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Ukrainians Breathe Sigh of Relief as Diplomatic Efforts Continue Between West & Russia

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An interview with Jessica Desvarieux of The Real News Network on March 6, 2014.

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Following the Russian takeover of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine, Western and Russian diplomats are meeting in Paris to discuss how to resolve the political crisis in Ukraine. The European Union has also offered a $15 billion aid package to Ukraine on the condition that it reaches a deal with the International Monetary Fund over austerity measures and domestic-gas subsidies.

Now joining us to discuss all this is Nicolai Petro. Nicolai is a professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island, and he has been in Ukraine since July as a visiting scholar and has observed the current crisis firsthand.

Thank you for joining us, Nicolai.

NICOLAI PETRO, POLITICS PROF., URI, VISITING SCHOLAR IN UKRAINE: Hello.

DESVARIEUX: So, Nicolai, I want to first start off with getting a sense of Putin's approach and the reasons for why he decided to move with such urgency to intervene in the Crimea. Can you just assess how much danger there really was to Russians in Ukraine, as Putin had claimed?

PETRO: I don't think there is a threat on a personal level specifically to Russians or Russian speakers, since that group is huge in this country and it'd be hard to even identify who such people are, since a lot of people are, for all practical purposes, bilingual.
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But there is the reality of lawlessness and violence, which has increased sharply. And we've all seen the scenes on television that show that. And I believe Putin's concern specifically in Crimea was that similar incidents had occurred in front of the regional parliament that week, and there was the concern that such violence could then extend south to the Russian base in Crimea.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. And I want to get a sense of how ordinary people, as well, are dealing with what's happening in Ukraine. Can you speak to the different political factions and how they're reacting to Russian movement into Crimea?

PETRO: I think the political groups in the parliament, which is dominated by the pro-E.U. groups, which are oriented toward the West, as well as their national supporters, they are, of course, overwhelmingly condemning this as a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. There have been, however, protests in the East and in the South that have raised the Russian flag over local parliament buildings that have been taken over briefly. And so while popular sentiment I suspect is overwhelmingly unhappy with this intervention, it does seem to have provided a shot in the arm to those groups that, through this, feel some sort of support from Russia for asserting more local self-government and appeal for a more federalistic type of political system in the Ukraine.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Let's talk about the transitional government that was put in place after former president Yanukovych was ousted. I mean, people could even say he is currently the president in some ways. You wrote an article for The Nation that a radical nationalist agenda at place in the Ukrainian revolution is currently happening right now. Can you just speak to that?

PETRO: I believe the radicals are a small faction and a minority in Parliament. But the unique circumstances of the transition, in which they played a key role removing--in specifically organizing the removal of Yanukovych--gives them significantly greater weight than their numbers suggest. And the way I like to phrase it is that the political power in the parliament can only act at the sufferance of the Maidan, the street that is very largely controlled, I would suspect, by the right sector. So we really have a sort of bifurcation of power between the parliament and the Maidan. And we see this in the role that the Maidan has played in the appointment of ministers.
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In the parliament itself, we have a political party called Svoboda, or  Freedom, which is a key part of the government coalition currently. And it is this party that, on December 13, 2012, the European Parliament issued a condemnation of that particular party, and of the rise of Ukrainian nationalism more generally, for being--and I quote--"racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic". And it, the European Parliament, at the time called for all other political parties to disassociate themselves from Svoboda and not to form coalitions with it. Well, today Svoboda holds key leadership positions in the parliament, including the deputy speakership. It holds the office of prosecutor general and four ministerial portfolios in the new government, as well as several appointed governorships.

DESVARIEUX: And who's their base, would you say, Nicolai?

PETRO: Well, their geographic base is in the western regions of the country, although they have party representation throughout Ukraine. I understand from reading descriptions and discussions of the party that there's a disagreement about how popular it is today. Anton Shekhovtsov, a scholar of Ukrainian nationalism in London, has pointed out that the Svoboda Party's ratings have fallen. But we really have to go, really, by the percentage that they got in the last elections, in 2012, which is just over 10 percent. And we shall see how they fare in the upcoming elections for Parliament, which are scheduled at the end of this year.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let's talk about how you would resolve this Crimea crisis. I know you've written about this. Can you just sort of give us a play-by-play of how you would have resolved this?

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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)
 

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