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Ukrainians in a Funk

The Euro 2012 soccer games are over and the heady euphoria of being part of the civilized world has dissipated. Ukraine is back to normal: a brutalized country subjected to the daily predations of a gang of thugs who call themselves a government. Unsurprisingly, those democratically attuned Ukrainians who desire to live like the Europeans who visited Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv, and Donetsk in July are depressed.

Most young people seek to emigrate—for good. A 30-something student I’ve known for several years has for the first time spoken of leaving a place that appears to offer his generation nothing but continued hopelessness. Advertisements for English-language courses are everywhere. Older Ukrainians, with family, property, and professions, opt for what one friend called “internal exile.” As the ruling Party of Regions squeezes the nascent middle class for all its worth, 50-plus Ukrainians focus on their families and apartments, build dachas, and effectively “drop out.” Unfortunately, although the choice to withdraw is perfectly understandable, it only strengthens Regionnaire power by depriving Ukraine of its most ambitious young people and older patriots.

Everyone is both shocked and unsurprised by the renewed Regionnaire assault on Ukrainian identity. No sooner did the football games end, when the Regionnaire-run Parliament violated every procedure in the book and pushed through a language law that is nothing less than a declaration of war on Ukrainian. As Yuri Makarov, a moderate Ukrainian journalist (of ethnic Russian background!), has written: “The Rubicon has been crossed. By adopting the [language law] the authorities have completely and irreversibly demonstrated their lack of legitimacy …. It must be underscored: as of today, the entire government in Ukraine is illegal.”

Preposterously, the law’s supremacist engineers insist that the Russian language is under threat from Ukrainian and therefore needs protection—a claim that is tantamount to saying that English is under threat from Spanish in Maine. The Regionnaires’ obvious intent is twofold: to return Ukrainian to the status it had in Soviet times, as a half-dead language used in street signs and the folk kitsch produced by officially approved hack writers; and to deprive the population of a conceptual alternative to Russian, which serves as an instrument of both Sovietization and Putinization. Ironically, the actual effect of the law will be quite different.

After all, like everything the Regionnaires do, the law is a mess. Willy-nilly, therefore, the Ukrainian language will survive and perhaps even thrive as people are forced to stand up for their selves. In contrast, Russian speakers and Ukraine itself could suffer serious body blows. By encouraging Russian-speaking Ukrainians in backward places like the Donbas to remain mired in the Soviet past, the law will only underscore their continued status as a degraded Lumpenproletariat. And by enabling all speakers of “minority languages” to demand services in their language if 10 percent of the population of some “territory” so desires, while failing to specify just how officials at various “territorial” levels are supposed to communicate, the law will only enhance Ukraine’s institutional chaos and bust the budgets of local governments. The likely end effect is the transformation of language from a tool of everyday communication into a marker of political identity, the growth of linguistic and regional polarization, and, quite possibly, the break-up of Ukraine into a Ukrainian-speaking west and a Russian-speaking east. The Regionnaires wouldn’t mind such an outcome, as it would rid them of pesky pro-Western national democrats and enable them to ride roughshod over their benighted Russian-speaking compatriots. Neither would the democrats, as they’d finally be freed of the ballast of Regionnaire antediluvianism.

The funk extends even to the parliamentary elections in October. Most people I’ve spoken to believe that the Regionnaires will steal the ballot. Everyone knows they’re incompetent crooks, clods, and thugs, but everyone expects them to resort to all manner of fraud, ignore the finger pointing of the West, and outwit what they consider to be a weak opposition. A contest of “losers” is how one editor termed the elections. There’s a real danger that voters will stay home and, in a fit of perfectionist maximalism, not vote for the significantly lesser of two evils, thereby handing the elections to the Regionnaires. That would guarantee Viktor Yanukovych’s reelection in 2015 and subject Ukraine to eight more years of Regionnaire rapine. When asked what they expect to happen then, people smile and say that somehow things’ll work out. Obviously, young people who want to vote with their feet disagree.

One analyst compared Ukraine today with Soviet Ukraine in the late Brezhnev period. The language, culture, and identity are targets of official Russification, the government consists of political Neanderthals with no regard for law, the opposition consists of a few scores of dissident intellectuals, the population is depoliticized and afraid, Western Europe and the United States are indifferent, while Vladimir Putin’s Russia is hoping to reclaim lost influence in its former empire. “We have to start from zero,” he said.

I’m not so sure. After all, Ukraine has existed as a state, even if of the unusually crummy kind, for 20 years. Ukrainian identity is no longer something tolerated only in concentration camps. Even in Donetsk, the locals rooted for the Ukrainian football team and waved the Ukrainian flag. The Yanukovych regime, although it sports the methods of the mafia, consists of half-wits who know how to steal, but who have no idea how to govern. And the opposition, however unattractive to locals, is not quite a pushover, while a vigorous civil society does after all exist. All these factors may or may not be enough to stop the thugs, but destroying Ukraine won’t be a cakewalk for the Regionnaires.

The 30-something student who’s thinking of emigrating captured both the pessimism and implicit optimism of prevailing popular sentiments. “What is Yanukovych going to do with his purloined estate after he leaves office? Defend himself from popular anger with machine guns?”

Fortunately, after eight more years of Regionnaire cloddishness, the machine guns are sure to jam.

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