Notes on Ukraine

I’ve been trying to follow the Ukraine story more closely. Well, a tad bit closer than what is already dictated by my job. I don’t profess to have a broad-enough perspective on the issue, and I certainly don’t know any better than the Ukrainians themselves. Nevertheless, three observations that I want to share.

First, It’s interesting to see mainstream being more cautious in this case. The lessons from recruiting catch phrases like “The Arab Spring” and “The Facebook Revolution” are still fresh in the minds of news editors. We all know very well how the one in Egypt ended.

Still, “Revolution” sells better on the newsstands and generates more link-bait than, say, reform. Truth is, Ukraine is at a greater divide than what is being portrayed so far.

Second, this appeared on Reuters on Sunday, February 22:

Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, dramatically freed on Saturday as her arch-rival President Viktor Yanukovich fled Kiev, drew support from German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a phone call on Sunday, Tymoshenko’s press service said.

Merkel “congratulated Yulia Tymoshenko on her release and expressed the certainty that her return to mainstream politics would become one of the main factors in stabilising the situation in Ukraine”, a statement said.

Merkel said Tymoshenko’s return to political life would also contribute to preserving the unity of Ukraine and helping it along the path of European reform, it added.

Now, we have to remember who we’re talking about here: Tymoshenko, as Christopher Dickey of The Daily Beast notes, “has a record allegedly as shady as any politician’s in Ukraine”. A gas-oligarch turned energy minister, Tymoshenko herself admitted to “some mistakes” when she addressed protesters after her recent release.

So why is Merkel, the (pretty much) exclusive shot-caller in the EU, praising Tymoshenko’s return to the public stage? This April 2012 piece from Der Spiegel — the well-respected German publication — supplies one possible explanation:

In her first term, the chancellor was still generating headlines with her “values-based foreign policy.” It resulted in a months-long disruption of relations with Beijing. But the champion of values has long since turned into a cool-headed pragmatist. Nowadays, the political and economic importance of the country largely determines how vocally Merkel criticizes human rights violations.

On its own, this argument is simplistic at best and incorrect at worst, but the article is compelling and thought-provoking. To think that Merkel sees in her mind’s eye only the “unity” of the Ukrainian people or even the EU would be a greater mistake.

Which brings me to the Wikipedia angle, the first source journalists rely on for enriching their knowledge about geographically remote subjects. Reading Yulia Tymoshenko’s entry, one can’t help but wonder if one accidentally stumbled upon a PR release curated by her campaigners.

Here’s a screenshot of the “Opinions About Her” section:

Tymoshenko - "Opinions about her" in Wikipedia

Some select quotes:

Wilfried Martens, former President of the European People’s Party: “Yulia Tymoshenko is a shining example of Ukraine’s democratic spirit.” (2012)

Aleksander Kwasniewski: “She is an extremely gifted politician. I have met and worked with many world politicians and Tymoshenko belongs to the most gifted ones”. (2010)

Václav Havel, former President of Czech Republic: “I admire Ms. Tymoshenko and respect her as fearless, energetic and honest politician. You can’t see lots of those today”. (2010)

The above are just 3 out of 10 testimonials that fit a campaign flyer better than an encyclopedia. The only “negative” quote is the one below:

“She is as prime minister as a cow on the ice” (2007)

Care to guess who said this?

Well, you guessed right: That was Viktor Yanukovych, the ousted president who is now on the run and has been placed on Ukraine’s most wanted list with charges of mass killings of civilians. If the bad guy condemns you, you must be the good guy, no?

Even the entry that lists the “Criminal cases against Yulia Tymoshenko since 2010” reads: “Tymoshenko is one of Ukraine’s most important politicians”. Not necessarily incorrect, but neither something you’d expect to see on Wikipedia.

If you think this post is meant to criticize Tymoshenko herself or the latest Ukrainian uprising, then I did a horrible job at driving my point home. In that case, my point is this: If mainstream and Wikipedia are symbiotically feeding one another with bias, where do we go for information?

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