This afternoon I received a tweet from a Russia Today producer asking if I would like to be a guest on the show In the Now. About three weeks ago I received a similar offer and was interview alongside Prof. Edward Lozansky of the American University in Moscow. I was told then that I would be talking about attitudes towards the Kyiv government in Ukraine, but we ended up discussing the Geneva agreements signed off a couple of hours previously. It was all very polite, professional and hopeful. The Geneva agreements, in the end and very quickly, failed to improve an increasingly desperate situation.
Today, the researcher from Russia Today told me that we would be discussing today’s revelations of leaked phone calls involving Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyy, owner of PrivatBank among other things. In one call, he threatened former presidential candidate and separatist advocate Oleh Tsarov saying that a $1m bounty is on Tsarov’s head while he should also fear for his family’s safety. In the second call, a Ukrainian businessman involved in trade with the Russia/Belarus/Kazakhstan free-trade area, claims that Kolomoyskyy is losing it, with the militia he sponsors allegedly responsible for the mass deaths at the Trade Union House in Odesa. The two men in conversation in the second tapped call were shocked that Kolomoyskyy was allegedly raising funds through the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish community to fund the bounty on Tsarev’s head. I was asked to listen to the recordings, read transcripts and comment on them.
The first time around, too, when I was asked on to Russia Today I obviously was sceptical, given the fact that the network is Kremlin-sponsored and serves a particular role for Russia and its authorities. Friends I consulted advised caution noting that without live broadcast, my words could be misrepresented or taken out of context. One or two were utterly opposed to the idea, while others thought that trying to get a point across – especially if there is a chance of live speaking – is better than boycotting the network. The journalist that I had contact with on both occasions Anissa Naouai was professional, as well as being a tough and direct questioner who has shown her grit on CNN, too. So, weighing up the options, I agreed to speak. You can all judge for yourselves whether my decision was justified and whether my performance was adequate.
Looking at the video, the introduction – as well as the framing through images that accompanied what I was saying – make clear that a particular interpretation of events that RT had, even if the title of the piece (“A Ukrainian oligarch might have been behind 50 deaths in Odessa”) as well as the researcher stressing that “Of course it’s all unconfirmed, and these are just leaked phone calls, but we would like to discuss the possibility of that“, made clear that much of this was quite likely conjecture or possible even sensationalism. Although my task was to be to discuss these phone calls, it was quite easy to bat away this issue by stating that it was just conjecture and so while certainly intriguing to talk about there’s not much point in doing so.
I expected to be grilled further on the gaps in the story that I suggested, but this never materialised. So I can explain those gaps here. Kolomoyskyy swears his apparent vengeance on Tsarov because of the death of ‘a Jew’, ‘a member of the Dnipropetrovsk’ Jewish community in Mariupol on 9 May. (This BBC report shows some of the gruesome events from there that day.) As it turns out, the man in question was not Jewish at all… but a trainee orthodox priest, who qualified in Volhynia, but is originally from the Verkhovyna district of Ivano-Frankivsk region. He was a member of the National Guard, so the state’s volunteer military force who often have minimal training but are now sent into the heat of battle or into tense civilian situations. The dead man in question, Bohdan Shlemkevych, was about to finish his stint in eastern Ukraine and return to Ivano-Frankivsk region. I had thought that this connection to Frankvisk was why I had been invited on to RT, but no mention was made.
Here is a news report on Bohdan Shlemkevych’s funeral. The TSN report also states that he was 21 and killed after his bullet-proof vest was pierced.
Beyond discrediting Kolomoyskyy by associating the militia he sponsors with the mass killings in Odessa, I am not quite sure what the purpose of RT pushing this story is. There is a heavy question of Jewish involvement in these recordings, with the Jewish community of Dnipropetrovsk apparently conspiring to murder pro-Russian politicians. Whether there was some kind of anti-Jewish intent here on RT’s part, I can’t say. But a paradox that has emerged with Kolomoyskyy’s rise to prominence, a point I made in the interview with RT, is that he has become something of a national hero. The official Euromaidan social network feeds have been sharing memes of him as “Zhidobanderivets”, or “Jew-Banderite”.
Given that one of the first charges against Euromaidan, and more strongly later once the prominence of some right-wing groups emerged, made by Russian media was that it was anti-Semitic. Here, though, we have a “Jew-Banderite”. Quite a paradox. Kolomoyskyy funded the fuelling of Ukrainian military vehicles when the threat to Crimea emerged and now he has a militia, while he is also offering bounties for capturing “Moskali”, a derogatory term for Russians, applied by him to those deemed separatists. $10,000 a head.
So, with attention turned away from the question of the phone calls and Kolomoyskyy, I was asked more about the perception of another oligarch, Petro Poroshenko, who is likely to win the upcoming presidential elections. I’ve written about his visit to Frankivsk here. And so things turned to a more everyday topic, or at least to an area I feel more qualified to speak on and more comfortable speaking about.
What reading about Kolomoyskyy and listening to the phone recordings did open my eyes to even further, though, is how murky things are right now in Ukraine and how dangerous the situation is becoming. While there are some successes in what the state calls the “Anti-Terrorist Operation”, it seems that largely it is various militia with different sponsors that are being sent into eastern regions. Or, even more ominously, are simply making their own way there as this rather eye-opening report from the Guardian shows.
Presidential candidate Oleh Lyashko wants to form his own militia/ paramilitary. He already has 3,000 men. Oligarch number one Akhmetov is forming his own from his metal workers and miners. Kolomoyskyy has his Dnipro units, while there are others being trained just down the road from here, as I wrote yesterday, supported by the state and stemming largely from Right Sector and UNA-UNSO. Supposedly there is a central coordination centre for “anti-terrorist operations” but the number of militia is growing and actions seem to be taking place out east that lack any sense command.
Numerous historical analogies have been applied to Ukraine already since the start of what became Euromaidan in November. It seems, ominously, that Yugoslavia of the 1990s is the next. If Kolomoyskyy’s militia was involved in a plan that backfired in Odesa – a few light beatings rather than mass killing – then clearly those actions can be deemed one step towards a Yugoslavia-type situation. For now, though, it’s the job of journalists to verify and investigate those telephone recordings rather than sensationalise them. I’m not sure how keen western media and Ukrainian media will be, though, to look too deeply into it.
Meanwhile, in Ivano-Frankivsk today, the university hosted a meeting between candidates for the parliamentary by-election. I was teaching so couldn’t attend, but my wife says that some questions were clearly planted, while the classic trick of asking the price of milk, bread and so on, caught a couple of candidates out. The city council, meanwhile, cannot decide whether the square outside the regional administration building should be renamed in honour of the Maidan or the Heavenly Hundred.