Ukraine’s newest war

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As if the occupation by Russia of Crimea and the on-going war in eastern Ukraine were not enough.

Actually, there was no war in Crimea, because Ukraine’s transitional government in the spring of 2014 gave up the peninsula without a fight. As for the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, there is officially no war, because under political pressure from the international community the conflict is designated as an Anti-Terrorist Operation, or ATO. Call it what you will. The fact is that separatist military groups in the east have declared two “independent” republics and waged war, with military assistance from Russia, against Ukraine. The result so far has been upwards of 10,000 casualties inflicted upon the Ukrainian army and the displacement of over two million innocent residents from the east who find themselves as refugees throughout various parts of Ukraine.

And now there is Ukraine’s newest war, this one against its own citizens in the far western region of the country known as Transcarpathia. Here, too, what to call the situation is problematic. There is no war in the sense of armed soldiers or para-military groups shooting against one another. Nor is the “war” new. What there is in Transcarpathia is an ideological struggle that has been going on since 1991, from the very outset of Ukraine’s life as an independent state. At the very least the struggle has all the hallmarks of what is known elsewhere as a violation of human rights.

Traditionally, the Slavic inhabitants of Transcarpathia have always called themselves Carpatho-Rusyns, or simply Rusyns. They number about 800,000, or two-thirds of the region’s population. Aside from their ancestral name, virtually all identify themselves as citizens of Ukraine, while a certain number consider themselves to be a distinct people or national minority with their own language and culture that is related to, but nonetheless different from, Ukrainian. This makes Carpatho-Rusyns similar to 22 percent of the inhabitants of multinational Ukraine who belong to various national minorities. In other words, the country includes among its population Ukrainians of Russian background, Ukrainians of Polish background, Ukrainians of Crimean Tatar background, among numerous others, including Ukrainians of Hungarian background and Ukrainians of Carpatho-Rusyn background who live in Transcarpathia.

Carpatho-Rusyns differ, however, from Ukraine’s other national minorities in one important respect. Ukraine’s authorities refuse to recognize them as a distinct people. Such views date from at least the late nineteenth century, when Ukrainian national activists, in the absence of their own state, sought to define who were ethnic Ukrainians and where did they live. As for Carpatho-Rusyns, regardless of what they thought about themselves, Ukrainian national ideologists declared them to be Ukrainian. That they may have called themselves something else made no difference, since the ethnonym Rusyn was proclaimed to be an older name for Ukrainian.

The Ukrainian nationalist viewpoint was adopted by the new Soviet regime already in the early 1920s and, when the Transcarpathian region was annexed to the Soviet Union in 1945, the Stalinist authoritarian regime in power at the time banned the Carpatho-Rusyn nationality and language. For good measure, the Soviets pressured neighboring post-World War II Communist countries—Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Romania—to impose the same Ukrainian identity policy among Carpatho-Rusyns living in those states.

Independent Ukraine has since 1991 continued the nationality policy of its Soviet predecessor. Government policy-makers in Kyiv, backed by Ukrainian academic and intellectual circles, deny that Carpatho-Rusyns exist, despite the fact that neighboring post-Communist countries in the European Union—Slovakia, Poland, Romania, and Hungary—all recognize Rusyns/Carpatho-Rusyns as a distinct nationality and provide financial support for their cultural and educational activity.

The ironies of history seem never to end. In the nineteenth century, when much of Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire, the tsarist regime dismissed any thought of a distinct Ukrainian people by decreeing that “a Little Russian [Ukrainian] language has not, does not, and cannot exist.” After over a century of struggle, Ukrainians overcame the restrictions which denied their very existence. Now, with their own state, Ukraine’s government and legislature pursue a policy that reflects what the country’s political pundit frequently repeat in the press: “that a Carpatho-Rusyn language and identity has not, does not, and cannot exist.”

What form has Ukraine’s struggle against Carpatho-Rusyns taken? Already in 1994 the central government in Kyiv set the tone by issuing a Soviet style 10-point Plan to undermine all efforts at home—and in Ukraine’s “near abroad”—that promoted the idea of Carpatho-Rusyn national and cultural distinctiveness.

And what has been the response of Carpatho-Rusyns? Since 1991, a few activists have issued political proclamations, but for the most part Carpatho-Rusyn activity has been cultural in nature. Most importantly, there has never been physical violence of any kind.

Since 2014, as Ukraine has become frustrated over its loss of Crimea and the stalemate in its war with Russian-backed separatists in the east, the struggle against peaceful Carpatho-Rusyns in Transcarpathia has intensified. In 2016, a request was submitted to Ukraine’s Ministry of Education to introduce Rusyn language and culture courses into the elementary school curriculum in Transcarpathia. The government’s response? To ignore the request and do nothing.

At the same time another request was made to the Ministry of Education to create a Department of Carpatho-Rusyn Studies in the Faculty of History at Transcarpathia’s Uzhhorod National University. The response? In late 2016, the university abolished the Faculty of History, thereby putting its alleged pro-Rusyn chairman (Associate Professor Volodymyr Fenych) out of a job. The “restructuring” took place after the university’s president (rector) requested advice from the Institute of Ukrainian History at the National Academy of Sciences in Kyiv. The academy’s Historical Institute cooperated by preparing a “scholarly” assessment about a recent small historical book by Professor Fenych. The assessment was little more than a denunciation (donos) which said nothing about the book, but much about the “danger” of a departmental head like Professor Fenych who should not be allowed to infect students at the state university with separatist ideas.

As in Soviet times, when totalitarian Communist ideologues reveled in denouncing “enemies of the people,” “kulaks,” “bourgeois nationalists,” and “fascists,” so too does present-day Ukraine continue the well-worn tradition of false accusation through labeling. For nearly two decades since 1991, anyone promoting the idea of Carpatho-Rusyn cultural distinctiveness was marked as trafficking in what was called “political Rusynism” (politychne rusynstvo). Since 2014 any person suspected of such activity is labelled a “Rusyn separatist” and placed in the same category as the pro-Russian separatists fighting a war against Ukraine in the east.

Even such benign activity as the publication of a book can be transformed into an act of separatism that is viewed as bordering on treason during a time of war. All it takes is a denunciatory accusation in the media by a Ukrainian “patriotic” writer who is obsessed with combating an imaginary enemy: so-called Rusyn separatism. The writer in question is from Transcarpathia, Oleksandr Havrosh (ironically a contributor to the US-funded Ukrainian-language Radio Liberty Program in Prague). The book in question is Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence by Paul Robert Magocsi and Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern (ironically both of whom are US citizens). The book has nothing to do with Carpatho-Rusyns, “separatist” or otherwise, although one of the co-authors (Magocsi) is at times accused, most especially by O. Havrosh, of being an anti-Ukrainian, Rusyn separatist.

It makes no difference to self-styled Ukrainian national extremists that both authors are world renowned specialists in Ukrainian and Jewish history and culture, that the book won a prestigious award at the country’s leading Book Forum in L’viv 2016, that Ukraine’s President Poroshenko requested a personal copy of the book at the Kyiv Book Fair 2017, and that Ukraine’s Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroisman proudly presented the book to his counterpart during a recent visit to Israel.

None of this matters if one is determined to denounce “Rusyn separatism.” The most recent occasion to do so was at a public presentation of the book on September 1 in Transcarpathia’s administrative center, Uzhhorod. Among the presenters was one of the co-authors (Magocsi), the publisher of the Ukrainian-language edition (V. Padiak), and none other than the former chairman of Uzhhorod University’s History Department who was recently “relieved” of his job (V. Fenych).

And what was the response of Ukraine’s authorities to the one-person pseudo-nationalist denunciation of the event? The office of Transcarpathia’s governor Hennadii Moskal (an appointee of the country’s president) issued instructions to forbid the event from being held at the Regional Library or at any other state-owned institution. The event nevertheless did take place at a local hotel in the presence of numerous Jewish and non-Jewish community activists, the press, university faculty, and one self-proclaimed nationalist who tried, unsuccessfully, to disrupt the proceedings.

The opponents of Carpatho-Rusyns remained undeterred. The office of the regional governor issued orders to the local state-run television station (Tysa 1) that it lift from its Rusyn Program the report on the otherwise successful event. The governor’s office also forced the Transcarpathian Regional Library to end all publication commitments with the publisher of  Jews and Ukrainians, V. Padiak, accusing him of Rusyn separatist propaganda.

What then, is the next step in Ukraine’s war against its own loyal Carpatho-Rusyn citizens, many of whom (especially in the 128th Mukachevo Brigade) are fighting bravely—and dying—in the war in eastern Ukraine? Close down publishing houses and television programs after labelling them as separatist? Deface or tear down statues of historic Carpatho-Rusyn cultural activists? Or, as Franko did in the 1930s to the Catalans, ban the very name Rusyn from being uttered in public?

Undoubtedly, Ukraine has since 2014 been subjected to unjustified aggression by its northern neighbor Russia in cooperation with that country’s separatist allies and proxies in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. In its just struggle for national survival, Ukraine has received and expects to receive more aid from the West. But should the West continue to support a Ukraine that itself allows a war to go on against the peaceful efforts of the Carpatho-Rusyns of Transcarpathia to assure their national survival within their own country—Ukraine?

Author: Sanford White

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