Friday April 10, 2020

Book Review: Delving deep into Ukraine’s complex History, Demography and Conflict Resolution

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File:OSCE SMM monitoring the movement of heavy weaponry in eastern Ukraine, Wikimedia

– by Vikas Datta

Title: In Wartime – Stories from Ukraine; Author: Tim Judah; Publisher: Penguin Random House; Pages: 259; Price: Rs 599

This is the first casualty of war, goes the old saying, and this holds most true in civil wars where the arguments over legitimacy of a government, the course and meaning of history (which rarely remains in the past), and the validity of a separate identity and nationalism can be as fiercely contested as territory. Ukraine is a case in point.

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Who should be held responsible for the conflict that has seen Europe’s second-largest country lose the Crimean peninsula while expanses of its land in its east are out of its control? Is it big, powerful neighbour (and former overlord) Russia that is stirring trouble and trying to resurrect the Soviet Union in some form? Or is it Ukraine itself, which is not treating its Russian-speaking minority properly, and is basically an artificial creation which doesn’t even have rationale for independent nationhood?

Trying to find answers to these questions, or rather what the people think, journalist-cum-author Tim Judah travels all over the country, from its west — where the old Austro-Hungarian and Polish influence lingers — to the east — where the Russian impact is strong — and even a sliver of territory, only accessible across the post-Soviet state (Moldova), which contains a bewildering mishmash of ethnic groups.

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Judah, who has reported on the Ukraine situation for the Economist, whose Balkans correspondent he is, and the New York Review of Books, and has extensive experience of covering conflicts in Eastern Europe, Afghanistan, Iraq and Darfur, among others, notes what drew him here was that Ukraine, despite all its importance, was “one of the continent’s most-under-reported places” — and covered in a skewed manner if at all.

“For most of the last century, what little reporting in the foreign press there was, was done in the main by foreign correspondents living in Moscow, who inevitably absorbed some of the imperial and then former imperial capital’s patronising attitudes,” he said.

Though revolution and wars have awakened editors, “most outlets still do not give journalists the space to make people and places really come alive” now and it is this deficiency that Judah sets out to redress with his vivid yet balanced account, which is also heart-rendering at quite a few places.

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However, he makes it clear that he is not presenting an account of events that led to the Maidan revolution of 2014, the annexation of the Crimea, the consequent war, or who was responsible for the shootings at the Maidan, or of the Malaysian Airlines plane. Nor is it a history of Ukraine, though what happened in Lviv and Western Ukraine during World War II and the history of Donetsk in the east do creep in “because these two stories are key to understanding what is happening now”.

What Judah presents are stories of a whole lot of common but extraordinary Ukrainians, Russians and a whole gamut of ethnic minorities spanning from professors to grandmothers to ex-soldiers (and a Russian agent who has been set in all scenes of strife since the days of the Soviet Union), and sights and scenes.

Beginning with the stark description of a war fatality whose body hangs from overhead power lines, Judah unforgettably depicts how the past hangs heavy when he visits a cemetery in western Ukraine.

This, he tells us, has bodies of the Austro-Hungarian soldiers who died fighting the Russians in the First World War, the Poles who died fighting the Ukrainians when it was over, and next to them, their Ukrainian enemies, the people murdered by the Soviets in 1941, the Soviets who died fighting the Nazis, the monument to the local Ukrainian SS division, the other Ukrainians who fought with the Nazis, against them, against the Poles again, then against the Soviets, and “now the new sections for a new generation”.

His account, well enlivened with maps and photos, is, however, not a very comforting read but a tragically sobering one about how identity politics, geopolitical aims, misgovernance and corruption — in one place, a politician laments how it is hard to fund schools when nobody pays their taxes — and, above all, how the heavy hand of history can blight lives. (IANS)

Next Story

Find out How Coronavirus Pandemic Has Disrupted Global Food Supplies

Explainer: How Coronavirus Crisis Is Affecting Food Supply

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People wait in line to buy food amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in downtown Havana, Cuba. VOA

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted global food supplies and is causing labor shortages in agriculture worldwide. This is the latest health news.

Are there food shortages?

Panic buying by shoppers cleared supermarket shelves of staples such as pasta and flour as populations worldwide prepared for lockdowns.

Meat and dairy producers as well as fruit and vegetable farmers struggled to shift supplies from restaurants to grocery stores, creating the perception of shortages for consumers.

Retailers and authorities say there are no underlying shortages and supplies of most products have been or will be replenished. Bakery and pasta firms in Europe and North America have increased production.

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Food firms say panic purchasing is subsiding as households have stocked up and are adjusting to lockdown routines.

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Agricultural workers clean carrot crops of weeds amid an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a farm near Arvin, California, U.S. VOA

The logistics to get food from the field to the plate, however, are being increasingly affected and point to longer-term problems.

In the short term, lack of air freight and trucker shortages are disrupting deliveries of fresh food.

In the long term, lack of labor is affecting planting and harvesting and could cause shortages and rising prices for staple crops in a throwback to the food crises that shook developing nations a decade ago.

What’s disrupting the food supply?

With many planes grounded and shipping containers hard to find after the initial coronavirus crisis in China, shipments of vegetables from Africa to Europe or fruit from South America to the United States are being disrupted.

A labor shortage could also cause crops to rot in the fields.

As spring starts in Europe, farms are rushing to find enough workers to pick strawberries and asparagus, after border closures prevented the usual flow of foreign laborers. France has called on its own citizens to help offset an estimated shortfall of 200,000 workers.

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More wide-scale crop losses are looming in India, where a lockdown has sent masses of workers home, leaving farms and markets short of hands as staple crops like wheat near harvest.

Is food going to cost more?

Wheat futures surged in March to two-month highs, partly because of the spike in demand for bakery and pasta goods, while corn (maize) sank to a 3½-year low as its extensive use in biofuel exposed it to an oil price collapse.

Benchmark Thai white rice prices have already hit their highest level in eight years.

Swings in commodity markets are not necessarily passed on in prices of grocery goods, as food firms typically buy raw materials in advance. A sustained rise in prices will, however, eventually be passed on to consumers.

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A farmer feeds iceberg lettuce to his buffalo during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Bhuinj village in Satara district in the western state of Maharashtra, India. VOA

Some poorer countries subsidize food to keep prices stable.

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The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that a rush to buy by countries that rely on imports of staple foods could fuel global food inflation, despite ample reserves of staple crops.

Fresh produce such as fruit or fish or unprocessed grains such as rice reflect more immediately changes in supply and demand.

Will there be enough food if the crisis lasts?

Analysts say global supplies of the most widely consumed food crops are adequate. Wheat production is projected to be at record levels in the year ahead.

Also Read- Every Hospital in US May Treat COVID-19 Patients: Health Human Service Agency

However, the concentration of exportable supply of some food commodities in a small number of countries and export restrictions by big suppliers concerned about having enough supply at home can make world supply more fragile than headline figures suggest.

Another source of tension in global food supply could be China. There are signs the country is scooping up foreign agricultural supplies as it emerges from its coronavirus shutdown and rebuilds its massive pork industry after a devastating pig disease epidemic. (VOA)