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Alexander J. Motyl
The Irrationality of Ukraine's Officialdom

A friend of mine in Kyiv who studies discourses thinks common sense is a "social construction." I think it's what you don't find enough of in Ukraine.

Take the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv, located off the Black Sea coast, with a population of about half a million. Reliant on a moribund ship-building industry, it's economically depressed and sorely in need of smart leadership and tons of investment. How likely is that to happen? Not very, if the below two examples are indicative of Mykolaiv's mind-set.

The first concerns the Mykolaiv mayor, Volodymyr Chayka. It turns out that one year ago, during New Year's and Christmas (celebrated on January 7th), he officially greeted the good citizens of his fair city in Russian. One Anatoly Ilchenko filed a suit against Chayka with the Lenin District Court on the grounds that the mayor should have used the state language, Ukrainian. On February 27, 2010, the court ruled that Chayka should have issued his greetings in both Ukrainian and Russian. Chayka appears to have appealed the ruling, and, on December 1, 2010, the Odessa Administrative Appeals Court overturned the Lenin District Court's ruling. Ilchenko then took the case to the Higher Administrative Court of Ukraine, which supported the Odessa court's ruling on May 12, 2011.

Now consider what happened. The mayor of a city with a population that is about three-quarters Ukrainian delivers an official address in Russian. This sets off a chain of events involving three courts and about one and a half years of deliberation and paperwork. The end result is that Chayka's choice of language is deemed OK. Fair enough, but was any of this absolutely necessary? Indeed, was any of this preferable to focusing all those many man-hours on more important issues, such as economic development or interethnic amity? Wouldn't the commonsensical thing have been to deliver the address in both Russian and Ukrainian to start with? Would that have been so hard for someone who presumably speaks both languages? Wouldn't that have been the obviousthing to do in a multiethnic city and a multiethnic country in which passions about language run high? But no: Mayor Chayka is either too obtuse or too ideological to see the obvious. Ironically, the Mykolaiv city council's website touts his "patriotism, devotion to state interests, and communication skills." With skills like these, who needs skills?

And then there's the even more astounding case of Viktor Tytarenko, the deputy head of one of Mykolaiv's administrative districts. The local organizers of a Ukrainian-German school partnership and student exchange visited Tytarenko recently to lay the groundwork for an upcoming visit by a German delegation to his district. Here's the way T.D. Yablonska, one of the organizers, describes her meeting with Tytarenko:
Three delicate women entered his office; they were all pedagogues by education, members of the school governing council, and people who care about the development of children and promote the development of international relations. None of this fazed Mr. Tytarenko.
But what we heard shocked us, like thunder on a clear day.
I quote: "Why should we receive the grandchildren of those who killed our parents and grandparents? And provide them with hospitality? What else is there to say?
About partnership, international relations, and the European Union? Where are we going? Where is your tolerance, gentlemen administrators? How are we to educate children, when it's still necessary to educate and teach some adults?
The head of the administration didn't want to meet with us at all...

Now, one can surely appreciate Tytarenko's strong feelings about Ukraine's enormous losses in World War II, but at some point-say, in 2011, 66 years after war's end-it just may be time to move on. After all, the answer to his question is contained in the very question. One should receive the grandchildren of those who fought in the war precisely because they are grandchildren who did not fight in the war. And then, of course, there's self-interest-a concept that is not exactly foreign to Ukrainian officialdom. A depressed town such as Mykolaiv just may want to attract investors from any country willing to provide them.

What's common to both cases? I know that obtuseness can be found in all countries, but this type of extraordinary obtuseness is, I dare say, typical of the Soviet mentality so prevalent in parts of Ukraine. Why think about what might work, if you know all the answers? Indeed, why think?

Jul 29