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Tuesday 13 October 2015

Backgrounder: Russia and the Ukraine

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 22nd March 2014

Thankfully, Putin kept his shirt on this time...
Russia's maladies need no introduction to our readers, but what about its currently embattled western neighbour, the Ukraine? How might the current crisis affect LGBT inhabitants of both nations?

In the case of Russia, its recent lamentable history can be easily summarised. After the collapse and fragmentation of the former Soviet Union in 1991, Russia found itself in a difficult situation. As well as having to deal with the development and introduction of new democratic political institutions, it also had to deal with the abandonment of communism in Eastern Europe, the accelerated industrialisation and technological development of China, outdated industrial and productive technology, no guaranteed markets for its low quality products, an oil glut and food and medical shortages. As a consequence, crime, suicide, malnutrition, starvation, unemployment, alcoholism, drug abuse, homelessness and destitution escalated under the hapless tenure of Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first democratically elected president. As if that wasn't enough, Russia faced the humiliation of its loss of superpower status. Under such circumstances, many Russians turned their backs on substantive democratic processes and when Yeltsin appointed ex-KGB Colonel and former St. Petersburg local bureaucrat and politician Vladimir Putin as his successor in 2000, many Russians breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Putin proved to be a shrewd and sophisticated political operative, and rapidly formed his puppet political party, United Russia, to rubber stamp his (imperial) executive decisions. United Russia now dominates the Duma, Russia's national legislature. He also forged strong relationships with the chief executives of Russia's newly privatised industries, as well as the Russian Orthodox Church as its property portfolio expanded and it underwent a significant religious revival. Putin also exercises stringent media censorship and strict news content control, compromising media freedom. He has also been the beneficiary of an international oil revenue rise and consequent Russian economic recovery. However, not everything has gone his way. Russia might have intervened in Georgia in 2004, but it has not been quite so lucky in Chechnya, where rebel Islamists have resisted its occupation and undoubted military repression since the onset of the Second Chechen War in 1999. Although Russia pulled out most of its troops in 2009, terrorist 'black widow' attacks still occur sporadically in Moscow and other Russian cities as the wives, daughters and sisters of male combatants killed in the uprising take their revenge against their tormentors. Sadly, this often involves Russian civilians.

As a diversionary tactic to its military impasse in Chechnya and increasing problems with diminishing international oil revenues, Putin has pandered to Russian Orthodox homophobia and religious sectarianism and introduced legislation that censors positive educational and youth health information about sexual orientation and gender identity about LGBT fellow citizens through educational institutions and the mass media. As if that wasn't enough, the regime turns a blind eye to homophobic and transphobic violence, persecution and murder by Russian neofascists and others. Sickeningly, Russian Orthodox priests have even been witnessed providing religious blessings to neofascists, white supremacists and other perpetrators of religious, racist, homophobic and transphobic violence and homicide. Unfortunately, Russia still retains enough power to make the lives of its LGBT citizens miserable.

But while Russia is still a formidable economic and military power in Europe and Central Asia, what about the neighbouring Ukraine, a former constituent state of the Tsarist Russian Empire and Soviet Union?

After periods under Polish, Lithuanian, Mongol and Ottoman Empire control, Russian Tsar Peter the Great annexed much of the territory today recognised as the Ukraine in 1775, followed by the Crimea in 1783. When the Tsarist Empire fell in 1917, there were numerous Ukrainian secession attempts over the next three years of the Russian Civil War (1917-20), but to no avail. The next twenty years were grim ones as Ukraine's agricultural economy underwent forced agricultural collectivisation, crop failure, famine, starvation and Nazi occupation (1941-1945). Thereafter, the Ukraine derived some benefit from ongoing industrialisation and economic development, until the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown occurred in 1986. The tragedy has cost a conservatively estimated five thousand deaths from continuing radiation poisoning and environmental contamination in the Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus. Some estimates go as high as several hundred thousand, although these are unconfirmed, given that they occurred during the Soviet era of intensive media censorship and official secrecy.

In 1991, Ukraine seceded from the collapsing Soviet Union. Unfortunately, as with neighbouring Russia, it was ill-prepared for the loss of captive former Soviet industrial goods markets, along with the continuing health nightmare from the Chernobyl tragedy, leading to its own steep GDP decline and the consequent rise of political corruption and electoral fraud within its fledgeling democratic institutions. While initial Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk (1991-1994) seemed to be an ethical person, corruption set in during the time of his successor Leonid Kuchma (1994-2005), relieved by the reformist and nonviolent "Orange Revolution" against government corruption, led by Viktor Yuschenko and Yulia Tymoshenko. Unfortunately, their successor, Viktor Yanokovych proved as corrupt as Kuchma had and imprisoned Tymoshenko after a farcical kangaroo court trial. In 2008, the global economic crisis hit the Ukraine hard, not helped by the gas pipeline crisis engineered by the neighbouring Putin regime in Russia. Under conditions of electoral fraud, Yanukovych "won" the Ukrainian 2010 election, and civil society rapidly polarised. This occurred due to deep ethnic and religious divisions within the Ukraine itself. While over three quarters of its population are Ukrainian, seventeen percent are Russian speakers. While Yanukovych and his puppets wanted the Ukraine to join a Russian led Customs Union that also includes Georgia and Kazakhstan, Yulia Tymoshenko and most Ukrainian speakers are active proponents of closer European Union ties and want prospective membership. In November 2013, Kiev saw fiery protests over abandonment of an EU association treaty in favour of Yanukovych's Customs Union trade pact. In January 2014, draconian anti-protest legislation antagonised anti-Yanukovych protestors further, but they maintained and intensified their protests. By late February, Yanukovych's regime collapsed, Tymoshenko was released from prison...and ethnic Russians began to agitate against the new government.

The Crimea is ethnically distinct from the rest of the Ukraine, with which it exists uneasily, given that it has long been the site of successive Russian and Soviet Black Sea fleets and naval installations. It has been an autonomous republic, although the Ukraine cracked down on what it considered 'excessive' autonomy in 1995 and arranged a new constitution for the peninsula. Since then, there have been periodic clashes between Russia and the Ukraine over the presence of the Russian Black Sea fleet and its naval installation there. Tensions escalated in 2008-9, with suspicions of Russian annexation plans in Kiev. These tensions diminished during the Yanukovych era, until the events of February 2014 and the fall of Yanukovych and his corrupt cronies. Since then, Russia has moved into the Crimea and virtually annexed it since March 1, 2014.

What about LGBT Ukrainians? Like neighbouring Russia, the Ukraine decriminalised male homosexuality in 1991. However, it is still a conservative and religious nation, dominated by the Ukrainian Orthodox and Greek Catholic Churches. That said, it is not as bad as neighbouring Russia in other ways. Pride marches have not been suppressed, nor has censorious and repressive "anti-propaganda" legislation been passed in Kiev's Parliament, although sporadic episodes of neofascist assaults on LGBT Ukrainians still occur. Oddly enough, some neofascists opposed the Yanukovych regime, although others supported it. Russia is widely suspected of covertly funding the pro-Yanukovych elements.

At present, Russia seems to have permanently annexed the Crimea. Whether it will now move on to attack Ukraine in support of ethnic Russian Ukrainians is uncertain.

Ben Judah: Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love With Vladimir Putin: New Haven: Yale University Press: 2013.
Verena Fitz: State Building: A Comparative Study of Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus and Russia: Budapest: Central European University Press: 2007.
Daniel Smilov: Political Finance and Corruption in Eastern Europe: The Transition Period: Aldershot: Ashgate: 2007.
Dominique Arel: Rebounding Identities: The Politics of Identity in Russia and the Ukraine: Washington DC: John Hopkins University Press: 2007.
Adrian Gruelke: Challenges of Ethno-Nationalism: Case Studies in Identity Politics: Basingstoke: Palgrave: 2010.
Paul J. D'Anieri: The Orange Revolution and Aftermath: Mobilisation, Apathy and State in the Ukraine: Washington DC: John Hopkins University Press: 2010.
Masha Gessen: The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin: New York: Riverhead: 2013
Thane Gustafson: The Wheel of Fortune: The Battle for Oil and Power in Russia: Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: 2012.
Marcel van Harpen: Putinism: The Slow Rise of a Radical Right Regime in Russia: Houndmills: Palgrave: 2013.

Craig Young - 22nd March 2014

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