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About Ukraine -- an interview with the Iranian News Agency "Fars"

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The day before the Crimean referendum, I responded to the following questions prepared by journalist Kourosh Ziabari for Iran's FARS News Agency (English desk). This interview was never published.

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1 - The U.S. government has accused Russia of military aggression in Ukraine. This is while Russia says that it has the right to station troops in Crimea by the virtue of the agreement it signed with the government of Ukraine in 1997 which allows it to maintain troops in Crimea until the year 2017. This agreement is mostly ignored by the U.S. media and the Obama administration officials. What's your take on that? Is the U.S. government trying to demonize Russia in order to lay the groundwork for a large-scale military confrontation with Moscow?

 

I think the reason for the public's confusion is rather more mundane. It is very difficult for the average observer, who has very little background about either Russia or Ukraine, to grasp why the Russian Black Sea Fleet is still stationed in Ukraine nearly a quarter century after the collapse of the USSR,   along with several thousand navy personnel and their families, and that they have a treaty that allows them to be there through at least 2042.

 

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Having said that, on this occasion U.S. officials seem to have gone out of their way to castigate Russia, and president Putin personally. An example, which struck many observers as unprofessional, was the U.S. State Department posting ten ostensibly false claims made by President Putin about Ukraine.   Noted columnist and former Assistant Secretary of State Leslie H. Gelb even commented incredulously: " Can you believe they did that? "

 

Still, all the acrimony seems to be for domestic consumption, with little or no preparation being made for actual military confrontation. The Wall Street Journal even reported on March 13, with ill disguised disappointment, that the United States had turned down the Ukrainian government's request for military aid, ammunition, or intelligence.

 

2 - One of the complaints of the Russian authorities is that in the run-up to the removal of President Yanukovich from power and after it, a policy of alienating the Russian minority of Crimea has been underway, and one example is the declaration that Russia cannot have the legal status of a regional language in Ukraine anymore. How do you see this development?

 

Many observers have wondered that, with all the pressing issues facing the country, one of the first acts of the reconvened parliament was to rescind the 2012 law that allowed official use of minority languages in regions where more than 10% of the local population uses it. This affects not only Russian but, also Tatar, Hungarian, Rumanian and Polish.  The issue seemed so needlessly inflammatory that some saw it as a worrisome sign of the influence of the radical nationalist agenda in the new government.

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The parliament's actions did indeed inflame public sentiment and served as a rallying cry for "pro-Russian" rallies in the East and South, though the term pro-Russian in this context does not really mean separation from Ukraine. Rather, it indicates a desire to be freely able to speak one's own language--Russian, in one's own country--Ukraine.   In fact, Ukraine is already obliged to promote minority languages do so under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which it ratified in 2005.

 

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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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