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Alexander J. Motyl
The Ukrainian Diaspora and Ukraine

Boy, the Ukrainian diaspora must've really gotten under Viktor Yanukovych's skin.

It all began about a year ago, when Ukraine's president wrote an open letter offering to meet with a Ukrainian-American umbrella organization. Since he was obviously grandstanding-how else can you explain the open letter?-they turned him down. Rumor has it that Yanukovych felt dissed, but he should've known better than to extend a very public peace offering to a diaspora that hates his authoritarian, anti-Ukrainian, and anti-democratic policies. A serious offer would have been made in private.

In the months that followed, the president's Regionnaires contented themselves with snarling at or ignoring the diaspora. Until recently, that is, when a number of Yanukovych's minions have taken to criticizing Ukrainians abroad for their animus toward the prez and lecturing them on how they should behave. With great respect for the current government, of course. And with unbounded love for Ukraine, no less.

Now, disregard the fact that Regionnaires are the antithesis of respect, love, and-good grief!-patriotism, and for them to be lecturing anyone but Al Capone about these virtues is the height of chutzpah. These guys respect only fists. They love power. And their patria is their bank account in the Caymans.

What's important about their rage is, of course, their rage. The Regionnaires only respond to people they fear-they prefer to spit on everybody else-and it's clear that they fear the diaspora (which, by the way, is anything but a united entity meriting a definite article). And their fear is not unfounded.

First, diaspora Ukrainians know the Regionnaires are thugs-and aren't afraid to tell the world. That matters because some of the Regionnaires are either trying to go straight or trying to create the impression that they're going straight. Obviously, they'd prefer that Western governments and media, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and other respectable institutions not be reminded of their criminal pasts (and presents).

Second, diaspora Ukrainians actually have some clout-not much, mind you, but just enough to cause trouble when key policy decisions have to be made in the corridors of power in the United States and Western Europe. It's easy to dismiss the demonstrators waving anti-Yanukovych placards. But what do you about the articles, op-eds, books, reports, seminars, conferences, and lectures that, almost without exception, advise Western governments not to trust the Yanukovych boys?

Third and most worrisome perhaps, diaspora Ukrainians speak English as well as a host of other foreign languages. And that gives them an insurmountable advantage over Ukraine's two-bit Regionnaire politicos who can't even speak proper Russian. The Regionnaires can hold court in the slums of the Donbas, but everywhere else they're just a bunch of hicks and they know it. Diaspora Ukrainians can out-French, out-German, out-Spanish, and out-English them in any world forum, and they know it, too.

What really gets the Regionnaires' goat is that, as much as they detest the diaspora, they also need it. They need its tourism, its technical assistance, its know-how, its hard currency, its remittances-and its foreign-language intermediation and good will, especially now, as Yanukovych is making overtures to the West in the hopes of escaping Mother Russia's loving embrace. Yanukovych even bit the bullet on August 26th and met with representatives of the World Congress of Ukrainians in Kyiv. They spoke their minds and told him that "violating human rights in Ukraine and especially constricting the opposition and unjustifiably arresting ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko may harm" Ukraine's integration into Europe. It's not clear how Yanukovych responded, as his website provides only one quotation: "We Ukrainians-both those who live in Ukraine and those who live beyond its borders-are one big Ukrainian family, which desires happiness and a better fate for Ukraine. We should unite for the sake of the future of our state."

His statement reveals the depth of Regionnaire perplexity about the hated diaspora. Small wonder that the president's spokesmen have turned to telling Ukrainians abroad to love Ukraine. The Regionnaires can't buy the diaspora or beat it up. So what's left? Appeals to patriotism-which, as Samuel Johnson once said, is "the last refuge of a scoundrel." Of course, the diaspora does love Ukraine. It just happens to be one without Regionnaire scoundrels.

Sep 09, 2011