AS international attention focuses on the crisis in Ukraine, one Clare woman has a powerful but unenviable insight into the political crisis.
Lena Madden was born and reared in Ukraine but has lived in Ireland for the past 12 years. She is an Irish citizen but both her parents still live in Ukraine. Divorced and in different cities, they are on opposing sides of the political and ideological divide.
“One of them is based in a Russian-speaking region and the other one is based in a Ukrainian-speaking region, so I have two stories and they are totally different. Things have polarised in both areas,” Lena told The Clare Champion.
“My biggest fear is that war will break out,” she said.
In late November, protestors took to the streets of Kiev after the Government decided not to sign an agreement fostering greater integration with the European Union. Instead, it announced it would begin looking to improve co-operation with Russia. On February 28, President Viktor Yanukovych resigned, before leaving Kiev. An interim Opposition-led Government took over before Russian troops took control of Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula on the Black Sea, on March 1.
“My mom lives in Donetsk. She is in her 60s and she wants the Soviet Union back. She thinks that there is an ‘iron fist’ power and they want Putin in. But I also have friends in that area, who would support a new government and they would protest against the occupation.
“My dad lives in Poltava; it is kind of central Ukraine, they were always more pro-Ukrainian. They have Ukrainian language schools and they speak Ukrainian. My dad says that if anything happens, he will sign up and go to fight in a war against Russia. I say ‘you are 65. You are going to get killed’ and he says ‘well, somebody has to go and protect my country’. At the same time, my friends come from the same region and they were just saying, ‘you know, they just have to get on with their lives and stop doing all this stuff’,” she outlined.
Donetsk, where Lena’s mother lives, is just 200km from the Russian border. “My biggest fear is that war is going to break out. If war breaks out, it is not going to be in the West or Central Ukraine, it will be in the East because that is what Putin wants. It is where my mom is and if war breaks out, my dad will go to fight the war,” she said.
While November marked a watershed in the country’s stability, according to Lena, political disquiet in Ukraine “has been building for a while”.
“From the time the old president, Yanukovych, came to power, Ukraine went to the same level of corruption as Nigeria on the table of least corrupt to most corrupt. It is at the bottom of the table. It became very corrupt. You can literally do anything if you pass the brown envelope or if you have connections,” she said.
Transparency International, an organisation that uses a Corruption Perceptions Index to rank countries or territories based on how corrupt its public sector is perceived to be, ranks Ukraine at 144 out of 177, tied with Nigeria. Ireland is ranked 21.
“He [Yanukovych] started pushing his people to the western region and tried to impose his power there as well, while western regions were always nationalistic. They were always pro-Ukrainian. So the time had come that they could not take it anymore and they rebelled,” she outlined.
While there has been a change of leadership in Ukraine, Lena believes it is superficial.
“Nothing has changed. They changed the head of Government but the rest of the people are the same. They are as corrupt as they were. So while all of this is going on, basically nothing has changed,” she said.
Lena has a solid understanding of the country’s history and the political and societal subtleties that have developed as a result of it. She believes the current problems stem from the Soviet legacy and ultimately, she says, “if anything is going to change, it is going to take a couple of generations”.
“90% of the Ukrainian population are Ukrainian. However, 60% of the Ukrainian population speaks Russian. That is the problem. There are some people out of those 60% that feel deprived from their own Ukrainian language and would love their children to go to pure Ukrainian schools and integrate into the language, while the others absolutely don’t want to do it. At this stage, it is really 50/50,” she stated.
As well as differences in language and cultural identity, Lena believes “a long-standing historical battle between Russia and Ukraine” has led to a detectable and tense division between the country’s east and west. She described “massive fighting in the west” after Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union. Distrust grew between the different sections of the country before and during World War II.
According to the country’s most recent census, carried out in 2001, the population comprised 77.8% Ukrainian, 17.3% Russian, small percentages of people from neighbouring countries, as well as 0.5% Crimean Tatar.
In the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, however, where Russian forces are now in control, the population breakdown is very different. There, more than 58% of the population are Russian, 24% are Ukrainian and 12% are Crimean Tatar. Lena believes this is acutely relevant but goes unreported in Ireland and Europe.
“It is their land. It is their traditional land, not Ukrainian, not Russian but Tatar territory,” Lena said.
“In Crimea, I am telling you people are not that pro-Putin because there is a massive chunk of people, including Ukrainians, including Tatars, that don’t want Putin to be there,” she added.
Lena also believes Crimea is militarily significant. “Putin needs to have his armada there. He needs to have his marines there to control the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Middle East and North Africa. If he has his army there, it means at any point he can send his marines to anywhere he wants in that region. That is the main point. The rest of it is propaganda. It is propaganda from both sides,” she claimed.
While the threat of war is foremost in her mind, political instability is having major economic repercussions in both Russia and Ukraine, with currencies and bonds fluctuating since the crisis began. On Wednesday, the Ukrainian Hryvna was valued at just over $0.10 or €0.07. On the same date last year, it was worth more than $0.12 and nearly €0.095. Recent weeks have seen the currency hit an all-time low against the dollar.
“My dad’s day-to-day life hasn’t changed that dramatically because, in Central Ukraine, it is quiet. There is nothing going on. In Eastern Ukraine, there are riots. The attempts, I don’t know who hires people to protest and stir the situation, but there are lots of different demonstrations and meetings and that going on. But another part of it is that the local currency, the Ukrainian currency, is devaluing and my mom’s savings were in local currency, so whatever she had saved for retirement is devalued.
“I understand it is expected when there are changes in countries and it might go back to the normal level but the economy is degrading slightly,” she outlined.
Lena remains in frequent contact with her parents. In Ireland, she feels, little can be done to improve the situation in Ukraine.
“I think information needs to be better. What the media projects here in Ireland is mainly pro new government but they don’t understand the fears of people in the east that they are going to be made speak a different language first and they don’t want to be forced into it. The policy needs to be more central because it will cause more uprising,” she said.
“I really don’t know what people in Ireland can do, to be honest. The EU knows what is going on, America is engaged but they cannot do anything really because you can keep saying things but without action, nothing will progress. They also have to be careful because they can’t engage in direct aggression,” she concluded.