Martin J. Stránský, editor of Přítomnost, spoke with the winner of the Ferdinand Peroutka Prize 2021 about the situation in Ukraine.
Martin Jan Stránský: You were in Ukraine in 2017, even in Donetsk, and you wrote a series of reports about it. What drew you there?
Tereza Engelova: When I went to Ukraine in 2017, I was interested in it as a frozen conflict that has been going on for a long time, and therefore media interest in it has waned. But media oblivion doesn’t mean that for people on the ground the war is over. Now the situation is different. Ukraine is full of journalists, which is right, because if it wasn’t for the media, President Zelensky certainly doesn’t have the mass support of the world, and at the same time it would be much harder for Ukrainians to defend themselves and raise funds for weapons, humanitarian aid, etc. I’ve always wondered, and especially in the case of the frozen conflict, how it marks people for years afterwards. When war starts, you deal with survival or flight. But when a conflict goes on for years and you feel like the whole world has forgotten you, it’s extremely draining. I was interested in the view of war in 2017, on both sides of the front. I was very lucky that I was able to get permission to enter Donetsk and the Russian-controlled parts of Donbass as well; I was able to talk to separatists and ordinary people who lived there. I think I was one of the last Czech journalists who managed to do that. At that time, it was crucial for me in planning my trip. That I needed to see both sides.
And what was your impression of that?
I confess – and this is the reason why I don’t want to go to Ukraine now – that I am tired of wars. War is a terrible thing. I know it sounds banal, but when you see the pain, the despair, the atrocities, it’s not a cliché. And the pain is the same everywhere. For civilians, it’s crazy, whether you’re in Avdiivka, a shelled town on the Ukrainian side, or on the outskirts of separatist Donetsk, where rockets have also been falling. Near Donetsk, for example, I visited a shelter where about 30 old grandmothers were living for the fourth year, just crying. They repeated over and over again how they wished for peace. They were basically living on water and bread. In the beginning, they went to Ukraine to get their pensions, but then it was impossible, and the journey, which was several kilometres long, took two days in practice through all the checkpoints. Now came an even crueler phase of the war. But the situation is different now. What the Russians are doing in Ukraine is unprecedented, absolutely insane. Moreover, it is no longer about some separatists, however controlled by the Russians, but Moscow has invaded a sovereign state, its soldiers are purposely killing and torturing civilians. It’s a different conflict.
How much did those Russians in Ukraine really want to belong to Russia? Is this just propaganda, or were there real problems?
There were problems. A very sensitive one was the then intended decree that everybody should start speaking Ukrainian, which caused a lot of passion in the east at the beginning of the conflict. Some people identified with Russia, and certainly the fighters who volunteered to enlist, even though they were getting paid, were certainly so convinced of “their truths”. For example, I did a report with a man who was a contestant on the Ukrainian X Factor, a local celebrity, who had volunteered to join the separatists, who wanted to join Russia. The mentality of the people of Donbass is certainly different from that of the west of Ukraine. They certainly had a greater affinity for Russia, but not all of them did either. A lot of people were afraid to speak, that was also obvious. But what is not talked about much now is that Ukraine had a huge corruption problem. Everyone there was dealing with it. There was corruption on both sides, of course, but the separatists got the feeling that they would be better off under Russia in this respect as well. Russian propaganda, of course, had a huge influence on this. Personally, however, I have encountered corruption repeatedly.
It was a very simple situation: I was crossing the border from the separatist region into Ukraine, and huge queues were forming there, perhaps for 24 or 48 hours, similar to the queues that are forming now when people are fleeing Ukraine at the border with Poland. I heard from hearsay that customs officers and soldiers were demanding bribes from people to let them in. These were Ukrainians. I passed through the separatist-controlled part without any problem at the time. I needed to catch a plane, but the line was hours long. At the same time it was perfectly clear to see that there were cars, people who had a “deal” with the soldiers, customs officers and others blatantly overtaking. The soldiers pretended not to see anything. The whole thing took place in the so-called grey zone on the front line, where fighting was going on overnight, so that people who were stuck there were regularly fighting for their lives. Not to mention that there were no toilets anywhere, the surrounding roads were mined, so people were either doing their business in a mined field or simply in plain sight of everyone waiting in line. Again, the soldiers didn’t care. Total suppression of any human dignity. I arrived on foot to the soldiers that day and begged them that I was a journalist and my flight was in a few hours, I documented everything with my ticket. There was a clear incentive from them to bribe me to let me go. I refused, so I had to wait further. The issue of corruption in Ukraine is a topic that has now logically sunk in, and I heard from my fellow journalists that the situation is better now with the conflict, but it was definitely a major issue in Ukraine.
Ukraine has had 30 years to get its ‘house’ in order and at least become a member of NATO or the EU. To what extent is the current situation self-inflicted?
I’m not an expert on Ukraine, I don’t follow developments there consistently to answer this in an informed way. But we do know that Ukraine has tried to join both NATO and the EU. After all, we see the consequences of that effort in Russia’s reaction now. I don’t entirely agree with you that they have had a long enough period of time and haven’t moved on anything. We, as the Czech Republic, are extremely fortunate that we do not live in Russia’s neighbourhood and are not as economically intertwined with it as Ukraine. If we were a neighbouring country of Russia – I am not saying that the Russians do not try to influence our politics, we all know how they try – but precisely because we are not in their immediate zone of interest, the degree of Russian interference in the political development in our country would be different than in Ukraine. And that is also why we have come much further.
Why does Russia have such an influence on the Ukrainian character?
First of all, when you are part of the Soviet Union for such a long time, it shapes the mindset of the society and the political culture. The influence of the oligarchs on Ukrainian politics was huge, and Russian economic interests played a role as well. We have mentioned the highly corrupt environment. And also another thing is the language barrier. There are parts of Ukraine where practically Russian was spoken, people followed Russian media. Those are pretty significant things. On the other hand, you can say, “But look at the Baltics, for example. They were also part of the Soviet Union, they also have Russian-speaking minorities.” But Estonia, which has a population of one million three hundred thousand, is simply not Ukraine with its 44 million people, its grain, its mineral wealth. Moreover, even in Estonia there is a big difference between the mentality of the people in the West and its East. In such a small country. What then in a country many times bigger, which Russia considers to be a territory of its strategic interest? There are so many influences.
Assuming some free Ukraine survives and another “Marshall Plan” by the West begins, will Ukraine change for the better or fall into old habits?
I guess that’s a question I can’t answer. Especially now that we have no idea how the conflict will develop. How long it will last. How much territory Ukraine will eventually lose. Whether it will start to break up into more parts, which are also not impossible scenarios. We can only hope that the strength of President Zelensky’s personality, if he manages to survive, will have an impact on positive political developments in the country and on the West’s willingness to contribute to them. However, it is clear that this will not be an easy process.
But Zelensky was also the last president who many Ukrainians believe contributed to corruption. He is a brave fighter, but I know Ukrainians who think nothing more of him.
I also know supporters of, for example, former President Poroshenko. I know that President Zelensky is not the idol of one hundred per cent of Ukrainians, but I think that he has demonstrated clear moral qualities through his behaviour, his personal bravery, his commitment. So have his other associates. The political representation of Ukraine abroad is also excellent in many respects. When you hear an ambassador speak, for example here in the Czech Republic, it has an impact, a substance. I wish for Ukraine that out of the utter devastation, things will come out that will work, that will start a better future for their country, since you mentioned the Marshall Plan. I wish that Europe would be braver in its assistance. In every way.
Why are we still buying Russian gas despite what is happening in Ukraine? We allow Russians to travel, send their children to our elite universities…
I don’t think we should be buying Russian gas. The debate about energy dependence on Russia has been going on for years, everyone has been able to see the direction of local political developments, opposition members being murdered, journalists being murdered, Russia making no secret of its expansionist plans and Europe basically turning a blind eye to it, nice and warm. I am not saying that things are not changing slowly, but slowly is pretty essential to say. I think the events in Ukraine are a big wake-up call for Europe in this regard.
So why do we continue to be hyper-correct on Russia?
Appeasement? It just has not paid off in the last century. The heat on the couch? The fact that politicians, while they perceive that Russia is committing war crimes, is dangerous for the whole of Europe, but they also want to be re-elected, and if fuel, energy prices rise sharply, which they are going to anyway, but it could be worse, a lot of people will not re-elect them. There is a risk of political unrest. In short, it would not be an easy situation. Moreover, society is not united in this respect, and I am not just talking about the Czech Republic, but other countries as well – look at our neighbours in Austria, for example. In short, we can agree in our social bubble that we will turn off the heating and will no longer support Russia, but people 50 km outside Prague may see it quite differently. Apparently, even politicians in Germany, for example, see it differently. I think Europe still lacks courage, politicians still lack courage. I think that is paradoxically why they admire Zelensky so much now. Because they cannot imagine that they themselves would be capable of his attitude.
The article has been translated from the Czech original.
published: 2. 5. 2022