Community News

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ukrainians protest economic meltdown

December 19, 2008 | Associated Press

People walk by a currency exchange
office in Kyiv on Dec. 17. The
Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, fell
over 70 percent since the beginning of
the year in the financial crisis. (AP
Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)

About 1,000 angry Ukrainians rallied in the Ukrainian capital Thursday, protesting price increases, wage delays, utility cutoffs and other effects of the economic crisis gripping this ex-Soviet nation. Inflation has ravaged the economy and the hryvnia has lost half its value since the global financial meltdown began in September.

Kiev residents rallied in front of the mayor's office Thursday, decrying a fourfold increase in public transport fees, delays in paychecks and problems with hot water and heating in several city districts.

Adding to the tensions, Russia's state natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, warned on Thursday it will cut gas supplies to Ukraine on Jan. 1 if it fails to pay off a $2 billion gas debt.

In 2004, several hundred thousand demonstrators jammed the center of Kiev to demand fair elections in the Orange Revolution protests. Now, experts are predicting massive protests over the financial distress.

Mayor Leonid Chernovetsky and his long-term foe Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko blame each other for the city's plight. But many Kiev citizens blame politicians in general.

"They are all bandits," said Tamara Osipova, 69, a retired music teacher who survives on a monthly pension of 800 hryvna, which has eroded sharply in dollar terms during the crisis - from the equivalent of about $160 to just $80. "I could understand if this were a village, but for the capital of a European country not to have heating, water and gas - how can this be?"

Valentyna Ivanova, a 68 year-old retired engineer said she could not survive on 700 hryvna a month, half of which she will spend on utilities after fees were raised. "When I come home I should eat something, shouldn't I? And how will I buy food?"

A recent poll conducted by Gorshenin's Kiev Management Problems Institute found that some 16 percent of respondents were ready to take to the streets if life doesn't improve. The nationwide study polled 2,000 respondents and had a margin of error of 2.2 percentage points.

The hryvna was trading at 9.65 to the dollar on the foreign currency exchange Thursday, from 4.9 in September.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ukraine's leader urges political unity

By Gabriel Gatehouse
BBC News, Kiev

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has said his country must solve its political crisis if it is to survive the effects of the global economic downturn.

Mr Yushchenko's popularity ratings have sunk

Last week, MPs again formed a fragile pro-Western coalition in parliament - along the same party lines as that which collapsed in September.

The move brings hope of an end to a prolonged political deadlock amid a bitter rift between the president and his ally-turned-rival, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

"I agree that the political crisis doesn't help solve the economic crisis," Mr Yushchenko told the BBC. "We need to find a way out of the political crisis."

These are testing times for Ukraine. The country has been badly hit by the global financial downturn.

The national currency, the hryvnia, is plummeting against the US dollar, and the country's chief source of foreign currency reserves - steel exports - is melting away as demand dries up around the world.

'Lack of political will'

The president said he would support any coalition that would help break the deadlock, but added that he would continue to pursue his own policies.

Ukraine's steel exports have been badly hit by the economic crisis

The collapse of the governing coalition was triggered in part by deep divisions over how to respond to the summer's war between Georgia and Russia.

Mr Yushchenko said he believed the conflict had contributed to Nato's reluctance to offer Kiev a fast-track to membership at a meeting of the alliance's foreign ministers in Brussels earlier this month.

"There is a lack of political will - both within Nato and outside it - to carry out the fundamental principles that the organisation is based on."

Asked if he believed that was because of the Russian show of strength in August, he responded: "To me, that seems obvious."

But he said he would continue to push his country towards joining the bloc, despite strong opposition from Moscow, and from voters at home.

"During the 20th Century, Ukraine declared its independence six times. Five times, we lost it," he said. "There was one reason for this. We had no international guarantees to back us, our territorial integrity and sovereignty."

'We are democrats'

Much of the optimism generated by mass street protests - the so-called Orange Revolution - four years ago has evaporated.

Tymoshenko and Yushchenko were allies during the Orange Revolution

Many Ukrainians feel disappointed by the slow pace of change, both in increasing the standard of living, and combating corruption.

But the president defended what he called the fundamental achievements of the Orange Revolution.

"Four years ago, we could not hold free elections. We were told whom we had to vote for. And if we wanted to gather and talk about public issues - we didn't have the right to public assembly."

"Whatever problems we've had over the past four years," he added, "we have demonstrated one thing: we are democrats. To any challenge, we have a democratic answer."

The democratic answer to the current crisis, though, is a very fragile alliance between the president's party and that of the prime minister.

But the intense rivalry, and ill-feeling, between the two former allies has not abated, and could yet lead to the coalition's collapse.

President Yushchenko's personal popularity ratings have sunk even lower than the value of the national currency: most polls suggest only around 4% of voters approve of his performance as president.

Viktor Yushchenko said this was due to the fact that he tackles issues - like Nato membership - that are unpopular with the voters.

"If you care about your popularity rating, it is better not to speak about this," he said.

"But if you care about the next generation of children, and if you're a decent politician, there is no other way, other than to wake up every morning and tell your country that we should be self-sufficient."

Presidential elections are due to be held in a year's time. Mr Yushchenko has not confirmed whether or not he intends to stand.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Remember the Holodomor

The Soviet starvation of Ukraine, 75 years later
by Cathy Young
12/08/2008, Volume 014, Issue 12

This year marks the 75th anniversary of one of the most horrific chapters in the history of the Soviet Union: the great famine the Ukrainians call Holodomor, "murder by starvation." This catastrophe, which killed an estimated 6 to 10 million people in 1932-33, was largely the product of deliberate Soviet policies. Inevitably, then, its history is fodder for acrimonious disputes.

Ukraine--which, with Canada and a few other countries, observed Holodomor Remembrance Day on November 23--seeks international recognition for a Ukrainian "genocide." Russia denounces that demand as political exploitation of a wider tragedy. Some Russian human rights activists are skeptical of both positions.

Meanwhile, the famine remains little known in the West, despite efforts by the Ukrainian diaspora. Indeed, the West has its own inglorious history with regard to the famine, starting with the deliberate cover-up by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty.

In the late 1980s, the famine gained new visibility thanks to Robert Conquest's Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1987) and the TV documentary Harvest of Despair, aired in the United States and Canada. A backlash from the left was quick to follow. Revisionist Sovietologist J. Arch Getty accused Conquest of parroting the propaganda of "exiled nationalists." And in January 1988, the Village Voice ran a lengthy essay by Jeff Coplon (now a contributing editor at New York magazine) titled "In Search of a Soviet Holocaust: A 55-Year-Old Famine Feeds the Right." Coplon sneered at "the prevailing vogue of anti-Stalinism" and dismissed as absurd the idea that the famine had been created by the Communist regime. Such talk, he asserted, was meant to justify U.S. imperialism and whitewash Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis.

By the time Coplon wrote, however, the Soviet regime was dying. The partial opening of Soviet archives soon confirmed the extent to which Stalin and his henchmen knowingly used hunger to punish resistance and beat the peasantry into submission. Among the finds was a direct order by Stalin to cordon off starving villages and intercept peasants trying to flee in search of food. The post-Soviet leadership of both Russia and Ukraine was willing to acknowledge the Terror-Famine, though differences soon emerged on whether it should be regarded as a Ukrainian genocide or equal-opportunity mass murder.

Ukrainian-Russian relations began to deteriorate after the "Orange Revolution" of late 2004. Russia under Vladimir Putin was sliding deeper into authoritarianism and anti-Western nationalism, while Ukraine, led by President Viktor Yushchenko, sought closer ties to the West. Even as the political mood in Russia began to emphasize the alleged positive aspects of the Soviet past, Yushchenko promoted a view of Soviet-era Ukraine as a "captive nation" under a foreign boot.

In November 2006, the Ukrainian parliament passed a bill proclaiming the Holodomor a genocide and making Holodomor denial "unlawful." An escalation of rhetoric followed; a 2007 statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry accused "certain political circles" in Ukraine of insulting the memory of non-Ukrainian famine victims. Since then, the pro-government Russian press has published dozens of articles assailing Ukraine's stance on the Holodomor as an insidious anti-Russian ploy. This year, President Dmitry Medvedev declined an invitation to Holodomor Remembrance Day ceremonies in Kiev in a petulant letter that dismissed "talk of the so-called Holodomor" as an "immoral" attempt to give a shared tragedy a nationalist spin and also took a swipe at Ukraine's desire to join NATO.

Some independent Russian commentators accuse both governments of playing politics. Thus, an article by St. Petersburg-based scholar Kirill Aleksandrov on the website on November 17 argued that the Terror-Famine was not a genocide in the classic sense but a "stratocide"--mass extermination based on social class--directed at the peasantry. Yet, he wrote, the Kremlin cannot fully confront this crime since that would conflict with its quest to build a state ideology that incorporates the "positive value" of the Soviet period. "Unfortunately," Aleksandrov summed up, "the millions of victims of collectivization will be used in Ukraine only for political manipulation and the creation of Russophobic myths, while Russia will consistently try to erase their memory in order to preserve the legitimacy of the current regime, which cannot exist without appealing to Soviet historical tradition."

A starkly different view was offered by journalist Yulia Latynina on the website Latynina noted that while Stalin's terror affected every segment of Soviet society, specific groups were sometimes singled out--among them the Ukrainian peasant class in the early 1930s. "Stalin was destroying the peasantry by herding it into collective farms," she wrote. "It so happened that the wealthiest peasantry was in Ukraine.     It so happened that Stalin was afraid of Ukraine's independence and undertook special efforts to break Ukraine." Supporters of Ukraine's position also deny that it is "Russophobic," pointing to Yushchenko's explicit statements that the Holodomor was a crime of the Soviet Communist regime, not the Russian people.

Which view is accurate? Scholars still disagree both on the scope of the famine and on its ethnic "specificity." One of the most vocal opponents of the Ukrainian government's view is former Soviet dissident Alexander Babyonyshev (writing under the pen name Sergey Maksudov), now an émigré professor at Harvard, who studied the Terror-Famine in Soviet times when it was politically dangerous.

There is no question that the famine caused deaths beyond Ukraine. It is generally believed that about half of the victims were in Ukraine and the predominantly Ukrainian-populated Russian region of Kuban. The millions of others who perished included Russian peasants and close to a third of the population of Kazakhstan.

There is also no doubt that the famine was man-made. Most Soviet peasants resisted the collectivization that began in the 1930s. When joining collective farms was voluntary, few signed up, and many who did soon left. Forcible collectivization was met with peasant rebellions, ruthlessly suppressed, then with quiet resistance. When villagers realized that collective farming meant backbreaking labor for the state at slave wages, many staged work slowdowns. As a result, grain production targets were not met at a time when Moscow relied on grain exports to finance industrialization. The regime then instituted a policy of ruthless confiscation of grain that left no food for the peasants; in many regions, villages that failed to meet the quota were also forced to surrender all other foodstuffs.

Recent articles detailing the Soviet regime's war on the peasantry, based on Soviet archives, describe a living hell: government agents going door to door confiscating food; families in recalcitrant villages forced out of their homes and left to freeze; men and women tortured to make them reveal hidden stockpiles of food; widespread cannibalism. These horrors were by no means limited to Ukraine.

It is nonetheless true that Stalin's fateful decision to blockade famine-stricken areas, issued in January 1933, was initially directed at Ukraine and Kuban. This has prompted French historian Nicolas Werth, coauthor of The Black Book of Communism, to reconsider his view of the Terror-Famine as ethnically neutral class warfare. In an address at the Harvard Ukrainian Institute on November 18, Werth said he now believes there is sufficient evidence to support the "national interpretation" of the famine. This evidence, in his view, includes the fact that the Holodomor coincided with a Soviet campaign against Ukrainian nationalism, with purges and executions targeting Ukraine's political and cultural elites. Yet Werth concluded with a pointed plea to remember all the victims of the Communist war on the peasantry.

Recognition of the Holodomor as genocide is complicated by several factors. The ethnic component of the Terror-Famine in Ukraine was not driven by a nationalist animus against Ukrainians but by Stalin's paranoia about Ukrainian nationalism and alleged ties to Poland. Moreover, many of the people who carried out the exterminationist policies were ethnic Ukrainians. Perhaps, as Russian historian Boris Sokolov has argued, a proper condemnation of Communist terror requires a new category: mass murder not motivated by ethnic hatred.

The scholarly and political debate will doubtless continue. Last September, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution declaring the Holodomor a genocide; a month later, the European Parliament voted to recognize it as a "crime against humanity" but stopped short of the G-word. Meanwhile, it seems that the only time Russia's government remembers the Russian victims of the Terror-Famine is when it needs them to counter Ukrainian claims about "the so-called Holodomor."

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.

RFE/RL Interview: Robert Conquest On 'Genocide' And Famine

Robert Conquest in December 2006

December 08, 2008

RFE/RL Ukrainian Service correspondent Irena Chalupa interviewed British historian Robert Conquest in December 2006. They talked about the "question of genocide," famine denial in the USSR, and who was worse: Stalin or Lenin?

RFE/RL: [In November 2006], after much debate, the Ukrainian parliament passed a bill recognizing the 1932-33 famine as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people. Those MPs who argued against the bill -- the Communists and the Party of Regions -- argued that labeling the famine "genocide" would fuel anti-Russian sentiment. What do you think of the way Ukraine has handled this part of its history?

Robert Conquest: I don't know much about the internal politics and what caused people to vote one way or the other and things like that. But in my book on the famine, "The Harvest of Sorrow," I go into the question of genocide and note that by the definition of genocide at the time it was put to the United Nations, it covered a much broader field than the Jewish one.

It included partial attempts on nationality. I don't think the word genocide as such is a very useful one. When I say if you want to use it you can, but it was invented for rather different purposes. I can see that the trouble is it implies that somebody, some other nation, or a large part of it were doing it, that the Nazis are more or less implicated, they are Germans. But I don't think this is true -- it wasn't a Russian exercise, the attack on the Ukrainian people. But it was a definite attack on them as they were discriminated against as far as death went. But it didn't mean if you were a Russian you were doing very well in Stalin's time either.

But I think it's a good thing that the famine should be recognized. It's an odd thing but I was asked by the Holocaust Foundation -- they asked me to speak on the famine, on the Ukrainian famine some years ago and it's still on the record. They asked the Armenians to do the same. At that time the Ukrainian ambassador in Washington came to the Holocaust Museum. So the Jews were not forcing it as the same thing at all. That's the other danger. Once you start using these terms, you have to be not only just as bad, but just the same as the Jewish genocide. And it's not the same. As long as that's recognized. And I think there are guilty people, but they aren't the Russian nation or anybody else. They're a particular group of particularly horrible people.

RFE/RL: When your book, "The Harvest of Sorrow," was published in 1987, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service translated sections of it into Ukrainian and broadcast it to Ukraine as a multipart series. I suspect that many Ukrainians first learned about the famine from these broadcasts based on your book. Famine denial continues on some level today. Why do you think this is so?

Conquest: I think there are people everywhere who are committed to think things which aren't true. This doesn't only apply to this -- it applies to dozens of things. There are Stalin deniers in general. There are, of course, Holocaust deniers, about the Jewish Holocaust. There are people who'd like to forget, or else to think: "At least I wasn't guilty, and if I wasn't guilty, somebody else was." To ask why people take peculiar political or other views is a long story which I've gone into other books.

RFE/RL: What kind of scholarship do you think we still need to do on this particular period in history? Can the full story of the Ukrainian famine ever be told?

Conquest: I think the famine now is pretty fully established. Nobody will deny it anymore. I mean, only a very few people would deny it. There is a tendency not to know some of the actual orders given from above, from Moscow, to blockade Ukraine, to keep the famine in the Ukraine and in the Kuban. There were other areas -- there's Kazakhstan, of course, up on the Volga. There were other similar acts used again other areas.

But the fact that Ukraine and the Kuban were blocked off, and quite clearly that was partly due to make sure that the death roll was localized, not the nationality, exactly, but to the inhabitants -- and, in practice, meaning the nationality too. But Stalin would not call himself [anti-Ukrainian]. Andrei Sakharov said that Stalin was anti-Ukrainian, and other people have said the same. But he was anti-Ukrainian because they gave him trouble. But he was also anti a lot of other people. Because even when he was anti-Jewish in his great purges in 1953, he said: "No, I'm not being anti Semitic. We're killing only 10 Jews and four or five non-Jews in the doctor's plot. So I'm not anti-Semitic."

RFE/RL: You probably know Stalin better than most. Is it difficult studying someone like him in such great detail?

Conquest: A friend of mine has just done a huge book called ["Young Stalin,"] up to 1917, a huge book -- Simon Sebag-Montefiore, a British writer -- and he's found new stuff. There's a whole chapter on Stalin in London. He was in London for a few weeks in 1908 but he's found all sorts of odd reports and it's a whole chapter. So one can learn more and more and more about him, go into him.

In Russia they're now publishing books where the Politburo starts examining the basis of Stalin in Gorbachev's time, and they're arguing -- why did he kill everybody? They say, what, because he was frightened of losing power? They have these arguments, but they can't quite make out because it's irrational, and it's irrational in a very peculiar way. He's definitely not a normal, straightforward human being. I don't want to use psychological language -- it's too easy. But he's a monster, more than anything else. After all, he wasn't only killing peasants. He was killing his closest supporters. And in a very nasty way, after torture and so on. He doesn't sound like a modern man, a terrestrial man, an Earth man. He sounds like a monster from some strange planet. I've written a science fiction novel amongst my various writings and also some of my poems are science fiction and I think Stalin would fit in very well as a nonhuman. Part human, perhaps, it was a curious mixture of a monster and a human being on some very strange planet.

RFE/RL: Do you find that these tyrants -- Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot -- have a bit of a banality to their being?

Conquest: Oh yes, you're absolutely right. There's something very third-rate and unnatural, but not stupid exactly, about them.

RFE/RL: Mediocre?

Conquest: Mediocre, yes. Stalin, of course, massacred his intelligentsia and, of course, the Ukrainian intelligentsia. They're not only Ukrainian -- they're intelligentsia, that's the other point. I remember looking at "The Harvest of Sorrow" -- all the pages about the purges of academe in all the portions of Ukrainian studies and every other sort of studies. I found that half the professors had been shot.

RFE/RL: The crimes of communism are certainly very vast. Ukraine, like every republic in the former Soviet Union, has many scars. Ukraine was maimed by communism as a culture, as an economy, as a nation. How do you get healthy again after something like that? How do you recover?

Conquest: Well, obviously, it takes more time than people thought. Now we've got Cambodia and North Korea, which, if anything, were worse than Stalin They were stupider than Stalin, I think. There's China, who knows what China's like. Once you fall for a system like that, you suddenly find yourself empowered to kill a lot of people for no reason at all. I mean in Cambodia they were just killing people for killing's sake: "Time to kill a few more people".

And look at North Korea. I met a Soviet diplomat who'd been in North Korea, and he said that they've done more fakery than was possible in Moscow. More falsification. There's a big shop on the main street in Pyongyang, and he went into it -- lots of people buying lots of things, wonderful salesmanship. But he suddenly realized nobody was actually getting anything. Extraordinary.

There's another thing that's common to all Stalinists. These are rich countries mostly, but even poor countries in Africa can build good hotels; the tsars built good hotels. But the hotels in the Soviet Union were awful! Why? They could afford to build hotels to impress foreigners, but somehow they couldn't work it. So they relied on finding very stupid foreigners, which they found.

When we talk about getting over Stalinism it's not only in the former Soviet Union, Ukraine, and Russia. It's in the West as well. After all, in Ukraine and Russia people were not allowed to tell the truth. Full stop. In the West, they were allowed to and they got themselves fooled, believed nonsense. They are more to blame than those inside Stalinism in some ways.

RFE/RL: What do you think stopped people from excelling under communism? Is it the mediocrity of its leaders that you mentioned? After all, they certainly had some degree of knowledge, some degree of talent, and certainly they had money. And yet they produced shoddy goods, their economies were second- or third-rate, nothing worked.

Conquest: Well, it was an impossible system both economically and ecologically, of course. When you, for example, see your seas drying up, you must know something has gone wrong. They did finally after 20 or 30 years that something's wrong. What? Perhaps our system's wrong. They did start thinking that in 1985, 1990, that sort of time. They knew something was wrong, and they had to get rid of the old regime. Of course, they still had more to do than that.

RFE/RL: I read a piece by Andrew Brown in "The Guardian" about you a few years ago.

Conquest: He made quite a lot of mistakes.

RFE/RL: Did he? Well, he writes that when your book "The Great Terror" came out, everyone could agree that Stalin was wicked and evil -- but Lenin, he had to have been good. Brown says that you claimed they were both cut from the same cloth. Do you think that 40 years later that sentiment still exists, that Stalin perverted Lenin's ideology and he is ultimately a better man than Stalin was?

Conquest: Was Stalin worse than Lenin? Well, it's not very difficult to be better than Stalin. So if Lenin was a bit better than Stalin, perhaps he was a bit. But it doesn't make much difference. I still think Lenin is over-praised, if not over-praised, then given a bit of leeway here and there which he didn't deserve. I think Stalin could be put down as killing more people, if that's your criterion. And Stalin certainly produced a system under which duller and duller and stupider and stupider people came to the top. But that isn't based on Lenin's system. I mean, Lenin died when he was quite young. Had he lived to the age of Stalin or Mao.... [Soviet politician Vyacheslav] Molotov always said, if anything, Lenin would have been even tougher than Stalin. Molotov said that in his conversations with [Felix] Chuev, a famous collection. In fact, he rebukes Stalin for being too soft occasionally.

RFE/RL: Why do you think communism, despite the fact that it has been totally discredited, still remains attractive?

Conquest: Well, let's start with Marxism. It's one of those beliefs you get into and it's hard to get out. It's hard to define. I do find when they get rid of Marxism or anything like pro-communism, they say to themselves: "Well, what do we do now? What are we thinking? We can't think like the bourgeoisie; we can't think like the foreigners. We've got to think like... who?"

Thursday, December 4, 2008


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