Ukraine's Donbass and Jim Crow -- A Poor Analogy

Two pro-Russian rebels guard the road near the airport of Donetsk, with a destroyed bridge in the background, eastern Ukraine
Two pro-Russian rebels guard the road near the airport of Donetsk, with a destroyed bridge in the background, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015. Ukrainian soldiers took up duties Tuesday at the Donetsk Airport, scene of some of the fiercest fighting in eastern Ukraine. The 50 soldiers in a convoy of four trucks were provided safe passage to the airport by rebel forces, who gave them gifts in celebration of Orthodox Christmas. (AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov)

In his WorldPost essay titled "Ukraine's Donbas Is Like America's Deep South," Dr. Alexander Motyl presents the reader with a depiction of the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk (Donbass) and Crimea and concludes that their people have "proven to be the most reactionary, intolerant and illiberal population within Ukraine." The piece compares eastern Ukrainians oppressing other Ukrainians much like Southern whites had done to African-Americans during Jim Crow.

That's quite a statement. The Jim Crow South was segregation, systemic denial of access to judicial and voting systems, and lynching -- outright murder based on race. According to Dr. Motyl's analogy, those or similar conditions is what life was like for ethnic Ukrainians in modern Donbass and Crimea.

One would expect a claim of such horrid abuse to be supported with ample evidence from a watchdog organization such as Amnesty International. It's not. Amnesty's 2007 report on Ukraine documents instances of attacks on Jews, Roma, and asylum seekers and migrant workers from Africa and Asia, yet fails to mention the widespread anti-Ukrainian apartheid implied by Dr. Motyl. But that was 2007. According to Dr. Motyl, "from 2010 to 2014, Ukraine's Jim Crow South captured Kiev and began extending its norms to all of Ukraine." Surely Amnesty's 2011 report would take note of a horrendous system of persecution fanning out of the east and throughout the country. It doesn't.

What does the essay use to convince the reader? For starters, it informs us that "the Crimea and the Donbas witnessed the absolute hegemony of Russian language and culture. School instruction was largely in Russian; the media -- whether books, magazines, newspapers, television or radio -- were also overwhelmingly in Russian."

That is correct: eastern Ukraine -- a land where the vast majority of the population speaks Russian as its native and primary tongue -- has an overabundance of Russian schools and newspapers. A similar situation can be found in Canada's French-speaking province of Quebec, whose reactionary, intolerant and illiberal French-speaking population has the gall to inundate their French-speaking region with the French language that nearly everyone there speaks. It can also be found in most Chinatowns, or Little Koreas, or pretty much most linguistic enclaves in America.

But the fact that a dense concentration of people who speak a certain language leads to news and services being provided in that same language doesn't form the core of Dr. Motyl's argument for eastern Ukrainians being oppressive bigots. That is illustrated by a conversation he had with....some guy. He devotes a paragraph recreating the experience of meeting a reactionary anti-Ukrainian Russian nationalist who was spewing anti-Ukrainian venom in Kiev in 1994.

Using an anecdotal conversation with one nameless individual to paint an entire region with millions of people as "the most reactionary, intolerant and illiberal population within Ukraine," is not a particularly good -- or scholarly -- idea. In fact, that's exactly what Russian president Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin media have done. A small, albeit vocal minority of the Maidan movement is composed of ultra-nationalists who use disturbing rhetoric and Nazi insignia. Mr. Putin and the Moscow media had capitalized on the existence of that minority, using it to demonize all of western Ukraine as one big goose-stepping Nazi fest and justify their takeover of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine by calling it an anti-Nazi crusade. Mr. Putin pointed a narrow and highly-selective version of the truth westward; Dr. Motyl's essay aims it east.

Recent reports from journalists on the ground in Donbass describe a region where some inhabitants are bitter, some terrified, some radicalized, some mourning, some determined, many confused, and most nervous.* It's what one would expect from people who had endured a horrible year in the midst of a horrible war. The overwhelming majority of eastern Ukrainians currently trapped in brutal winter conditions between separatist thugs and the Ukrainian army aren't Ku Klux Klan members, or fat cat bigots who delight in oppressing their ethnic Ukrainian neighbors. They are coal miners and steelworkers and children and pensioners. They are people who've watched their lives be shelled into oblivion by both Kiev's army and paramilitary brigades and Putin's warlords, and who are now isolated in what Amnesty and the UN describe as an unfolding humanitarian crisis. Painting them as a bunch of backward anti-Western hicks is neither progressive, nor tolerant, nor liberal, nor accurate.

Dr. Motyl concludes that Donbass is so steeped in iniquity that Kiev is best off dumping it and moving on. That suggestion is not grounded in reality. If Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko were to announce that he is giving Donbass to Russia, he and his party would be deposed within a week. There is no way the Ukrainian population would tolerate their leaders caving to Russian aggression by letting Moscow have a significant chunk of Ukraine's territory. Likewise, it is impossible to imagine that the EU and Washington, which have invested considerable resources and reputation by standing up to Moscow, would allow Mr. Putin to throw his weight around Eastern Europe with little to no consequences.

There are numerous factors and several possible outcomes for Donbass' fate, but for the immediate future, any talks on the matter must focus on the humanitarian crisis gripping the region. The international community must heed the warnings of Amnesty International and the UN and apply pressure on all actors to bring immediate aid to the civilians trapped in Donbass. Lethal winter conditions and lack of access to electricity, food, and fuel aren't interested in online polemics; they aren't going to wait for the next summit to sort things out. The people of Donbass need help now. Everything else can wait.

Fighting in Ukraine