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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)

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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