Friday, March 14, 2014

The Truth is Out There, but Not in the Middle

This is the full, long, somewhat too sarcastic and personal version of an article of mine posted on Estonian Public Broadcasting's English-language page. It is a rebuttal to this opinion piece.

In all that is going on around Ukraine, the thing that bothers me most is the occupation of sovereign territory by the army of a country that borders my own, closely followed by the increasingly real possibility of a shooting war in Eastern Europe. But being worried about that is not particularly original or insightful; that opinion should, and has been, expressed by far more relevant people than me. What I can speak of is the public perception and public opinion regarding the events in Ukraine, and the idea, expressed by Ekaterina Taklaja, editor of ERR’s Russian service, that the truth is somewhere in between. It may be in between, but it is not in the middle.

I have been following the (misleadingly named) Euromaidan since the start, since late November – partially through the mainstream media, mostly Russian with some Estonian and English sources thrown in, but mainly through social networks. Full disclosure: I have friends in Kiev, people I personally know, people who were out in the square, protesting, from day one. Some of them are faces you might have seen in news clips that have gone viral (if you are a Russian-speaker). Others were just there, posting short Facebook messages to coordinate with others around the city, letting everyone know that they were heading out or that they’d returned safely. More importantly, as a native Russian-speaker with an interest in politics, I have a wealth of experience arguing on the Internet that goes back to before our own Bronze Soldier riots. My venue of choice has been a popular but very strictly moderated one, heavily policed against ad-hoc attacks and insults; in the process of luring my opponents into indefensible positions, I have developed the skill of calmly looking at what’s actually there, rather than what I expect to see. In this kind of situation, people will very frequently look at something fairly unambiguous, but perceive it as something quite different. What you are hearing is not my words, but the voice inside your own head.

This, I fear, has happened to Ekaterina Taklaja after too much exposure to Estonia’s tabloids and their comment threads – bad places to get an accurate gauge of broad public opinion at the best of times.
First, Taklaja believes that in Estonia, there can only be one opinion on Ukraine; that “Yanukovych is a scoundrel, Putin always lies and Savisaar is the main enemy of Estonian statehood. Those who doubt it, are traitors of the Estonian state.” This mixes three very different issues into one, and attempts to force you into accepting or dismissing them wholesale. If one is true, then all must be true, and if one is false, then all must be false, right?

Yanukovich is indeed a scoundrel. He is a convicted felon twice over; he is a superbly corrupt politician, who siphoned vast amounts of money from Ukraine’s state funds to the private fortunes of himself, his family, and his oligarch cronies. He is also an astoundingly terrible president. He attempted to hang on to power in the face of dwindling popularity by dangling the carrot of an EU association agreement for something like a year, then arbitrarily decided against it; when a bunch of students and middle-class Kievans protested, he unnecessarily sent in the riot police against them (remember, the original 2004 Maidan involved no violence at all), sparking much more serious outrage. Even then he could have stepped back from the brink: after negotiating billions in loans from Russia, there was every chance that the Maidan would eventually disperse, and with the immediate economic crisis averted, those unhappy with him could have convinced themselves to wait until the presidential elections scheduled for 2015. With a year to prepare, Yanukovich could have either built up his popularity again, or taken the money and gone off to his own private island somewhere – all very back-room diplomatic, with the blessing of EU leaders. Instead he reacted with violence, leading to an escalation on both sides that claimed the lives of nearly a hundred people, then fled the country. Yes, the leaders of the 2004 Maidan also turned out to be unpleasant characters; that does not make Yanukovich less of a scoundrel.

Putin does not always lie, although he sometimes seems out of touch with what’s going on in his own country. He has concentrated ultimate power within Russia in his own hands; nobody can stand up to him; he is surrounded by people who owe their fortunes to him on the one hand, and are justifiably terrified of his wrath on the other. Like many dictators, he probably exists in a bubble of things he wants to hear. He did not create that aspect of the Russian mentality that considers the West weak and decadent and tainted, even if he has used and amplified it to great effect. And when he says out loud that the “little green men” in Crimea are not Russian soldiers, this lie is so blatant as to not be deception, but political doublespeak befitting a world leader. Absolutely everyone can read between the lines, even his own supporters, and those dumb enough to earnestly believe in the propaganda of Russian state media have nobody to blame but themselves.
Savisaar is not necessarily the enemy of Estonian statehood, he is simply very bad for the country. Ever since he was caught just as he was about to take money from the head of the Russian state railway, he has been lambasted in the media – traditional and social – for entirely domestic policies. Savisaar’s myopic populism does not have to coincide with Russia’s official position to cause outrage among those who care about Estonia’s well-being beyond the intensely personal issues of free public transport and a grocery store subsidized by taxes on someone else’s earnings. The mayor of Tallinn is perfectly capable of coming up with outrageously terrible ideas all on his own. It is his desire to take any position that is the opposite of the ruling government’s that leads him to spew the Kremlin’s propaganda. I don’t actually think Savisaar is an idiot, but to Putin, he is a useful one.

Savisaar’s statement that Ukraine’s new leadership is a bunch of illegitimate thugs is very easy to refute with facts – they are elected members of parliament, acting in lieu of the absconded president, and one of their first actions was to call new presidential elections as swiftly as reasonable. (I remain available to answer Taklaja’s queries in regard to whether I have stopped beating my wife yet.) In our democratic state, Savisaar is entirely free to express his opinion without being beaten up – unlike in Yanukovich’s Kiev – but he is the leader of a major political party, and an opinion he expresses on the record in an interview with a journalist is absolutely something for which he can be called to task by the people whom he invites to vote for him. Unlike, say, the remark of Foreign Minister Paet in an off-the-record phone conversation, where he does not express that Estonia’s official position is counter to reality, but in fact mentions a disturbing rumor he’s heard and encourages his colleague to investigate it. (A rumor since dispelled by the very person Paet says mentioned it to him.) Taklaja’s reaction to the tape mirrors that of many people in both traditional and social media, and it is the best example yet of what I mentioned earlier – listening to one thing and hearing another. Anyway, Paet has been condemned for his unfortunate, if private, rumor-mongering – he would have been a front-runner for the Prime Minister’s seat if the tape had not leaked.

Those who disagree with the majority opinions are not traitors to the Estonian state unless they are desperately looking for someone to say they are, so that they can feel the moral satisfaction of being persecuted without any of the practical inconveniences. This I say to Ekaterina Taklaja, in rebuttal to her article published in Estonia’s state-controlled media outlet.

Incidentally, if there has not been much demand in the media for the opinions of general Laaneots, then I wonder how Taklaja happened upon them. Were they dropped off at her desk, but refused publication by the traitor-seeking censors of ERR?

As for her counterparts she lists in Russia – well; has been gutted through the replacement of the editor-in-chief by a corporate spin doctor prized for his affiliations with the Kremlin, and that publication’s entire editorial staff is looking for new jobs. TV Rain (Dožd) was cut off by scared cable operators a few months before, on the pretense of an insult to the nation (a poll of viewers’ opinions on whether it was not better, in World War II, to surrender Leningrad rather than subject its population to the hardships of the legendary blockade); and is run out of Israel. Since Taklaja’s article was written, the Russian authorities have gone ahead with measures to block any website critical of Putin or Russia’s actions in Ukraine, including both news outlets and private blogs platforms. Echo of Moscow, which takes care to offer air time to pro-Putin pundits, is still ticking over, but its parent company is a division of Gazprom, and it exists entirely on the sufferance of the Kremlin. Don’t change the channel, we’ll be right back; or not.
Yes, there are uncomfortable facts about Maidan. It started out as a peaceful protest, but in the face of riot police, it called on anyone who had a fighting spirit, including football hooligans and far-right groups (although independent Ukraine’s history of racial intolerance is barely a blip compared to Russia’s own; possibly because there just aren’t very many people living there who don’t look interchangeably Slavic). Yes, when a protest turns to a melee, people will get hurt, and disarmed riot policemen will not always be treated well (although they have been treated so in a surprising majority of cases). Yes, the opposition bigwigs who formed the new leadership of Ukraine have murky pasts and occasionally still make bad or corrupt decisions, but let’s not forget that none of this seemed even remotely plausible six months ago. Remember the early 90s in Estonia? How long did it take us to go from independence to stability and a genuine rule of law? People born in independent Estonia are legitimately having children of their own these days, and we’d still rather support a Prime Ministerial candidate who used to be in the Communist Youth than a young and unproven one.

Taklaja dislikes that Estonia’s homogenized public opinion Ukraine lacks alternative options, and then dislikes that Estonian traditional media turn to Ukrainians living here for comments on the political situation. I find that to be a practical alternative option to leaving all the column inches and screen time to professional talking heads. Political scientists and think tank regulars may offer well-researched background information, but when it comes to a popular uprising, citizens are indeed legitimate experts on the situation, especially ones who dare to speak publicly on it. Taklaja knows a lot about what democracy isn’t; here’s something that democracy is.

I agree that there is a sense of fakeness in us putting Ukrainian flag colors on our userpics. You know those little Estonian flags that you can jam in car windows? I bought one, for road trips and rental cars abroad. Using it inside Estonia proper is gaudy, I think. I helped out a band with translating the lyrics for a patriotic song from Ukrainian/Estonian into English, and couldn’t bring myself to sign off an email with “Glory to heroes”, the shibboleth of the Maidan, because I felt like I had no right to use it. But that’s a matter of personal taste, and I won’t condemn anyone for feeling otherwise. I am reminded of an old book, where the general of one side in a civil war tells his troops to remove his family insignia from their uniforms: “Let the traitors mark themselves as something different; we fly the colors of our country.” I would much sooner fly the blue and yellow of Ukraine than the black and orange of the (misnamed) ribbon of St. George.
We do not believe Ukraine is a democratic country with no corruption; the point, Ms Taklaja, is exactly that it isn’t and hasn’t been – but now it has the chance to be. We do not know if the new Ukrainian government can be trusted, but we are impressed by the fact that the Maidan protesters haven’t the least intention of trusting it; they intend to verify, to monitor and control the new government, and in the social media that I read in Russian, there have been calls for the metaphorical head of this or that new official for inexplicable actions, even while one might expect the people to place their implicit and full faith in the government until the foreign invasion has been repelled.

And if alternative options and opinions are called for, then here is one: Crimea may have gotten its greater autonomy, its language law guarantees, and perhaps eventually even its independence through negotiations with a new Ukrainian government, one which was answerable to its people and committed to improving the fortunes of the entire country, rather than their own. In a lawful Ukraine, the already autonomous Crimea could have easily gone the way of Scotland (or at least Pakistan), and who’s to say that Kiev, eager for NATO membership, would not have ceded the peninsula as a way to resolve with one move the headache of having a huge foreign military base on its territory? I’m not intrinsically troubled by the idea of a Crimean referendum – as long as it is conducted without “little green men” patrolling the streets, without the beatings of opposition activists, and without turning away OSCE monitors with gunfire. I am writing this on March 14th, and I have a bottle of excellent Scottish whisky here that I am willing to bet on this Sunday’s referendum being called in Russia’s favor. Any takers?

A conflict is usually not black and white, but it very rarely 50% greyscale. Taklaja’s position is an easy and safe one to take, especially for a journalist who is trained to value balanced reporting. But it is also an easy path to a logical fallacy, that if two sharply conflicting opinions exist, then they are equidistant from the truth. The truth is indeed out there, but it is rarely in the middle. To quote an overly emotional wording that’s been going around the Russian-speaking social media in the last few days, some people believe the Holocaust happened, and some people believe that Jews drink the blood of Christian babies; and guess what? The truth is not somewhere half way.

1 comment:

Karla said...

Brilliant, Andrei, and that's not an assessment that lends itself to gray-scaling.


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