By Roger Annis, January 15, 2016
After a hiatus from the Ukraine and Russia file for much of 2015, the editor of Canada’s largest daily newspaper has opened the year 2016 with sharp words for Russia, notably the “lightning annexation of Crimea” and the “Moscow-backed separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine” which Russia is said to have sprung on the world in early 2014. Olivia Ward pens an article in the January 10, 2016 edition of the Toronto Star loaded with grim predictions for Russia’s economy in 2016 and of “swelling grassroots outrage” against the rule of President Vladimir Putin.
The Star editor explains, “In 2014, Russia’s lightning takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula was a shock that reverberated around the world. Within a month, a Moscow-backed separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine convinced western leaders that the Russian bear was on the prowl, and its appetite for territory was growing.”
Looking forward, Ms Ward writes, “In 2016, the question is not how much Putin’s geopolitical ambitions might expand, but how long it will be before they are curtailed by harsh economic realities at home. The answers will have serious consequences for the future of the Middle East and beyond.”
A biased and vacuous view of an important part of the world
If Russia’s ambitions in Crimea and Ukraine were such a shock to the world in 2014, then a reader might expect some words to explain how matters are faring in those two places, apparently suffering grievously under the heel of the “Russian bear”. But we read not a word.
The silence is not at all a surprise, because if the intent of an article is to discredit Russia, then there is not much in either Crimea or Ukraine place to peg an argument.
In Crimea, survey after survey in 2014 and 2015 has shown widespread satisfaction with the referendum decision in March 2014 to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. Which is not to say that Crimeans have no criticisms or dissatisfaction with their new political institutions or their economic and social policies. These would, indeed, be interesting to read in English; Russian-language press has lots of it. But when the sole purpose of news reporting is to ‘stick it’ to Russia, the subtleties and nuances of a real-life situation on the ground are so much clutter. Such are the guideposts of dogmatic, mainstream Western media.
Concerning the political, economic and human rights situation in Ukraine, it’s a disaster going from bad to worse. This has apparently escaped the attention of Olivia Ward, but not that of Bloomberg News, Gallup Poll, Ukrainian farmers, Ukrainians who believe in a justice system free of thuggery (and here), the Financial Times, people in Ukraine of Jewish faith, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, James Risen in the New York Times, and so on. The Star shields its readers from such news that gets in the way of the pre-determined agenda of its editors.
Olivia Ward’s predictions of economic collapse in Russia are nothing original and have grown stale. Writer Alexander Mercouris of Russia Insider is closely following the difficulties that low oil prices and Western economic sanctions have brought to the Russian people and economy and he concludes that the storm, whose causes are entirely out of the control of the government, is being weathered rather well. Vladimir Putin explains similarly in a January 5 interview with the German daily newspaper Bild.
Once again on Crimea
The accusation of a “lightning” annexation of Crimea betrays further ignorance of the situation in Ukraine. There was nothing “lightning” about long-standing grievances and dissatisfaction by the people of Crimea with their second-class status in Ukraine.
Tensions and disagreements between Crimea and its political overlords in Ukraine go back decades, first to the arbitrary decision by the Soviet Union in 1954 to switch Crimea’s formal, ties from the Soviet Russian federation to the Ukrainian one (irony of ironies: a decision backed today by Ukrainian ultra-nationalists and their Western backers!), then to the post-Soviet Union era beginning in 1991.
During and following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Crimeans voted for independence (restoration of their Soviet-era autonomous republic) in 1991 and then for full autonomy within Ukraine in 1994. Neither the governments in Kyiv nor the ones in Moscow at the time accepted those votes.
By 1996, Crimea achieved a compromise autonomy stemming from the 1994 referendum from a very reluctant government in Kyiv. But Crimea languished economically in Ukraine and the languages of the large majority of the Crimean population—Russian and Tatar—never achieved official status in the constitution of the country. (In today’s Republic of Crimea, a member of the Russian Federation, there are three official languages—Russian, Tatar and Ukrainian.)
Everything changed in February 2014 when the Ukrainian president for whom the large majority of Crimeans had voted in 2010 was overthrown in a violent coup spearheaded by extreme-right paramilitaries and financed and encouraged by Western powers.
In the aforementioned Bild interview, Vladimir Putin explained why he and the Crimean people acted as they did in those stormy times in February-March 2014:
[My concern] is people – 2.5 million of them. These are the people that were frightened by the coup; let’s be frank, they were worried by the [February 2014] coup d’état in Ukraine. And after the coup in Kiev – and it was nothing but a coup d’état, no matter how the extreme nationalist forces, the forces that were coming to power at that moment and largely stayed there, tried to sugar it up – they just began to openly threaten people. To threaten Russians and Russian-speaking people living in Ukraine and in Crimea in particular, because it was more densely populated by Russians and Russian-speaking than other parts of Ukraine…
Here is a question: what is democracy? Democracy is the will of the people. People voted for the life they wanted. It is not the territory and borders that I am concerned about but the fates of people….
It is important to always respect international law. In Crimea, there was no violation of international law. Under the United Nations Charter, every nation has the right to self-determination….
What happened in Crimea? Firstly, the Crimean Parliament was elected in 2010, that is, when Crimea was still part of Ukraine. This fact I am talking about is extremely important. The Parliament that had been elected while Crimea was part of Ukraine met and voted for independence and called a referendum [March 2014]. Then the citizens voted at the referendum for reunification with Russia…
Now I want to ask you this: if the Kosovans in Kosovo have the right to self-determination, why don’t the Crimeans have the same right?
In citing the example of Kosovo, the president could have cited other, contemporary examples of self-determination votes that were accepted, if grudgingly, by Western governments and editorialists otherwise crying “annexation” over Crimea including those in Quebec (1980 and 1995), south Sudan (2011), Scotland (2014) and perhaps soon Catalonia.
In place of its selective news reporting and closed-door, dogmatic analysis of events in Ukraine and Russia, Toronto Star editors would serve their readers well by opening up their pages to informed opinion on Ukraine and Russia from Canadians. There is no shortage of highly informed opinion it could solicit. And yet they are frozen out of mainstream discourse in Canada.
For example, Mikhail Mochanov of St. Thomas University in New Brunswick has recently penned an article examining the chronic and intractable crisis of corruption in Ukraine’s political and economic institutions. (Even the right-wing vice-president of the United States acknowledged during his December visit to Kyiv that “something” is urgently needed to tackle this problem.)
Writer Mark Chapman in British Columbia offers an informed viewpoint that no doubt clashes with Star editors’ mindsets, but isn’t good journalism supposed to present contests of ideas, not just pre-set formulas? His concerns with misrepresentations of Russia in mainstream media go back at least to 2010 when he founded a blog titled ‘The Kremlin Stooge’.
Olivia Ward was last active in writing about Ukraine in early 2015, including a February 6 article urging support for the fundraising efforts of the extremist, far right Ukrainian paramilitaries waging civil war in eastern Ukraine. This writer wrote at the time about the disturbing proclivities of writers and editors in the Toronto Star and its cross-town rival daily, The Globe and Mail, to publish material endorsing and urging financial support for weapons purchases for the extremist paramilitaries in Ukraine.
How is it that the anti-Russia views of foreign affairs editor Olivia Ward holds such sway in the pages of Canada’s largest circulation newspaper? By all evidence, she neither speaks Russian or Ukrainian nor has she traveled to that part of the world. And why are alternative views, including those of Canadians of Russian and Ukrainian descent so rigorously excluded from the pages of the Star?
The answer is that Ward speaks and writes on behalf of an entire editorial board which is deeply prejudiced and, let it also be said ignorant, of so much of contemporary Ukraine and Russia. They write and publish prejudice, not accurate news or informed comment.
Readers of the three large print media conglomerates in Canada—the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail and Postmedia chain are paying a heavy price for the incredible bias and dogmatism of editorial opinion of these publications.
And now a repeat over events in Turkey
And it gets worse. We are seeing a repeat of this bias over Ukraine now apparently taking place over events in Turkey. There, similar to Ukraine, the central government is waging war against a rebellious section of the population with legitimate social, economic and cultural concerns, in this case the Kurdish people in the east of the country.
Shamefully, Canada’s mainstream media has been utterly silent over the very serious attacks against journalists in Turkey, scores of whom have been threatened and jailed. As of December 29, 33 journalists are charged or in detention in Turkey, according to Today’s Zaman. The BBC reported in June of this year that since his election to the presidency of Turkey in August 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had taken libel action against more than 100 people for “insulting the head of state“.
The list of journalist victims includes the editor-in-chief of Cumhurriyet daily newspaper, Cam Dündar, jailed on November 26 over his newspaper’s reporting in May of this year of collaboration between Turkey’s secret police and Islamic State.
The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey has addressed an urgent appeal over the entire situation in Turkey to the international community on January 6. Members of the left-wing opposition People’s Democratic Party as well as the imprisoned Cam Dündar have addressed similar appeals to the world asking for expressions of concern and solidarity.
A statement now signed by more than 2,000 Turkish academics in Turkey and abroad was issued on January 10 demanding that the government “abandon its deliberate massacre and deportation of Kurdish and other peoples in the region” of eastern Turkey The statement reads, ” We demand the government to prepare the conditions for negotiations and create a road map that would lead to a lasting peace which includes the demands of the Kurdish political movement.” Journalists in Turkey have issued a statement in solidarity with the statement of the academics.
This article also appears on Counterpunch and on Roger Annis’ blog on Rabble.ca. Roger Annis is an editor of the website The New Cold War: Ukraine and beyond. There is an extensive compilation of news from Turkey on that website as well as recommended weblinks to Turkish news sources. He can be reached at [email protected].
The following comment was posted by me on January 16 to my article posting on Rabble.ca: