the mysterious deaths have followed a wave of intimidation employing the judicial branch as a punitive organ against former regime elements. Those swept into power following the 2014 revolution say they are merely “cracking up” at the prospect of prison time given the impunity with which they acted while in power. Those two interpretations are not mutually exclusive.

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Following the deaths of Buzyna and Kalashnikov, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered an investigation into the killings, saying it was clear “these crimes have the same origin.” 

“Their nature and political sense are clear,” Poroshenko said. “It is a deliberate provocation that plays in favor of our enemies.”

Provocation, of course, is the carpet under which all evils are swept under in the post-Soviet world.

Following the February 27 assassination of former statesman and oppositionist Boris Nemtsov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary similarly said the murder was “100 percent provocation.” 

Putin for his part had earlier employed the phrase “sacrificial victim” in 2012 to describe an alleged plot by the opposition to kill one of their own merely to tarnish his regime.

It came as little surprise that Russia’s Investigative Committee would employ the same language three years later, saying Nemtsov was a “sacrificial victim for those who do not shun any method for achieving their political goals.”

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It is not to say “provocations” do not take place. But to insinuate motive without evidence is irresponsible, especially from a head of state. Poroshenko, however, isn’t the only one to to fit the killing into a politically expedient narrative.

Parliamentarian Sergei Leshchenko wrote on Twitter that the murders looked like an FSB “provocation”, referring to Russia’s principle security agency, the Guardian reported.

Another deputy, Volodymyr Ariev, told the daily that “an FSB shooting brigade” was picking people off on the streets of Kiev.

“It easily fits into the Russian narrative that Ukraine is all about fascists, a country where even basic right for life is violated,” he said.

Walking right into Russia’s trap 

When it comes to this admittedly false Russian narrative that the Ukraine is “all about fascists”, the Ukrainian government is doing itself no favors in promoting a more democratic image.

First, there was the so-called Ministry of Truth.

Then, on April 9, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada (parliament) adopted four laws, one of which recognizes the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) as veterans of the Second World War. The law further says that “public denial of the legitimacy of the struggle for Ukraine’s independence”, and by extension, criticism of those who fought for said independence, is “unlawful.”

The following day, three Soviet-era statures were toppled in Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv.

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The UPA cannot simply be written off as Nazi-collaborators, though they did in fact collaborate with German forces (only to fight against them later, albeit as a “secondary” enemy).

They were also involved in a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against Polish civilians in Volhynia and Galicia, killing up to 100,000 people. The UPA’s alleged role in massacring Jews in Western Ukraine is historically more contentious.

At the very least, any laws which could curtail criticism of such a group at a time when Russian propaganda explicitly called the Ukrainian revolution a fascist coup shows a shocking lack of political astuteness on behalf of the Ukrainian parliament.

It does not help that the black and red UPA flag, as well as their slogan “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” were staples of the Euromaidan movement that prompted Yanukovich to flee the country. In reality, many democratically-minded young people in Ukraine merely view the UPA as 20th century freedom fighters, without themselves having any Nazi sympathies. That fact alone demonstrates why any laws attempting to curtail historical discourse are especially dangerous for a country in the midst of an identity crisis. That the government would act to whitewash history in the middle of a civil war fueled in part by these very controversial issues seems like madness.

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Likewise, a similar February 2014 attempt to repeal the Yanukovich-era minority language law, which approved the use of so-called “regional languages” (primarily Russian) in courts, schools and other government institutions, showed a staggering lack of priorities and a grave misreading of the Russian propaganda onslaught to follow. For Ukrainian nationalists to confuse distancing themselves from the political entity known as the Russian Federation with purging themselves of a very real Russo-Ukrainian cultural tradition was a recipe for disaster, which has deftly been exploited by Russian forces which ignited the civil war in Ukraine’s east.

Simply put, Ukraine does not risk becoming a failed state because it is lacking a coherent ethnolinguistic identity, and any attempts at forcing a sense of Ukrainian identity on the masses rather than letting it develop organically is counterproductive on every front. For Ukraine, the question of identity is deeply wrapped up in the necessity of political pluralism; a prerequisite for any institutionally solvent state. Laws such as those passed last week are not only an attack on freedom of speech, they are chipping away at a cornerstone of any viable Ukrainian state.

Amidst a backdrop where oligarchs control private armies and the government seems incapable of providing security in those parts of the country not ravaged by war, Ukrainian institutions appear to be in free fall. Meanwhile, every layer of society is cannibalizing itself as a means of survival as Ukraine has slipped to 142nd place (out of 175) on Transparency International’s latest corruption index.

All the while, Russia is betting on (if not fueling) this national death spiral.

In March, Ukrainian Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko told Bloomberg that Russian President Vladimir Putin in fact hopes to turn Ukraine into a failed state, adding that war in the east was likely to reignite as a result.

Amid escalating violence in the region, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic recently threatened to take control of the strategically important coastal town of Mariupol if Ukrainian “aggression” did not cease, signaling that Jaresko’s fears may in fact be justified.

Jaresko, meanwhile, warned creditors on Wednesday that a lack of willingness to restructure $40 billion in Ukrainian debt could signal untold peril down the road.

Ukrainians have already seen their living standards plummet over the past year, making the consequence of an actual default socially untenable.

“If, God forbid, there is another revolution” Jaresko said, “it won’t be of the same kind [as 2014].”

With a wave of high-profile suicides and murders, a ceasefire drenched in gasoline, a government facing insolvency and a political class more capable of tackling Soviet ghosts than modern day robber barons, Jaresko’s words may prove eerily prescient. And however the next revolution ends if it comes to pass, one thing is certain: modern Ukraine is unlikely to survive it.

The hysteria of impotence 

William Echols

I was recently reading an article by Alex Polikovskiy in Russia’s leading liberal daily, Novaya Gazetta. The article, entitled ‘Nemtsov Bridge,’ was elegant in describing what it felt like during that brumal Sunday afternoon procession, when a mostly solemn mass of people came out to find shelter from the shock, weather be damned.

I myself remember pulling into the Kitai Gorod metro station and being taken aback when i was pushed out onto the platform and into a funnel, which crept to a dual person drop at the escalator ahead. It took me a good 20 minutes just to exit the station onto Slavyanskaya Square, where the golden domes of the Muscotive Baroque-styled  Church of All Saints seemed to provide the only points of contrast against an otherwise dishwater-colored sky.

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Stuck on the staircase exiting onto the street and ascending at a clip of a step a minute, a middle-aged couple behind me said with typically sardonic Russian wit: ‘so i guess we are the fifth column.’

Polikovski waxed poetic on the almost analgesic effect the being a part of what was not a crowd, but rather a gathering of kindred spirits; a largely cowered bunch who had been forced back into Russia’s atomizing existence after a brief window in 2011-2012, when people felt like a nascent civil society was pushing up like a flower through cracks in the pavement.

But eloquent words depicting a solemn if not strangely comforting scene soon bled into anger, as he passionately and perhaps illogically asked where was the massive security presence dispatched to police the procession when Nemtsov was shot in the area overnight Friday? Of course, if hundreds of riot police and drones were dispatched in the area on a regular basis, he would have likely found himself railing against the manifestation of the police state right in the heart of the Russian capital. I understand his point, of course, was rhetorical, but there is another point as well.

He decried Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for himself turning up to the million-man Charlie Hebdo march in Paris, while remaining conspicuously absent when political terror struck down Nemtsov just outside the Kremlin’s walls. It seemed to him, and perhaps rightly so, that solidarity was only for the sake of PR, that any grandstanding against Islamic extremism would always find a place onto the itinerary, but a problematic albeit long-since diminished former deputy PM slain on the streets of Moscow was not worth honoring. After all, he was a vociferous critic of the regime, a womanizer, a fifth columnist, a national enemy. He existed in this strange political purgatory in Russia that is stuck somewhere between opposition and dissident. But really, to the bulk of Russian society, he was a nobody. But the death of that nobody sent shockwaves through the cowered creative classes that are the hallmarks of any liberal society, a class which has become all but antiquated in the post-Ukrainian schism reality of modern day Russia.

“The American ambassador and European ambassadors came to the bridge, to the scene of the murder,” Polikovski wrote, “but why is Europe and America showing empathy to us in this terrible hour, and are closer to me than all this stupid, cowardly, thieving, treacherous authority, from which not a single minister has come and put flowers at the spot where their former colleague was killed.”

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Many Russian liberals rarely lend themselves to restraint, and often the line between journalism, editorializing and flat-out activism is blurred beyond distinction. Sometimes it’s chalked up to a basic lack of professionalism, the argument being that many were self-taught during the raucous 90s and did not have the long history of objectivity that we at least exalt in the Western press, if not religiously practice.

Another reason, perhaps, is the audience they need to sway is hammered down to the floor in a far off land, and what should be a plea to the masses amounts to little more than yelling at the top of their lungs in an echo chamber. This is not their fault. Despite all the fire in their reporting, the independent media has more or less been stamped out to an ember. In Russia, eighty-four percent of people listed state television as being among their top three news sources, while the only independent broadcaster, Dozhd TV was essentially banished by most cable providers and is hobbling along as a web-based broadcaster.

Only 10 percent of Russians use the Internet as a primary news source, and that number is likely skewed greatly by the relatively more liberal urban hubs like Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

When I think about a tri-weekly newspaper like Novaya Gazetta, I can find it in Moscow, not at all news agents, but enough. I have no idea what their reach is, but even according to their own numbers, circulation is 227,000 per issue.

Moscow is a city of 12.1-17 million, and Russia a country of 148,689,000 (if you count Crimea, and you don’t have to if you don’t want, but reality, rather than any moral judgment, tells me to count it.)

The New York Times, by contrast, has a circulation of 1,379,806, though the Guardian is at 177,827. The one difference, however, is that web traffic to those sites has drastically supplanted print editions. Newspapers are still more popular in Russia than web portals, so I am doubting that Novaya Gazetta’s reach is significantly broadened by their web presence, though I could easily be wrong.

So what is my point in all of this, what is the thread connecting it all? Impotence.

As I wrote in my previous entry, Chechen’s were an easy go to for culprits in Nemtsov’s assassination, and while the chances that Chechens were commissioned to carry out the crime is high, the likelihood of identifying the masterminds, if historical precedence is any guide, remains quite low.

Moreover, scores of damning reports on crime, corruption and contract killings in the liberal press are virtually ineffectual in moving the needle in Russian society. The mechanisms of power in Russia are greatly shrouded in secrecy, and those trying to figure out its inner machinations are virtually left reading tea leaves. There are no independent branches of government, there is no countervailing force to appeal to for checks and balances in the power vertical. A front page expose carefully documenting how an official stole hundreds of millions of dollars will have absolutely zero effect, unless said official falls afoul of the powers that be later. In a nutshell, their work is virtually pointless, except as a pressure valve to release their own anger and to find limited solidarity with their fellow ideological travelers. Perhaps a career spent screaming against the wind will make on hysterical from time to time. Perhaps.

Last Sunday, after crossing the bridge and approaching Bolshaya Ordynka Street in the historic Zamoskvorechye District, there was an impending sense, as people slowed down and crisscrossed between the road and pedestrian path, that all of this was supposed to lead somewhere.

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But with each step leaving the piles of flowers and the Kremlin in their wake, there was no natural terminus, no rallying point, no climax to what ended up being a two-hour plus procession, at least for those of us straggling and taking photographs. Boris was still dead, the lack of belief in a fair and impartial investigation was seemingly a fait accompli, the 50,000-plus  crowd was still a drop in the bucket, and there did not appear to be one well-known face waiting at the end to tell the masses what next. I think for many, with Navalny in prison at the time and Nemstov soon to be put into the ground, a march that started in a bottle neck and indeterminately ended in dissipation was the perfect symbol for the day.

They had all come out for comfort, marched in relative silence, but when they waited for that voice to guide them on, each and every one of us found in the end that we were alone. So we piled into cafes, walked to the metro, watched the people watching us, seemingly oblivious to why so many damned people were on the streets that Sunday afternoon. And then, as it always does, life went on.

In the subhead for Polikovskiy’s beautiful if indignant recap of the day (at least the print edition), he proclaimed that Nemstov had once again united society and freedom, following a decade in the political wilderness and his brutal and untimely  murder.

Polikovskiy’s sentiment is a comforting one, but I have my doubts about it…

‘Chechen connection’ in Nemtsov murder should surprise no one 

William Echols

The announcement by Russia’s Federal Security Service head that two suspects from ‘Russia’s North Caucasus’ region had been arrested in connection with the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was to be expected, given the long and sordid history of the Chechen boogeyman in the Russian psyche.

Renowned criminologist Kathryn Russell-Brown once wrote that in American society, the black male is oft depicted as a “symbolic pillager of all that is good”. When Susan Smith tearfully found a fall guy in the archetype of the black carjacker before coughing up to the murder of here two small children over two decades back, what was laid bare was less an example of personal bigotry, and more a sociological manifestation of a small-minded and emotionally challenged young woman grasping at the one straw her culture offered her. If not me, then whom? In much the same way, from petty street crime, sexual harassment, religious extremism, and murder, Russia has its own perennial patsy: the Caucasian, and more specifically, the Chechen.

In the West, the racial taxonomy of the 18th/19th century German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach is the reason why those of European descent are known as Caucasians. In his words, the Caucasus, a mountain system between the Black and Caspian Seas on Russia’s southern flank, is home to “the most beautiful race of men…” But while Caucasians (in Blumenbach’s example, Georgians) became the archetype for “the white race”, in a coup of irony, Slavic nationalists deride Caucasians with the ethnophaulism “black asses.”

There is not enough time to venture into Russia’s long and complicated relationship with the region. What’s important about Saturday’s announcement by Federal Security Service Head Alexander Bortnikov, which pinned the crime on two suspects from the North Caucasus, is that it should surprise no one. Less than a day after Nemtsov was shot dead on Moskvoretsky bridge in ‘the shadow of the Kremlin’, Russian state media began publishing images of a  car allegedly commissioned in the murder of the former deputy PM. The car, unsurprisingly, had Ingush license plates.

Following the pacification of Chechnya, neighboring Ingushetia has become the drainage ditch for unexpended militant rage which, barring a defiant attack in December, was mostly stamped out in Kadyrov’s fiefdom. Combined, Chechnya and Ingushetia have just under 1.7 million people. Moscow, in contrast, officially has a population of 12.1 million, though some estimates have put that number as high as 17 million. That two contract killers would drive their getaway car 1,000 miles (from the country’s most restive region to the heavily surveilled heart of Russian power), and then use that very same car to commit the most high-profile assassination in Russia’s post-Soviet history, seems highly problematic to say the least.

The speed with which the car was recovered and the convenience of the license plates had many corners of the internet appropriating the catch phrase of the Kremlin’s chief propagandist and favorite TV host Dmitry Kiselyov:

‘A coincidence? I don’t think so.’

But the coincidental nature of the killers’ alleged nationality is doubly telling, given that both Russia’s infinitesimal opposition and Kremlin apologists alike are critically on the same page in one respect. Just as Junior Soprano hired two black and ultimately incompetent hit men to whack his cousin Tony in an ineffectual attempt to cover up his own tracks (the professional hit as street crime is a well worn device), few on either end of the political spectrum believe that Chechens are both the puppets and the puppeteers in Nemtsov’s death. Thugs, terrorists for hire, yes. But the brains behind the trigger, no.

For those committed to muddying the waters of reality on behalf of the Kremlin, apart from a a slender minority who are seriously proposing that Chechen militants actually gunned down Nemtsov for his position on the Charlie Hedbo shootings in Paris, the rest entertain the notion that Russians national enemies, both internal and external, have commissioned the Caucasian hit men to besmirch Putin’s reputation. Ukrainian intelligence, the CIA, the negligible opposition, some exiled anti-regime businessman, take your pick or even a combination of the above.

For the opposition, the Chechen killers were merely a gun deployed by Putin himself, siloviki acting with or without the Russian president’s tacit consent, or rogue nationalists acting as the golem that Putin created to shore up his power but then lost control over. Nemtsov, of course, is not the first thorn in the government’s side to have allegedly died at the hands of Chechen killers.

The 2004 murder of Forbes journalist Paul Klebnikov and the 2006 assassination of Anna Politkovskaya were both chalked up to alleged Chechen contract hits. In Klebnikov’s case, Russian prosecutors initially accused Chechen rebel leader Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev of planning the attack. Three Chechens were later tried and acquitted in the killing, though no mastermind was ever fingered. In May of last year, five men, including three Chechen brothers, were found guilty of killing Politkovskaya, though the orchestrator of the crime was similarly never identified.

Unlike Klebnikov and Politkovskaya, however, Nemtsov’s connection to the Caucasus was virtually non-existent, partially explaining the particularly flimsy Charlie Hebdo motive to have surfaced in the aftermath of his death. But domestically at least, a flimsy motive will likely be sufficient, in so far that the government has a strong motivation to obfuscate some of the more likely culprits (far-right nationalists with a connection to rebel forces in eastern Ukraine or independent actors who have taken the talk of fifth columnists and national traitors seriously.)

From the government’s position, the Chechen scapegoat is deeply satisfying, both because the population is already primed to believe that a great many social ills stems from this much maligned minority, and because it deflects attention from the government’s incitement of nationalist forces, which it very well might be losing control over.  What’s more, in lieu of an actual investigation where the actual organizer of the hit will actually be found (history teaches us otherwise), the Chechen exists as a template, where by the public can project whatever motive they want onto it without the government actually having to identify a mastermind.

That Chechens can be portrayed as mere puppets of Ukrainian fascists or US intelligence is merely icing on the cake. One is living in very strange times indeed to draw a line between those disparate threads; a stitched up frankenstinian monster in every sense of the word. But in a country willing to believe that dead bodies were packed onto a plane and then shot down over eastern Ukraine to discredit Russia, practically nothing is beyond the pale these days.