Ukraine’s Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace

OSCE SMM monitoring the movement of heavy weaponry in eastern Ukraine. Wikimedia Commons/OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine

Kiev thinks it’s ready to face an endless list of enemies. But it can’t.

By tradition, the Ukrainian political season begins the week after independence day—August 24. This year’s celebration was especially poignant, as it marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of Ukraine’s declaration of independence.

What was the public’s mood on the eve of this silver anniversary? A survey conducted this August by SOCIS, one of Ukraine’s best known sociopolitical research and marketing companies, provides a rather striking answer.

The survey, which was conducted in Odessa, Ukraine’s third-largest city, suggests that over half of Odessans describe their city as “tense,” while nearly ten percent say it is “explosive.” But even more interesting is that Odessans view the situation in Ukraine overall as much worse, with over ninety percent describing it as either “tense” or “explosive”!

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Lest readers think that Odessa is an anomaly, I should point out that these results do not differ substantively from surveys conducted in February or June 2016, which show a steady decline in public trust in government since the 2014 Maidan uprising.

How did things get so bad? Part of the fault certainly lies with the IMF’s austerity recommendations, which the vast majority of Ukrainians view as both harmful and pointless. But no downward spiral in public confidence could ever be so complete without the connivance of government officials. To put it bluntly, government policies have seemed, at times, almost intentionally designed to fuel public anger.

A good example is the policy of actively curtailing Russian investment in Ukraine. While this has reduced Russia’s economic influence in the Ukrainian economy, as the government intended, in the absence of commensurate Western investment to replace what was lost, major industries have collapsed, and the country’s standard of living along with them. If the country continues on its present course, Odessa’s reformist governor Mikheil Saakashvili has noted sarcastically, Ukraine will not reach the level of GDP it had under former president Viktor Yanukovych for another fifteen years.

People might even be willing to view this as a necessary sacrifice in times of war, but for the fact that Ukrainian oligarchs often continue to line their own pockets by doing business in Russia. This includes President Petro Poroshenko himself, whose personal wealth increased sevenfold in 2015.

Another source of public frustration is the new quotas for the use of the Ukrainian language. According to the law signed on July 6, the percentage of total content in Ukrainian in radio and television programs must be raised to 60 percent. For some reason, special attention was paid to songs, of which 35 percent must be sung in Ukrainian during peak listening hours within three years. Broadcasters failing to comply will face a fine of 5 percent of their license fee.

Given the sheer size of the Russian-language market, Russian has always been preferred in the Ukrainian entertainment industry. Ukrainian nationalists see this as a problem, but instead of making the use of Ukrainian a more attractive choice by providing financial support for Ukrainian-language entertainment, the government has decided to punish the use of Russian—which, just a few years ago, was the language preferred by 83 percent in a Gallup survey. If the movie industry’s past experience is any guide, the results of this latest initiative will be a decline in domestic sales, a rise in bootlegged entertainment from Russia and no perceptible shift in people’s linguistic choices.

Finally, this summer the government decided to “de-Communize” local place names, often with undisguised contempt for the opinion of the local population. In the cities of Dnepropetrovsk (now Dnipro) and Kirovograd (now Kropyvnytskyi), surveys showed large majorities in those cities rejecting the government’s name choice and, if the name had to be changed, preferring the czarist-era names. The parliament rejected this option out of hand.