Monday, July 13, 2015

Civil war in Subcarpathian Rus?

While Crimea is doing fine as a part of Russia, Donbass isn't the only part of Ukraine where tensions have run high since 2014. The Zakarpattia Oblast, the most Western subdivision of Ukraine, has witnessed a shootout between Porošenko's security forces and the Right Sector, a notorious Nazi organization in Ukraine.

The Right Sector apparently wanted to preserve a cigarette smuggling ring that produces a few million dollars a month. There were some casualties. The Right Sector demands the resignation of the interior minister Avakov. These thugs threaten that they will bring most of their battalions to Kiev. Only two Right Sector battalions are fighting in Donbass – and that's almost enough for them to be the key force fighting against the Novorussian republics – but the Right Sector has 17 additional battalions spread over Ukraine so they could have some muscles to boast about. Porošenko vows the restoration of peace and order.

The Czech media have shown some scenes from Mukačevo, the second largest town in the Zakarpattia Region, where some cars with Czech plates may be seen. They apparently "belong" to the Right sector. At least one of the cars, an Audi, was stolen from Prague – directly on the Wenceslaus Square where the owner parked it for the last time. Quite typical: this is what the Right Sector represents.

As a Czech joke says, you're welcome to spend your vacations in Ukraine. Your car is already here. ;-)

While the Ukrainian language is an Eastern Slavic language, just like Russian, the Zakarpattia Region hosts lots of "Rusyns", a slightly heterogeneous ethnic group whose Rusyn language is a dialect of Ukrainian flavored by traces of the Western Slavic languages and Hungarian.

The region used to belong to Hungary – and Austria-Hungary. And between 1919 and 1938, it was a part of the Czechoslovak Republic. It made sense to incorporate all adjacent Slavic territories that had belonged to Austria-Hungary to Czechoslovakia. We call the region the Subcarpathian Rus. Note that the Russia, Soviet, and Ukrainian adjective is "Zakarpattia" or "Transcarpathian" which imposes a point of view on the speaker. It's "behind" the Carpathian Mountains, but only from some vantage point. The Czech and Slovak name is more objective. The land is "beneath" those mountains.

While it was the poorest part of our country, lots of subsidies were flowing to the region. The 11-minute video above shows the numerous things that were built in Užhorod, the regional capital, mostly by funds from Prague. Many of these things were named after Prof T. G. Masaryk, the founder and first president of Czechoslovakia. There is some sense in which the video shows that the region is poorer, even in absolute terms, than it was in 1938 when Czechoslovakia as the people had known it for 2 decades was broken apart after the Munich Treaty.

After some contrived tricks and a questionable referendum, the region was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1945 – well, by the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The latter detail didn't matter much because the Soviet Union was so centralized. It started to matter since the 1990s.

While the East of Ukraine is "different" from places like Lvov – because of its natural attachment to Russia – the Subcarpathian Rus is different than e.g. Lvov, too. It's less "Polish" and more "Hungarian" and more "Romanian" and more "Czech" and, in some generalized cultural sense, more "German". This co-existence with Austria and Czechoslovakia can't be eliminated from their identity, at least not quickly.

The Rusyns were our fellow citizens – and they were loyal members of the Czechoslovak Armed Forces etc. Lots of Czech tourists would visit Subcarpathian Rus in the 1930s. At that time, the Czechoslovak anthem – when played in the region – had 3 parts, the Czech one, Slovak one, and Subcarpathian one. I won't forget about those guys who organized a rally on Prague's Wenceslaus Square in Fall 1992 – when it was already decided that Czechoslovakia would dissolve – and they wanted to be annexed by Czechoslovakia, after all. They were so hopeful yet their goal was so hopeless.

It was hard and it's even harder today because Czechoslovakia hasn't existed for more than 20 years. But I do think that it was unfortunate for Subcarpathian Rus that it was annexed by a less civilized country in 1945 and that this act of Stalin and his comrades has never been undone. Many people in that region are dissatisfied with their Ukrainian leaders and the influence that Ukraine has over them. Sometimes, we may hear about a gathering demanding the Rusyn (Ruthenian) independence.

Just to be sure: only a small portion of the "Ukrainians" currently living in the region actually realize that they are Rusyns. In the early 20th century, their representatives refused to be identified as "Ukrainians" – they were a separate ethnic groups. But various regimes, especially the Soviet ones, de facto "banned" the term "Rusyn". These days, only 100,000 out of 1.2 million of Rusyns willingly identify themselves as Rusyns.

However, the recent shootout had almost nothing to do with the specifics of the region. As far as I can see, it was a conflict between the Right Sector and Porošenko's forces that could have taken place at any other place of Ukraine.

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