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Is Ukraine next?

With Georgia in pieces, Ukraine could be the next to fall to Russia's territorial ambition, separati

Ukraine's political summer season was cool and quiet, despite air temperatures in the high thirties (centigrade) and the war in Georgia, which the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko, tried hard to make a matter of personal significance for each Ukrainian.

The president's speeches in defence of Georgia's territorial integrity and against Russian aggression were published regularly in the papers. Television covered the Stop Russia Now! meeting of four presidents in Tbilisi, while the idea that Russia's next target would be the Crimea sparked discussion among Ukrainian politicians and political scientists. Yushchenko put on combat gear that made him look like Fidel Castro and it was announced that Ukraine would be the first to join any international "anti-Russian" alliance - although it remains unclear how such an alliance would act, and the idea now seems to have been put on the back burner.

The political battle cries over the conflict have gradually died down. Despite protests by many politicians, Ukraine's Independence Day on 24 August was celebrated in Soviet style with a military parade down Kiev's main street. Two days later, near the country's second-largest city, Kharkiv, a huge arsenal of ammunition caught fire and, for several days, bombs and mines were exploding, firework-style, over a five-kilometre radius. The minister of defence, Yuriy Yekhanurov, was forced to admit that the ammunition was to have been sold to the government of Chad. At the same time Yushchenko, in his combat suit, was bestowing the rank of general on 117 officers and government administrators.

Thus, Ukraine begins the autumn season of 2008. The start of parliament's first sitting will be dominated by a motion, tabled by the opposition, to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Parliament will not recognise them, just as Kosovan independence is not rec ognised or even discussed. But this only underlines how stable is Ukrainians' "many-sidedness" and how split the political sympathies of the country's eastern and western territories.

For many Ukrainians, the recent military conflict was yet another phase in the ongoing personal war between the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, and the Georgian president, Mikhail Saak ashvili. The first phases of this war were purely economic. There was the ban on imports to Russia of Georgian wine (the wine war) and mineral water (the Borzhomi war, after a famous Georgian water). Then came the ban on imports of Georgian oranges and tangerines (the citrus war). After that began the countrywide campaign against Georgians residing - legally and illegally - in Russia, involving the deportation of illegal "guest workers" and the harassment of others, some of whom were very well known. One of Russia's best-known authors, Boris Akunin, whose real name is Grigory Chkhartishvili, suddenly found himself terrorised by the Russian tax authorities.

However, in response to the most recent Russo-Georgian conflict, Georgians living in Russia have banded togeth er against President Saakashvili. It is not a question of who did what and who is to blame. Georgian Russians simply want to get on with their lives in peace.

People in Ukraine also want a peaceful life, but Ukrainians have been more disturbed by the recent events in Georgia than western Europeans. Russia repeatedly declared that the Georgian army was using Ukrainian arms and that Ukrainian mercenaries were fighting on the side of Georgia in South Ossetia. Although neither charge has been proven, these repeated accusations serve to illustrate Russia's political antagonism towards Ukraine.

Moscow's politicians have repeatedly responded aggressively to Ukraine's demand that Russia prepare to remove her Black Sea fleet from Crimea in 2017, the year the contract under which Russia leases the Crimean naval base expires. The mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, once called Sebastopol "a region of Moscow", and Moscow has been financing the construction of apartment buildings in the city. Luzhkov has also demanded the return of the Crimean peninsula to the Russian Federation. (Crimea was "gifted" to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Ukraine's voluntary integration into the Russian empire.) There are many in Russia who share Luzhkov's views, and few Ukrainians believe Putin's statement, made in an interview on CNN, that Russia has no territorial quarrel with Ukraine.

The perils of Russophobia

Ukrainians note that Russia seemed to have no territorial quarrel with Georgia until the beginning of last month. The suddenness of the Georgian crisis, and that Ukraine has approximately equal numbers of pro-Russian and pro-European politicians and regions, only underlines the complexity of the situation in which Ukraine finds itself. A referendum held in 2006 showed that a majority of South Ossetians did not wish their country to remain as part of Georgia; similarly, if a referendum were held in Crimea today, it would show that most people there do not want to live as part of Ukraine.

In an attempt to transform the south and east of the country, Yushchenko has tried to "Ukrainianise" secondary and tertiary education in the Russian-speaking regions. This has drawn protests from the local popu lation and politicians, and the policy has only increased pro-Russian sentiment in these regions. Yush chenko, called a "Russophobe" in the Russian press, has never been so unpopular. Ukrainian polls give him only 5 to 6 per cent support, the same as the Ukrainian Communists. His chances of winning a second term in office in the 2009 presidential elections are practically nil.

The presidential race is expected to be between Yulia Tymoshen ko and Viktor Yanukov ych. Both would be acceptable to Moscow. Both would be prepared to negotiate an extension of lease for the Crimean naval base and to postpone the question of Ukraine's Nato membership - unless Nato acts swiftly to make Ukraine a member while Yushchenko is still in power.

With regard to the European Union, most Ukrainians understand that they won't get in for at least another 20 years, leaving Ukraine economically dependent on Russia for the foreseeable future. Each anti-Russian move by the Ukrainian president has resulted in the sort of economic sanctions employed by Russia against Georgia, except that now it's Ukrainian meat and dairy products that Russia has banned. Thus, American chicken and Ukrainian dried milk have been the first victims of the current stand-off between the west and Russia.

Ukraine, an industrially developed country, could be seriously harmed by Russian sanctions. Most thinking Ukrainians appreciate that the country requires super-competent politicians if it is to maintain its political independence while being economically dependent on Russia - about which Ukraine has no choice. Unfortunately, the present level of political corruption puts Ukraine a long way from seeing the necessary calibre of politician in its corridors of power. Sadly, Yush chenko has not fulfilled his central election promise to overcome corruption.

But Saakashvili, his good friend and the godfather of one of his children, seems fully to intend to carry out his own election promises. Having been re-elected in January this year, Saakashvili sought to strengthen his position by reinforcing the territorial integrity of Georgia, a task made urgent by the obligation on all countries aspiring to join Nato not to have any unsettled territorial disputes. It is my belief that, in rekindling the South Ossetian conflict, Saakashvili planned to speed up the process of his country's entry into Nato. Perhaps he hoped Nato would join in the conflict on Georgia's side. Surely he could not have imagined that Russia would not respond to artillery fire over a town where a battalion of Russian peacekeepers was stationed, or that the Georgian army could win the ensuing battle on its own. Nato remained outside this conflict, as I believe it would in the case of any military confrontation with Russia, because doing otherwise could take the world to the brink of disaster.

A Pandora's box

The Ukrainian president, like the Georgian leader, wants Ukraine to join Nato as soon as possible, and though Ukrainians themselves are less enthusiastic, right-wing politicians maintain that if Georgia had been a member of Nato, Russia would not have dared to protect South Ossetia or march into Georgian cities and ports.

However, most Ukrainians doubt that the west will put any significant pressure on Russia, and expect that any protests will be confined to hard-hitting rhetoric, along the lines of David Miliband's recent speech in Kiev. On returning to London, he admitted that Europe needs Russian gas and also noted that Gazprom needs European clients and investors.

Meanwhile, untouched by western opinion, Russia has boosted its image as a country prepared for brutal confrontation with neighbours. As Putin put it on 29 August, the west started the business of redrawing the map of Europe when it recognised the independence of Kosovo, thus "opening a Pandora's box". South Ossetia and Abkhazia are only the second and third "evils" to have flown out of that box since Kosovo. Might there be others?

For 17 years, the "independent" state of Transdnestria has existed on the boarder of Ukraine and Moldova. It is populated by Russians, Ukrainians and now well-rooted settlers from the 14th army of the USSR, which was stationed there when the Soviet Union broke up. There are other unrecognised "independent" territories, the leaders of which are now looking hopefully towards Moscow, which is ready to expand its political territory under the banner of the CIS (Confederation of Independent States), a friendly enough sounding union.

All that will be required, from Moscow's point of view, will be the recognition of these states by each other and by Russia - and, in the end, eastern Europe, the Caucasus and central Asia will be firmly within the Russian sphere of influence. The western border of this sphere could very well be drawn through the middle of Ukraine, slicing the country in two.

Andrey Kurkov is the author of "The President's Last Love" (Harvill Secker, £12.99)

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First they came for Pepe: How “ironic” Nazism is taking over the internet

Over the last year, various internet subcultures have embraced Nazi iconography while simultaneously claiming to hold no Nazi beliefs. Why?

There is a scene in Roman Polanski’s critically-acclaimed World War Two film The Pianist in which the Jewish protagonist, played by Adrien Brody, puts on a German soldier’s coat to keep warm.

“Don’t shoot!” he tells the Polish troops who have come to liberate Warsaw. “I’m Polish!” A soldier, realising his mistake, lowers his gun. With disdain on his face, he asks: “Why the fucking coat?”

The chilly hero might not have been acting unreasonably, but neither was the soldier. It's safe to say that in normal circumstances, "Nazi coat" can be used as shorthand for "Nazi person". I found myself asking a similar question last month when I interviewed a “Nazi furry”. The furry (ie. person who dresses as an animal, often for sexual reasons) likes to wear a red armband reminiscent of those worn by the Nazi party. “It’s just a piece of cloth,” he said at the time, insisting he held no far-right views. Then why not choose another piece of cloth? I wondered to myself.

This furry is just one of hundreds of people online who flaunt the iconography of National Socialism whilst denying they hold any Nazi views. If that doesn’t make sense, it shouldn’t. “Ironic” Nazism, “satirical” Nazism, and “just joking” Nazism have taken over the internet. Who is behind it, what are they doing, and how did it begin?

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Unfortunately, it is probably Hillary Clinton’s fault. In September 2016, the presidential hopeful’s website declared popular internet meme Pepe the Frog to be a white supremacist symbol. If we ignore that this has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy (racists embraced Pepe after the Anti-Defamation League chimed in and officially declared the meme a hate symbol), this was a frankly ridiculous assertion.

“We've won folks... My God ...We've won,” read a post on r/TheDonald – the Reddit hub for Donald Trump supporters – after the news. They didn't hold back with their disdain. “This makes her look absolutely retarded to anyone young enough to be on the internet,” read the top comment. Why? White supremacists were undoubtedly already using the meme – many on the notoriously politically incorrect 4Chan board /pol/ had emblazoned the frog with swastikas. So why wasn’t it, in turn, a white supremacist symbol?

The answer to this is irony. Layers and layers of it slathered with thick, glutinous nonsense that form a Bruce Bogtrotter’s cake that is impossible to digest. You and I are what 4Chan would pejoratively call “normies”, i.e. normal people. We can’t possibly hope to understand the difference between someone on 4Chan who holds sincere Nazi beliefs and someone who is shouting “Death to all Jews” for the keks (see glossary), like a toddler who has just learnt the word “poo”.

This doesn’t normally matter – we can just ignore them – but Clinton’s post gave them the legitimacy and media attention that they craved.

It also, I would argue, set off a new internet trend. Angry at liberals labelling everything (most notably, the alt-right) “Nazis”, fringe internet communities decided to fight back. The logic – if it can be called that – went like this:

“Let’s dress like Nazis and act like Nazis so that liberals call us Nazis when we’re not! That will show just how stupid these liberals are!”

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“The press, the media, does not deserve to have a consistent picture of reality presented to them.”

These are the words of Qu Qu, a man in his late twenties who considers himself the leader of the “alt furry” movement, who is speaking to me over Twitter. Alt furries are furries who have embraced far-right messages and Nazi iconography on the social network. Some wear armbands, others write erotic Nazi literature, some tweet anti-Semitic jokes. When I spoke to some last month, I was shocked when only one of them actually admitted to holding Nazi views. Many claimed they were being “ironic” or fighting back at what they consider to be left-wing intolerance.

“If the press becomes obsessed with a moral panic, such as the one about the resurgence of National Socialism, it is the duty of every subculture to feed that paranoia until its absurdity becomes plain for all to see.”

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Earlier this week, the king of this logic died.

PewDiePie – the most subscribed content creator on YouTube – was dropped by Disney after the Wall Street Journal exposed an array of anti-Semitic comments in his videos. In the past, he has spoken out against the media for misrepresenting his “jokes”, but this time he wrote a blog post in which he admitted: “I understand that these jokes were ultimately offensive.” What changed?

What changed is that PewDiePie was confronted with a reality that anti-hate campaigners have long since known to be true. After his anti-Semitic videos, PewDiePie was embraced by the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, which is now calling itself “The world’s #1 PewDiePie Fansite.” PewDiePie has learnt a truth that many of the “just joking” brigade frequently try to deny – that satire, irony, and jokes can validate and legitimise hate speech in a way that helps it to spread.

“Pushing out anti-Semitic tropes has consequences in the real world,” says a spokesperson for anti-racism organisation Hope Not Hate. “PewDiePie may or may not believe this stuff himself, but he does need to understand that he has an effect on the world, and that racists and haters can sometimes act on the words and memes that are shared so readily on social channels, and – with soaring hate crime rates – already have.”

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Then they came for Trash Dove.

The head-banging purple pigeon is a Facebook sticker (a picture users can post in the social network’s comment sections) that went viral this week. In response, 4Chan started “Operation Nazi Bird”, a satirical campaign to turn the meme into a Nazi symbol. The aim was to trick the left.

This started to work when a self-described philosopher known as Quincy Frey wrote a satirical Medium post (which has since been removed after a copyright claim) declaring Trash Dove to be an “alt-right” symbol. When people began to fall for this, 4Chan won. Yet so too – as Hope Not Hate argue – did actual white supremacists.

“What started as irony will now actually spread and this will become a ‘Nazi hate’ symbol whether we like it or not,” Quincy Frey tells me. “The alt-righters from 4Chan work in a funny way; it always starts ironic but they seem to take irony to the next level and then these idiots become brainwashed… eventually their sickness will spread.”

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Which leaves us with a question that regrettably summarises today’s state of affairs: are ironic Nazis as dangerous as real Nazis?

Simon Johnson, the chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, seems to think so. “It is difficult to understand how people can use Holocaust language, imagery or comments and think that it is a joke,” he says. “The French comedian Dieudonne uses the Quenelle gesture and other supposedly humorous Holocaust imagery, as well as dressing cast members in concentration camp uniforms, as part of his act." The Quenelle gesture was an originally jokey gesture which has grown to be considered anti-Semitic after individuals posed in front of Jewish institutions holding the stance. In December 2013, French President François Hollande reacted to the gesture, saying: "We will fight against the sarcasm of those who purport to be humorists but are actually professional anti-Semites.”

Johnson agrees it is important to tackle this alleged comedy. "For many this demeans the Holocaust and would be considered anti-Semitism. Allowing these acts to continue perpetuates myths and often leads prejudice against the Jewish community.”

It is also important to note that many who claim to be “satirical” Nazis are simply hiding behind a thin veil of plausible deniability. The word “irony” – however incorrectly it’s being used – allows them to spread Nazi messages and iconography whilst denying culpability. It also leaves many on the left unsure where they stand. What’s more important: combatting hate speech or protecting free speech?

Kassie is a 31-year-old graduate student who reached out to me after being mocked for taking Trash Dove seriously as an alt-right symbol - proving that online trends can have real-world consequences. “My friend is liberal but thinks I'm overreacting and don't understand satire,” she tells me. “But I don't get why I have to call Nazi jokes satire.

“The most frustrating part is that my concern is immediately written off as stupid because I don't belong to the community. If we get past that part, then I'm overreacting or dumb because I don't get that it's ironic or I don't understand that it's a joke. But I get that on some level people are saying that it's a joke, and some are ‘just joking’ and I still think that a joke can be racist and misogynist and alt-right or whatever.

“I'm just left with feeling like I've fallen down a hole of ironic devils advocates who use that as an excuse to say ‘funny’ racist and misogynistic things.”

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When Prince Harry donned a Nazi uniform for a fancy dress party in 2005, no one thought he was actually a fan of Hitler. If ironic Nazis had emerged twelve years ago, they might have been given the same benefit of the doubt by being considered poor taste but not ultimately racist. Yet context is key. In an era when the President of the United States wants a registry of Muslim citizens, and fascism appears to be on the rise across Europe, no one who is “just joking” – not furries, YouTubers, or 4Channers – can be annoyed if the media labels them Nazis.

I do agree that fundamentally it is important to combat the left’s tendency to label everything right-wing “Nazi” or “racist”. Internet subcultures are not wrong to attempt to challenge this and other examples of left-wing extremes. Yet if this is what they really want, then one - very pressing - question remains. Why the fucking coat? 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.