Saturday, April 04, 2015

Russian Propaganda In Ukraine

MUKACHEVE, Ukraine -- Tucked away behind the Carpathian mountains, Ukraine’s Transcarpathian region has its share of problems.

Hungarian-Ukrainian politician Laszlo Brenzovics points out Transcarpathia.

Ethnic separatism is not among the major ones.

Nonetheless, this remote region's Ruthenian and ethnic-Hungarian communities have become a target for Russian propaganda aimed at dividing Ukrainian society.

In mid-March Ukrainian news outlets reprinted a report that organisations of Transcarpathia's Ruthenes (a small Slavic ethnic group scattered across Ukraine, Slovakia and Poland) had held a congress “demanding recognition of their national identity and autonomy of their land”.

It turned out that the congress had been made up out of whole cloth by TASS, the Russian news agency.

It was a postmodern tactic that might have been appreciated by the art world's most famous ethnic Ruthene, Andy Warhol.

In Transcarpathia itself, the fake news caused a stir at the Ruthenian House in Mukacheve, a town just south of the Carpathians.

Local Ruthenes say that Petro Getsko, a “Ruthenian leader” quoted by TASS who calls himself the “prime minister of Subcarpathian Rus”, has not been seen in Transcarpathia for several years.

Getsko, who is a wanted man in Ukraine, is believed to be in Russia.

“Russia is trying to play the Ruthenian card in Transcarpathia,” says Ievgen Zhupan, head doctor at the regional children’s hospital in Mukacheve and chairman of the People’s Council of the Ruthenes of Transcarpathia, an umbrella organisation of civic groups.

Mr Zhupan no longer gives interviews to Russian media, who he says have manipulated his statements in the past.

In fact Ukraine’s Ruthenian organisations are keeping their demands modest.

In January several of them issued a statement expressing their support for Ukraine’s path to democratisation and European integration.

Their most far-reaching request was to reinstate Ruthenian as an official ethnic category in Ukraine (it was scrapped under the Soviet regime).

There is more tension over the status of Ukraine's 156,000 ethnic Hungarians, but it mainly emanates from outside of Ukraine.

Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister and one of Vladimir Putin's better friends in Europe, has repeatedly called for autonomy for Hungarian-Ukrainians.

Orban has found something of an ally in Laszlo Brenzovics, head of the Hungarian Cultural Association of Transcarpathia (KMKSZ) and a member of Ukraine's parliament, where he represents the party of president Petro Poroshenko.

But Mr Brenzovics has never gone as far as Jobbik, Hungary’s far-right party, which calls Ukraine's crisis an opportunity to “finally resolve the situation of Transcarpathian Hungarians”.

The epicentre of Hungarian culture in Ukraine is Berehove, a city of 24,000 near the border that was only incorporated into Ukraine in 1945.

Hundreds of red, white and green flags flutter on monuments.

Street signs are bilingual, and Hungarian can be used for some administrative purposes (a benefit of Ukraine's 2012 law on regional languages).

Many locals have taken advantage of a simplified naturalisation procedure to gain Hungarian citizenship, which Orban and his Fidesz party introduced in 2010.

From its headquarters in nearby Uzhhorod, the KMKSZ has hinted at sympathy towards pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine's east.

It urges a peaceful solution to the conflict and calls for greater minority rights and the creation of administrative units along ethnic lines.

Mr Brenzovics has also taken up the popular cause of opposition to military mobilisation; Ukraine should not send “a country lad or father from the village” to a war zone, he says.

This is still a far cry from Jobbik, which denounces “Kiev's puppet government" and claims it "serves the interests of Atlantic powers”.

Of course, many Ukrainians are resentful of the draft, not to mention the country's entrenched corruption and deteriorating economy.

What sets Hungarian-Ukrainians apart is the ability to express their discontent in ethnic terms, and the presence of a neighbouring government interested in exploiting it.

On the Hungarian side, the Transcarpathian cause presents a chance for the ultranationalists of Jobbik to take a jab at Fidesz.

Orban will continue to play this political game, but he has no interest in provoking violence.

As for the Ruthenes, they have no outside sponsor trying to foment separatism.

The political theorist Benedict Anderson famously referred to nation-states as "imagined communities".

But some such communities are more imagined than others.

If the Russian press wants to find significant ethnic separatist movements in Transcarpathian Ukraine, it will have to keep inventing them.

Source: The Economist

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