Friday, October 16, 2015

‘Why Don’t Ukrainians Know What to Do with the Donbas?’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 16 – Ukrainians have demonstrated many remarkable qualities over the past two years, qualities that neither they nor others expected they had, Ekaterina Shchetkina says. But while they have managed to come up with an adequate “image of the enemy,” they have not been able to come up with an equally adequate “image of a friend.”

            As a result, she argues in a commentary in today’s “Delovaya stolitsa,” Ukrainians do not know what to do about the Donbiss, a reflection of the absence of “a societal consensus on the war, its goals and permissible methods and the main thing what should be considered a victory” (

            This “indeteriminacy,” she argues, represented a sharp break from “the clarity” of the revolution of dignity and now appears likely to last “a very long time because any lack of agreement necessarily will turn out to be a terrible weapon in the hands of foreign propagandists and domestic competitors for the electorate.” 

            “The key phrase here,” Shchetkina says, is “’societal consensus’” which with respect “not only to the issue of the Donbas” does not exist. “We have turned out simply organically not prepared for it” despite all the other things Ukrainians have demonstrated a remarkable capacity for.

            Ukrainians have “shown a capacity for horizontal communication and even cooperation in extreme circumstances. To questions of life and death, [they] have been able to give a relatively solid answer.” And Ukrainians can take great pride in their willingness and ability to support their army “in the first months of the war” and beyond.

            But as soon as the issue becomes a little less than about life and death, she continues, Ukrainians again break apart into particular fragments of a mosaic.” Shchetkina suggests the following analogy: Ukrainians can agree on saving a house on fire, but they can’t agree among themselves on what color it should be painted once it is saved.

            That reflects the fact that “horizontal ties” in Ukrainian society are still extremely weak and do not cut across other identities. Consequently, there is little room for constant communication among them or for those who are interested in “supporting a space for public dialogue in a more or less workable condition.

            The Ukrainian media which might play that role suffers not only from the crisis of traditional media but also by what could be called “a crisis of conception” in which those working in its outlets are “ever less prepared for the broad consumption of information and ever more are oriented toward the employment of memes.”

            Memes are useful for mobilizing people because they simplify reality for members of an in-group, but they do absolutely nothing to help people “find a common language” with others or to reach agreement. In fact, the Kyiv commentator says, they have exactly the opposite effect, sometimes intentionally but often by accident depending on who introduces them.

            “Well-selected memes form a communications barrier, raise the level of intolerance, and interfere with reflection and the formation of one’s own opinion,” she says.  “The war in the Donbas in a completely natural way gave rise to a multitude of memes to which we react” in absolutely predictable ways. 

            Shchetkina gives as example “’the memes of hatred.’” “’We will not forget or forgive’ or ‘how is one to live with such people.’”  These mobilize people but they also keep people from seeing and acknowledging the complexity of the situation or finding a way to overcome divisions if a conflict ebbs.

            Such memes create the illusion of each side being a monolith, something no one wants to see challenged because that would involve “cognitive dissonance” and the questions such a mental state give rise to, she continues.  But constantly asserting that “’we will never forget or forgive’ is not hatred” as some think. “It is, forgive me, masturbation” of one’s own feelings.

            Overcoming the illusions such memes gives rise to is far more difficult than overcoming real differences, she says, something that Ukrainians now see giving the “dizzying prospect” of having to deal with the Donbas – or “more truly, making peace with [themselves] because the Donbas is only the occasion” for that.

             Consequently, Shchetkina concludes, “when we say that “it is unclear what to do with the Donbas, we in fact are recognizing that it is unclear for us what to do with ourselves.”

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