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The New Ukrainian Exceptionalism

Ukraine struggles to survive as an independent nation against external and internal forces – Russia, the powerful neighbor next door, and Russian sympathizers throughout eastern Ukraine. “Russian-backed aggression, relentless propaganda and meddling in Ukraine’s domestic politics have pushed many Ukrainians to adopt a deeply polarized worldview, in which constructive criticism, dissenting views, and even observable facts are rejected out of hand if they are seen as harmful to Ukraine,” argue Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and Mykhailo Minakov, associate professor/docent in philosophy and religious studies at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. The writers identify this as a new form of exceptionalism. If commitments to tolerance, human rights and freedom to dissent are undermined, Ukraine will differ little from Russia. And that would give the international community pause in coming to the struggling nation’s aid. – YaleGlobal

The New Ukrainian Exceptionalism

Ukrainian leaders, under siege from Russian and separatist forces, resist constructive criticism
Matthew Rojansky and Mykhailo Minakov
YaleGlobal, 23 June 2015
Russia on the dock, Ukraine not without blemish: Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko, left, walks past Russian President Vladimir Putin during an international gathering (top); bellicose Ukrainian Semen Semenchenko grandstanding

WASHINGTON: The slow boiling war in Southeastern Ukraine is by now well known to the world. It has been projected in stark moral and political terms and in gruesome detail by the international press, Ukrainian and Western political leaders, and ordinary Ukrainian citizens. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that Ukraine is engaged in a struggle not only for its sovereignty, but for its very survival as a nation-state.

In this hour of need, every Ukrainian citizen and every self-described friend of Ukraine in the international community should not only speak but act in support of Ukraine. But speaking out and taking action in support of Ukraine have become increasingly fraught in recent months. Russian-backed aggression, relentless propaganda and meddling in Ukraine’s domestic politics have pushed many Ukrainians to adopt a deeply polarized worldview, in which constructive criticism, dissenting views, and even observable facts are rejected out of hand if they are seen as harmful to Ukraine. This phenomenon might be termed the new Ukrainian exceptionalism, and it is worrisome because it threatens the very democratic values Ukrainians espouse, while weakening Ukraine’s case for international support.

The new Ukrainian exceptionalism comes at a high price for Ukrainian civil society and for the international community focused on helping Ukraine. There have already been cases in which prominent Ukrainian thought leaders have been threatened and even attacked for expressing views critical of the government, nationalist politicians, or volunteer militias. Likewise, among Ukraine’s friends abroad there is precious little tolerance for views that dissent from the dominant party line that Ukraine’s current government is the best it has ever had, and that the West must provide not only political and financial support, but also supply it with lethal weapons to fight the Russians in Donbas.

There is little tolerance for views that dissent from the dominant party line in Ukraine.

This exceptionalist worldview is nowhere more evident than in the discourse around Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko. Poroshenko is a billionaire confectionary baron who also owns banking and agricultural assets, and several influential media platforms, most notably Ukraine’s Fifth Channel, and who served in high government posts, including as Yanukovych’s minister of economic development and minister of foreign affairs under Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Today, Poroshenko presides over a state and a government that has committed to a reform campaign it styles as “de-oligrachization.”

Yet when queried about whether, as an oligarch himself, Poroshenko can be effective in removing oligarchic influence from Ukraine’s politics and economy, many Ukrainians feel compelled to defend their wartime leader by denying that he is, in fact, an oligarch in the first place. Or if he is one, they say, he’s a different kind of oligarch, certainly the best of the bunch. After all, they reason, he has used his wealth and influence to help Ukraine and fight Russia, and anyway, his business interests are more transparent and of more value to the country than those of his rivals. Instead of selling his businesses, as he promised to do during last year’s presidential campaign, Poroshenko has held onto them, demonstrating that even in the new Ukraine, politics and the private sector remain inseparable.

Exceptionalists argue: While oligarchy in general might be bad, Ukraine’s patriotic oligarchs are not.

The exceptionalism does not stop with Poroshenko. In fact, the same tortured logic extends to support for other “good” oligarchs: Lviv’s mayor Andriy Sadovyi, who has run that city for nearly a decade, owns major media, electrical utility and financial assets, and has backed his own party in the national parliament, is described as having made Lviv a “lighthouse” for Ukrainian reform, on the model of neighboring Poland. Even Dnipropetrovsk’s Ihor Kolomoiskiy, who himself embraces the oligarch moniker, has spent millions in defense of Ukraine against Russian aggression, served as governor of a vulnerable frontline region and held it together, and besides, his Privat Bank group is a pillar of Ukraine’s financial stability. So, while oligarchy in general might be bad, Ukraine’s most patriotic oligarchs, the exceptionalists argue, are not.

The same goes for the country’s far right political forces. Cite the rise of Praviy Sektor, or Right Sector, during and after the Euro-Maidan, and many Ukrainians will point to the radical right movement’s poor performance in last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections. Point to the resurgence of symbols and slogans of the Second World War ultra-nationalist Union of Ukrainian Nationalists, OUN, or the newly passed laws banning “Soviet symbols,” canonizing controversial Ukrainian nationalist figures Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, and they will say that Ukraine has every right to define its own history, even if it does so with blatant disregard and disrespect for that of millions of its citizens now living under Russian occupation or otherwise not fully represented in the government. The new Ukrainian exceptionalism makes it possible for undercurrents of intolerance and extreme nationalism to cohabit with stated commitments to pluralism and democracy.

New Ukrainian exceptionalism: Undercurrents of intolerance cohabit with commitments to democracy.

The Euro-Maidan was dubbed a Revolution of Dignity because it represented the victory of the people in defense of basic human rights and human dignity. But a year after that victory, the parliament has approved a decree limiting Ukraine’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. So far, the decree applies only to portions of the two oblasts, or regions, of Donetsk and Luhansk where the war is going on, but it has been accompanied by allegations of torture and unlawful detention by Ukrainian authorities. These steps set a dangerous precedent for limitation of human rights without wide public discussion. Exceptionalism effectively gives carte-blanche to the government to act in the name of Ukraine’s security, while it fragments and diminishes the human rights activist community that was once a bulwark of the new Ukraine.

Finally, raise the problem of private armies in Ukraine, and one is told that the famous “volunteer battalions” are actually completely legal and legitimate police, interior ministry or army units that have been integrated under a single, responsible national command. This would be a reasonable position and an extremely important step to constrain possible future internecine violence, corporate raiding and other abuses in Ukraine, if only it were true.

The same goes for so-called soldier deputies, commanders of the volunteer battalions elected to the parliament last October, many of whom still appear in uniform and demonstrate scant regard for the boundaries between civilian and military authority. Dashing but bellicose figures like Serhii Melnychuk, Semen Semenchenko and Dmytro Yarosh, we are told, are not really soldiers any more, their grandstanding is just a PR exercise. Maybe so, but their message hardly confirms Ukraine’s commitment to rule of law, civilian control of the military, and national reconciliation. With prominent exceptions like these in the new Ukraine, it is increasingly difficult to identify the rule.

Without a doubt, Ukraine now faces its most severe crisis of the post-1991 period. In the face of attacks by Russia and its separatist allies, Ukraine deserves the support of its citizens and the wider world. Yet the enthusiasm of the world to help Ukraine will be diminished and the damage from Russian aggression magnified if Ukrainians succumb to the kind of exceptionalism described above. Instead, Ukrainians should seek to preserve what have actually been their most exceptional characteristics – a rare and genuine commitment to pluralism, civic freedom, and human dignity that make Ukraine a cause worth fighting for.

 

Matthew Rojansky is director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC; Mykhailo Minakov is associate professor/docent in philosophy and religious studies at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and was a Fulbright-Kennan Scholar in 2012-13.

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Comments on this Article

3 July 2015
"The slow boiling war" - Do you mean RUSSIAN INVASION ?
"every Ukrainian citizen and every self-described friend of Ukraine in the international community should not only speak but act in support of Ukraine" - True, this is the premise to the artice, but then the article itself is not about how to act to support Ukraine, but is just a unmotivated critic of the ukrainian authorities
"Ukraine’s domestic politics have pushed many Ukrainians to adopt a deeply polarized worldview, in which constructive criticism, dissenting views, and even observable facts are rejected out of hand if they are seen as harmful to Ukraine" - 1st: which constructive criticism have been rejected out of hand ? Please, examples, otherwise it's just an apodictic sentence; 2nd: if a lie is presented as a critic, should we allow it to be spread ? 3rd: have you ever heard about the "information war" that Russia is doing against Ukraine ? Have you ever thought that maybe the reaction of ukrainians is just a way to defend against it ? 4th: if the diffusion an opinion is harmuf to the national security of your Country, don't you have the right (or the duty) to oppose it ?
"This phenomenon might be termed the new Ukrainian exceptionalism" - I would call it ukrainian defence against russian information war.
"There have already been cases in which prominent Ukrainian thought leaders have been threatened and even attacked for expressing views critical of the government" - Again apodictic, no examples, no explanation, you say "there have already been cases" and i could say "no, there have been no cases" if you refer about traitors who try to spread russian propaganda to destabilize the Country, well, that's not "expressing views critical of the government" that's being traitors, accomplices with the enemy, that's attacking in the information war against your own Nation. And how do you treat traitors in your Country ?
"when queried about whether, as an oligarch himself, Poroshenko can be effective in removing oligarchic influence from Ukraine’s politics and economy" - How can you work for Yale ? You don't even know what an "oligarch" is ?! Oligarch is not synonymous of businessman. Oligarch is a kind of businessman who use pulic properties, clientelism, corruption and political backing to make private profits for himself and for his accomplices, starting with the politicians who protect him. Poroshenko is not that, so he's not an oligarch, he is a businessman, his businesses are not related to public properties, but are private, he doesn't receive public funding for his private businesses, he is not stealing money from the people, but at the opposite, he is giving jobs and money to the people and taxes to the State.
"or the newly passed laws banning “Soviet symbols,”" - I don't see many statues of Hitler, or squares named to Goebbels in Germany, so why there should be statues of Lenin and squares of some other communist criminal in Ukraine ? Communists invaded Ukraine and planned and realized a genocide that killed million of ukrainians, ukrainians cannot punish the criminals who did it, because they died unpunished, but they can remove and condemn their historic inheritance in Ukraine.
Bandera lived the years of the ukrainian genocide "Holodomor" (you should study it at Yale) can you imagine how he felt after that ? How strong was his desire to save his people from a destiny of oppression and muss murder under communism ? And he was ready to do anything to make his Nation free, even make an alliance with Hitler Germany.
"the parliament has approved a decree limiting Ukraine’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. So far, the decree applies only to portions of the two oblasts, or regions, of Donetsk and Luhansk where the war is going on, but it has been accompanied by allegations of torture and unlawful detention by Ukrainian authorities" - Again no reference, no examples, you talk about "allegations of torture and unlawful detention by Ukrainian authorities" so please, mention these allegations, who made them ? were them true ? Again nothing, so it could all be just a lie from russian propagandists in the information war... oh but you don't know that there is an information war in Ukraine.
"Finally, raise the problem of private armies in Ukraine, and one is told that the famous “volunteer battalions”" - Considering that Yale is in the USA you should know the second amendment to the US Constitution, if not i'll remind you: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed" you know what is the meaning of A WELL REGULATED MILITIA ? that's what the volunteer battalions are.
And you know, the members of the militia are citizens... they have the right to vote and to be elected... it should be known at Yale.
Don't worry, Ukrainians have "a rare and genuine commitment to pluralism, civic freedom, and human dignity that make Ukraine a cause worth fighting for".
You should consider this different point of view, and not have a deeply polarized worldview, in which constructive criticism, dissenting views, and even observable facts are rejected out of hand if they are seen as harmful to your thesis.
-Christian Ciavatta , Some questions
1 July 2015
I don't see any "boiling war in Southeastern Ukraine" simply because it is not there. The authors would do better just by looking into the map and realizing where the front line really is. The rumors about 'the Ukrainian exceptionalism" are "greatly exaggerated" as they say that in Odessa. To me, who follows the events in Ukraine very closely since 1991, the whole idea that Poroshenko or anyone else in power is an exceptionalist or shares this kind of worldview is simply ridiculous and completely made up. The whole article sounds, sorry to say that, irrelevant and misleading.
-Walter , I don't see any "boiling war
28 June 2015
What "constructive criticism, dissenting views, and even observable facts" have been rejected?
Answer: There is none and it is a remarkably restrained Ukraine that has not established marshal law or completely abandon those parts of Ukraine invaded by Russia.
This article has little substance and it looks like an answer in search of a question, namely "How to kick Ukraine while it is down".
Perhaps the authors should look across the border some substance. Rumor has it that Russia thinks itself quite exceptional and it is crushing any and all dissent, including the liquidation of over 50 critical journalists.
https://cpj.org/killed/europe/russia/
And while we are in these ivied halls, why does a search of Yale.edu yield only 6 references to the Holodomor; a war between WWI and WWII that claimed more than all the battlefields of WWI?
-Jame Smace , Not Much of a Cheese Shop
28 June 2015
That is not today Ukrainians decided to find a way to differentiate themselves from Russians. That is the way how enthnic genisis works. So in the situation when multinational state (USSR) collapsed, Ukrainian national elites became interested in doing so even more. What could be a difference to strong order of Moscow, the answer is illusory freedom.
Consequentially, Ukrainian mass media and even academic sources such as Yale draw a picture of Russia as a place where there is a fallout of human rights, corruption, and democracy and at the same time whitening Ukrainian far right guys as a fighters against "double evil" of communists and fascists.
The reality of course is different. Russia is just a powerful player that is emerged after collapse of Soviet Union while Ukraine failed to do so. Russians respect Ukrainians and Ukrainian language, and what is more important overall have more freedoms that even Westerns do. The only thing Russians care about is comparative advantage. Ukrainian politics is irresponsible, and thus distabilize the whole region of Eastern Europe and former Soviet Union.
It is actually not so funny because the US thinks about itself as a warrant of stability. In reality stability of many Eurasian territories in the hands of Russia. We should not forget civil war in Tadjikistan, war between Georgia and Ossetia, Armenia and Azerbaidjan. All those conflicts were stopt because of Russia's actions. If Ukraine won (= lose anyway), there will be hundreads of different uncontrolled conflicts, economic downfall and millions of additional immigrants to Europe.
Whether Europeans like it or not, it is better to have strong Russia with good relationship that can guarantee stability over many territories than one more Africa with nuclear weapon on the backyard and Greece (sorry Ukraine).
-Western Educated Russian , my 5 pens
28 June 2015
The OUN thing pisses me off when they say Ukraine has the right to define its own heroes- excuse me, but when did these "heroes" represent Ukraine? The OUN and UPA never attracted more than a fraction of Ukrainians even in the region where it was most popular, and even then many people were conscripted into its ranks. Later, many of them deserted in droves, including a large number who switched to the Soviet side.
But it is not simply to appease the population in the East that these organizations should be condemned. They have a clear connection to the Holocaust via the role the OUN-B played in organizing the militia and Ukrainian police who took part in pogroms that killed thousands of Jews. Many of those police personnel then ended up in the ranks of the UPA. Add to that the ethnic cleansing of Poles and you see why these thugs, which DO NOT represent Ukraine, don't deserve to be called heroes.
Eastern Ukrainians are always told they need to give up the past, so why can't these other people give up that past, which in most cases doesn't have anything to do with them?
Of course many Ukrainians I talk to swear up and down that Bandera and the OUN aren't really so popular in post-Maidan Ukraine- okay then, watch what happens when someone says people ought not to fly the flags and there shouldn't be memorials to the OUN and UPA. Suddenly the Bandera-cultists emerge from the woodwork, enraged. It's a lot like defenders of the Confederate flag in the US.
-Jim Kovpak , OUN
24 June 2015
Thoughtful and to the point!
-Bohdan Oryshkevich , Ukrainian exceptionalism