Ukraine Briefing: The View from Odessa

August 11, 2014

On Thursday, July 31, Nicolai Petro – Russian history expert and professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island – spoke at CGI on his experiences living in Odessa through the Ukrainian crisis. As a personal witness to the dramatic events in Ukraine in the past 12 months, he provided his perspectives on the Maidan protest movement, the annexation of Crimea, the election of President Poroshenko, and the tragic burning of the Odessa trade union building.

Following his year-long Fulbright fellowship in Odessa, Petro described an Odessa that was outwardly calm but with deep divisions under the surface. Drawing on his experiences with both university circles and the Orthodox Church communities in Odessa and Kyiv, he outlined the fundamental distrust that both groups have of the other “side’s” media, and described an environment where people feel objective accounts are hard to find. In this absence of reliable journalism, both perceived and actual, the popularity of conspiracy theories has risen sharply. Highlighting the example of the Odessa trade union fire, Petro noted that although there are three separate commissions investigating the events, official findings have either not been published, or were published and withdrawn. Petro compared the tragedy to an open wound for the city, one which is unlikely to be healed in the absence of a trusted investigation.

Discussing the interpretation of separatist violence in eastern Ukraine, Petro noted that his Maidan-supporting peers believed Russia’s involvement in Ukraine stemmed from the fear that opposition protests like Maidan could spread to Moscow. This view greatly diverges from the common Western interpretations that Russia’s Ukraine policy is motivated by a concern of NATO enlargement or the desire to maintain influence over key oil and gas pipelines. Yet there is the growing sense among these groups that the Maidan movement is being pushed out of new the government it helped create. Frustration over the lack of anti-corruption efforts and the persistence of Yanukovych-era politicians and officials in the government is alienating many Maidan supporters.

Overall, Petro was pessimistic about the state of internal Ukrainian politics, noting the necessity for European and American leadership to encourage Ukrainian politicians towards compromise and practical solutions. He concluded that while people formerly represented by the Party of Regions remain disenfranchised, and the Maidan movement continues to be cut out of the new leadership, Ukraine’s governmental stability will be fragile.

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