Earlier this month, in a small village in western Ukraine, a group of political pranksters gathered to declare self-government and fly the country’s yellow and blue national flag upside down as new symbol. The small group of misfits, led by a former plumber named Anatoly Balakhnin, has been ignored by most Ukrainians; only Radio Liberty reported on the meeting, noting that 10 people had attended. Yet across the border, in Russian media, the new group was declared an “alternative state” and presented as an example of how Ukraine was supposed to deal with “separatism issues” in its western regions.
It has been almost seven years since the Ukrainian revolution Maidan exhausted its pro-Russian president, and since the separatist republics of eastern Ukraine declared themselves independent from the governance of Kiev in a bloody war that continues to this day ‘hui. More than 13,000 people have died and nearly 1.5 million people have lost their homes since 2014. Russia has waged a propaganda campaign alongside its military campaign, to strengthen its power inside the former Soviet republic and foment dissent against those who would see Ukraine reunited with stronger ties to the West.
Part of that effort is to hang on to all traces of separatism and go bankrupt. As such, Balakhnin and his group of misfits in Verkhnya Rozhanka are the latest to be anointed as threats against Kiev by the pro-Kremlin media.
According to Yevgeny Kisilev, TV commentator in Kiev, the Russian media’s impression of the group was that of a large-scale separatist movement. He seemed to “create an image of Ukraine that is bursting at the seams, where everything is going wrong, where people want autonomy and federalization not only in [the breakaway regions of] Donetsk and Luhansk, but also in other regions, ”Kisilev told the Daily Beast on Tuesday.
For his part, the plumber Balakhnin told Strana.ua, an online media known for its pro-Russian views, that he had declared himself “President of the new Republic of Ukraine”. Although he denies being a separatist, he admits that he does not recognize any of the current state institutions. “We intend to develop our state, not to ruin it,” Balakhnin told the Daily Beast in a telephone interview Tuesday. He claims his Russian is not great but speaks it fluently; he says he still works as a plumber, shares “Republican views” and does not believe Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has the legal right to run the country. “I am not pro-Putin, I consider Putin a war criminal; I’m glad the Russian media got the word out about me, at least people are interested in knowing more about me and my supporters, ”he said, before noting that although he did recognize not the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), he met with his investigators, who approached him about his activities.
Ukrainian political observers and the press consider Balakhnin’s ideas – he seeks to “restore statehood” to Ukrainian landowners, among other things – strange and irrelevant. But the reaction of the pro-Kremlin media to the tiny movement is a vivid example of the challenges Ukraine faces as it tries to push forward its post-revolutionary overhaul of government. Granting greater autonomy to local governments is one such reform. The Russian media have taken hold of Balakhnin’s absurd political theater to present it as a risk of the country’s disintegration due to the reforms. “The reform of Ukrainian public administration has been one of the most successful and difficult for the state,” Graty media founder Anton Naumliuk told The Daily Beast.
As a young democracy, Ukraine faces an endless number of problems, and some of them have become more evident in the last months of the pandemic. Inevitably, the Ukrainian economy shrank, and the popularity of the country’s leader, former comedian Zelensky, declined with it.
Last year, Zelensky won the election with 73.2% of the vote, after promising people he would fight corruption and end the war with pro-Russian forces in the east. At the end of this year, less than 35% of Ukrainians trust Zelensky, but corruption fighters believe the president still has a chance to regain his popularity.
Ukrainian society is politically active and people have criticized the authorities in every region. Zelensky’s Servant of the People party failed to win even one mayoral race in a single major city in this fall’s local elections. Yet “what matters is that the local election process was completely transparent and fair and that is what people should understand about Ukraine,” Egor Sobolev, author of Ukraine, told The Daily Beast. Ukrainian anti-corruption legislation.
Ukraine today is more dependent on aid from the West than before the COVID-19 pandemic. “President Joe Biden must understand that Ukraine is a developing democracy. If in 2014 I knew all the activists in Kiev, today there are thousands of outspoken civic leaders fighting to improve the state, ”Sobolev told the Daily Beast. Together with a group of corruption fighters and IT specialists, Sobolev created a database for the banking system of all politically exposed persons and their assets abroad.
Earlier this month, Sobolev and his supporters joined a street protest against state corruption involving Deputy Chief of Presidential Staff Oleg Tatarov. “Thanks to the public movement, the court is now looking into the corruption of 3 million dollars [a] The property of the national guards, ”said Sobolev, citing the example to illustrate the real challenges for Ukraine. “Thanks to the public reaction, the Ukrainian court is now considering the case.”
Also earlier this month, Kiev, Moscow and Russian-backed separatists resumed talks on the exchange of prisoners and military withdrawal to the east of the war. (The Normandy-style four-party peace talks between Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine began in 2014.) Ukrainian leaders are hopeful that the Biden administration could play a role in the peace talks. Kiev’s goal is to restore control of the Ukrainian border, while Russia wants more autonomy for Donetsk and Luhansk – but so far the negotiation process has stalled.
Russian propagandists constantly mock President Zelensky and the desperation of the peace talks, calling Ukrainian negotiators “crazy” on Vesti, one of the most watched talk shows. The news about the new Ukrainian “separatist” movement gave some Russian media reason to rejoice: “It’s time for Zelensky to launch another counterterrorism operation,” Versia.ru said in the article on “the new State ‘in Western Ukraine.
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