This Sunday, millions of men and women will go to the urns in Ukraine to exercise their civil right to vote for a new president. Opinion poll after opinion poll shows that the vast majority of Ukrainians throughout the country, including in the southeast where Russian intervention has sparked a violent separatist movement, wish to remain in Ukraine and want to take part in the election.
In the southeast, in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk where Russia sent troops and armed local criminals, turnout will be lower. The deft use of pro-Russian militias and television propaganda has led to a breakdown of public order and associated humanitarian crises in some cities in the southeast. The separatists are holding a number of public buildings and control television stations, and disrupt public business by (for example) stealing ballots and pensions. They have some public support, but nowhere near enough to establish a credible alternative to the central government. They can create insecurity but not security. Their only hope to stop elections is intimidation.
The stakes are high. In February, after weeks of peaceful protests, Ukrainians overthrew an authoritarian president who had illegally altered the constitution, stolen a huge portion of the state budget, criminalized peaceful public demonstrations, and presided over the murder of protesters. After he fled the country, the elected parliament chose a new government, which immediately called for a presidential election on May 25. This is needed to return to the country to political stability and to give all Ukrainians, whether they opposed the revolution or supported it, a chance to be heard.
Ukrainian elections also mark the eastern boundary of European democracy, which is why they are so threatening for the Putin regime in Moscow. With a regularity that is clearly unwelcome to the Russian leadership, Ukrainians stand up for their rights. The Russian Federation, which unlike Ukraine is not in any meaningful sense a democracy, has questioned the validity of the presidential election. Meanwhile, Russian propaganda quite effectively shrouds the real issues by shunning political discussion in favor of fantastic stories about a fascist takeover in Kiev.
A great deal of Russian media attention is devoted to the Ukrainian far right. There are indeed two far right candidates in this presidential election: Oleh Tyahnybok, the Svoboda party candidate, and Dmitry Yarosh of the Right Sector. They probably have higher name recognition in Russia and in the West, thanks to Russian propaganda, than Petro Poroshenko, the centrist chocolatier who is leading the polls. Each of the far right presidential candidates is polling at 1 percent. Electoral support for the far right in Ukraine, in other words, is by European standards extremely low: a comparison that will be easy to make after European parliamentary elections this Sunday, in which far right parties are expected to do well. And of course the far right is actually in power in Russia itself.
Moscow insists that the human rights of Russian speaking Ukrainians are being violated, and that this justifies its military intervention. This is ridiculous. The current prime minister of Ukraine is married to a native Russian speaker. The acting president of Ukraine is a Russian speaker. For that matter, both of the leading candidates for president in Ukraine, Poroshenko and Julia Tymoshenko, are themselves native speakers of Russian, and hail from the southeast of the country.
Ukraine is a bilingual country. Electoral posters are in both languages. Candidates switch from one language to another on political talk shows. The giant banners on government buildings that read “One Country” are in both languages. If you watch a soccer game on television you might notice that the man doing the play by play speaks Ukrainian while the man doing color speaks Russian: almost all Ukrainians understand both and most speak both. If you go to a coffee shop you might find a polite waitress who adjusts to the language she thinks you speak best. No country in Europe is more cosmopolitan than Ukraine in this respect.
People in the southeast of Ukraine certainly have legitimate political complaints, above all corruption, but language is simply not an issue. People in the southeast speak Russian all the time in all settings without hindrance, and the current government in Kiev, like the leading presidential candidates, has made it a point to assure people that they will continue to allow the use of Russian where people so desire. Barring a disaster, Ukraine will soon have a native speaker of Russian freely elected as its president. That is more than can said about the Russian Federation, where elections are faked. In Ukraine, people who speak Russian can seek political office without hindrance. That is simply not true in Russia.
By this point, Russian propaganda is so self-contradictory that it gives Orwellianism a bad name. Russia claims to be supporting democracy even though it has no free elections and is acting to hinder those of a neighbor. Moscow instructs the West, absurdly, that the Ukrainian government is fascist, while meanwhile supporting actual fascists in Europe and designing its own foreign policy along the traditional fascist program of protecting coethnics by military force, whether they want protection or not.
Russia has illegally invaded, occupied, and annexed the Crimean peninsula, the southernmost province of Ukraine. Last Sunday was the commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the murderous deportation of the Crimean Tatars, the native population of the peninsula, by the Soviet NKVD in 1944. I watched as Crimean Tatars, who are generally Russian speakers, held a dignified commemoration in Kiev. In Crimea, in their occupied homeland, they were prevented from doing so by Russian authorities. This is just one example, if an especially melancholy one, of how Russian speakers enjoy rights in Ukraine that they do not enjoy in Russia.
The Russian intervention in Ukraine has been justified by absurd lies. It is a shame that we lose so much time on them. Ukrainians deserve to have their presidential election discussed on its own terms rather than those imposed by violence and propaganda. The country has deep problems, which can best be addressed by new leaders emerging from fresh elections—the presidential ones on Sunday, and hopefully parliamentary elections this fall. Ukrainians should be allowed to get on with it.
This Sunday Ukrainians will probably vote in far greater numbers than we did in our last presidential elections, and for that they deserve our respect. Ukrainians who vote in the southeast, despite the threat of violence, deserve our admiration. We know a little something, in the United States, about the courage it takes to vote when the people with the guns do not want you to do so. Elections can be, as we should remember when we think of the recent history of the southeast of our own country, an occasion for simple human courage.
Timothy Snyder is Bird White Housum Professor of History at Yale University and IWM Permanent Fellow.
First published in The New York Review of Books, May 22, 2014.
© Author / The New York Review of Books