Taking issue with the OSCE SMM’s report on IDPs in Ukraine

Taking issue with the OSCE SMM’s report on IDPs in Ukraine

Last Friday the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) released a report on internal displacement in Ukraine and it seems like they want it to be read by as few people as possible.

The OSCE SMM didn’t just release this report on the last Friday in August – they buried it late in the afternoon on the last Friday in August (17.30 Ukraine time – 10.30 am Eastern in Canada/US). OK?

And looking at when the focus groups and interviews were actually done for the report, it’s not like they didn’t have time to release it when people might actually be paying attention:

“Focus group discussions and individual interviews were conducted between August and November 2015 in 19 regions across Ukraine” [emphasis mine]

Listen, I know there were a lot of focus groups and interviews – 161 groups and 39 individual interviews, to be precise, so more than 1,600 people in total. I’ve been that guy having to organize transcriptions and analysis of piles of focus group and interview findings. It takes time. But you mean to tell me it’s taken no less than nine months to do all this?

If they have, the quality of the report is pretty disappointing. This thing rambles on, with barely a signpost for the reader to know what the most important findings are. We don’t get any stand-alone block quotes from IDPs themselves to help contextualize and understand how they’re coping in new communities. We’re treated to vague discussions of IDP-community relations that could leave a reader thinking they’re far worse than they actually are. We get a conclusion (“Concluding Remarks”) that reads like it was pieced together the morning of (I know, cuz I’ve done it), a flimsy set of remarks that summarizes almost nothing of substance. If I ever handed a draft report like this to one of my old bosses I’d have had it handed back to me pretty quickly.

Read this report, then take a look at the UNHCR’s report from a few months ago about IDPs and host communities in Ukraine, and also one of the IOM’s regular reports every few months. I challenge you to reach a different conclusion than mine: that this report’s a watered-down stream of paragraphs that doesn’t really help us understand IDPs any better.

Should we be surprised? Probably not. According to one former OSCE observer:

“According to established OSCE practice, reports should not provoke major controversies. Instead, they should be politically acceptable to all member states, with the emphasis on ‘balance’ rather than ‘objectivity’. In addition to this approach, I also quickly learned that I was only one of several links in the chain of report preparation. Information provided by OSCE monitoring teams had been often already been ‘sterilized’ by the time it reached me. As a result, the reports posted on the OSCE website were often far removed from that what I personally wished to include, and what should have been included.”

I think we can add this report to that list.

Russia’s HIV epidemic dismissed as part of Western ‘information war’

Russia’s HIV epidemic dismissed as part of Western ‘information war’

(latest in Sydney Morning Herald)

Even as a UN conference began last week in New York, taking up the subject of ending AIDS, a Kremlin-backed research institute claimed the West is using HIV and AIDS as part of an “information war” against Russia.

The Russian Institute for Strategic Research (RISR) presented a report to the Moscow City Council last week on HIV in Russia where, unlike almost everywhere else in the world, rates of HIV infection are on the rise.

According to RISR deputy director Tatyana Guzenkova and her colleagues, the real goal of the West’s fights against HIV “is the implementation of the economic and political interests of US-led global structures, relying on an extensive network of international and quasi-NGOs.”

But none of this comes as a shock to Anya Sarang, head of the Andrey Rylkov Foundation.

“We’re not surprised at these kinds of statements anymore,” she tells me from Moscow, where she works with drug users and sees the scale of Russia’s growing HIV epidemic firsthand.

“It’s the usual thing in Russia now to discard science for ideology.”

There are two models for fighting HIV, according to the RISR report. The Western model, it says, is made of “neoliberal ideological content, insensitivity towards national sensitivities and over-focus of certain at-risk groups such as drug addicts and LGBT people.”

The Russian model, on the other hand, “takes into account the cultural, historical, and psychological characteristics of the Russian population, and is based on a conservative ideology and traditional values.”

The Russian model

The science says the Russian model isn’t working.

Approximately 93,000 new HIV cases were reported in Russia in 2015 – a per-capita rate almost fifteen times that of Australia. A million people in Russia have HIV, including almost one percent of all pregnant women – the threshold for a generalised epidemic.
Dr Vadim Pokrovsky heads up Russia’s federal AIDS research centre and is a longtime critic of the Kremlin’s HIV policies.

“The last five years of the conservative approach have led to the doubling of the number of HIV-infected people” Pokrovsky told AFP last year.

The arch-conservative head of Moscow City Council’s health committee, Lyudmila Stebenkova, described Dr Pokrovsky last year as a “typical agent working against the national interests of Russia.”

Not surprisingly, Pokrovsky doesn’t think much of RISR’s report.

“They use some questionable sources of information and incorrectly interpret the data they present,” he tells me from Moscow.

“Their arguments are not convincing.”

The Western contraceptive industry

According to Igor Beloborodov, one of the RISR report’s co-authors, attitudes to condom use is one of the main factors behind Russia’s HIV epidemic.

“The [Western] contraceptive industry is interested in selling their products and encouraging underage people to engage in sex,” he told Moscow City Council.

He and his RISR colleagues argue in the report that condoms “create the illusion of the safety of sex” and should not be “gratuitously distributed” in Russian schools. The solution, they say, is to completely abstain from sex outside of (heterosexual) marriage.

Dr Pokrovsky is dismissive of arguments like these.

“This is traditional rhetoric that was used thirty years ago and still used in conservative circles throughout the world. It is not particularly troubling evidence.”

Pokrovsky also takes issue with the report’s argument that “risk elimination” – in other words, completely giving up drugs and extramarital sex – is superior to harm reduction approaches.

He stresses that “risk elimination” is actually impossible. “The experts who understand this know that people cannot just give up extramarital sex,” he says, “and people dependent on drugs cannot just stop using them.”

‘AIDS and drugs will solve each other’

Even though 60 per cent of HIV-positive Russians are injection drug users, methadone replacement therapy remains illegal in Russia despite clear evidence of its effectiveness.

It’s an approach that has led some commentators to question if the Kremlin is even that interested in the fight against HIV at all.

“I have had conversations with Russian government officials who have said things like ‘AIDS and drugs will solve each other,'” Daniel Wolfe, director of the International Harm Reduction Program at the Open Society Foundations (an organisation funded by frequent Kremlin target George Soros), told The Verge.

“So I think there’s some question about whether or not Russia is actually committed to protecting the lives of everyone, or whether drug users fall into the category of ‘socially unproductive citizens’ the state might just as well do without.”

In Moscow, Anya Sarang worries about the impact the “information war” rhetoric from the Kremlin and its allies might have on Russian with HIV.

“It send the completely wrong message,” she says of the RISR report. “Basically this report is saying that the HIV problem is something made up by western media.”

“The Russian population is really psyched up now with this whole anti-Western ideology and discourse,” she warns. “People might take this seriously and think ‘oh, HIV isn’t a Russian problem – it’s just a part of the information war.'”

Stéphane Dion and his defenders

Stéphane Dion and his defenders

Stéphane Dion hasn’t been making too many friends lately.

In April, Canada’s foreign minister gave export permits for most of a $15-billion deal to ship combat vehicles to the human rights hotbed of Saudi Arabia, despite previously blaming the former Conservative government for tying his hands with the deal.

A few weeks ago he rejected a cross-party effort to get Canada to adopt an American-style Magnitsky Act to punish Russian human rights violators. Even though it was in his own party’s election platform last year, Dion said it was unnecessary and that it’d only further antagonize Russia, with whom the new government’s keen on a “reset.” His stance has earned him a lot of scorn from both home and abroad.

But Dion, a man best known in Canada for once leading his party to its worst defeat since 1867, actually has a few defenders, and they both popped their heads up last week.

One of them is Chris Westdal, a “a former Canadian ambassador to Russia and current chair of the board of Silver Bear Resources, a TSE-listed company building a silver mine in Yakutia, Russia” who took to the Globe and Mail’s opinion pages to say that “Magnitsky-style sanctions make no sense for Canada.”

Another one is Zach Paikin, son of a well-known Canadian journalist, who penned a piece for the Hill Times arguing that Canada doesn’t “need a Magnitsky Act” but a “rapprochement with Russia.”

So what did I think?

Our home and native land (или наш дом и родина?)

First, both of these guys make what I feel are some subtle little appeals to Canadian nationalism in their pieces that might be lost on the non-Canadian reader.

Canadian nationalism, in its most immature and narrow form, is an insecurity-driven quest to try to prove we’re different from Americans and that, therefore, any attempt to differentiate ourselves from Americans is a good thing.

Westdal doesn’t use this card much, though he does point out that “Canada is not the United States,” a truism every Canadian hears (or says) more than once in their life.

But it’s in response to Michael McFaul’s criticisms of Dion where Westdal throws it out on the table, saying that a Magnitsky act would be “a thoroughly U.S., one-size (ours)-fits-all perspective to a Canadian foreign policy issue.”

It’s a strange point – what’s so uniquely American about targeting Russian human right abusers? But to someone inclined to follow the we-gotta-be-different-from-the-Americans-in-every-way-eh train, this makes some sense. We need to do things our way, right? Even without any knowledge of whatever’s in question, saying “but this is how the Americans do it!” can get a reaction out of at least a few Canadians.

On the other hand, Paikin goes all-out face-painty Team Canada on us:

“There are two paths that Canadian grand strategy can walk over the decades to come: either we remain heavily dependent on the United States, or we gradually develop a sense of strategic promiscuity.”

Aside from the weird rhetorical flourishes of talking about our “grand strategy,” he has to know as well as I do that Canada will always remain “heavily dependent on the United States.” More than two-thirds of our exports go south of the border. It’s the largest bilateral trading relationship in the world, with upwards of $600 billion in trade across the border every year. Yeah, talk about “strategic promiscuity” (uh, OK?) all you want, but you can’t avoid the elephant that basically follows you around while you’re trying to score with the Russians.

But the way he brings multiculturalism into the argument really throws me.

For the uninitiated, “multiculturalism” is a word that carries a unique weight in Canada. Think of it less like the American melting pot and more like a patchwork quilt. Difference is to be celebrated, not discouraged. I’d say it’s something many of us cling to and believe in, even if we’re not always aware of it.

Apparently our multiculturalism can lead us to international glory, says Paikin:

“Multiculturalism is in our national essence. Within our borders, we bring people of many backgrounds together. If we decide that we wish to serve as a bridge between major global powers— that is, if we bring our multiculturalism into the international sphere—then we will develop the incentive to obtain the capabilities necessary to act in that capacity. If we work toward being significantly more populous and more fluently multilingual (among other assets), then we can be a first-tier builder of world order this century.”


Our country’s ability to be particularly good at bringing people of different backgrounds and cultures together (incidentally, a point I agree with) means we can be “a bridge between major global powers” like the US and Russia? This is going to help us “increase our global influence and contribute to international peace?”

Come on, dude. Really?

You really think guys like Putin and Sergei Lavrov are going to care what we have to say because we use our active listening skills, non-judgmental demeanours and unique Canadian-ness?

dion and lavrov
“Je me fier à lui. Il m’a dit qu’il va jouer selon les règles”

Using Canadian multiculturalism to justify closer relations with Russia is one of the strangest arguments I’ve heard in a long time.

Whose economic interest exactly?

If it’s in Canada’s economic interest to reset relations with Russia and reject a Magnitsky act, these guys can’t really explain why.

“We seek re-engagement with Russia…to try to do business – to invest, to trade, to make jobs,” Westdal tells us, before concluding that a Magnitsky act would hurt our economic interests in Russia. But as far as economic interests go, that’s it. Yes, I know you’ve got a word count in an op-ed to cope with, but still.

But at least Westdal (and the Globe and Mail) are upfront with his own economic interest in Russia. Remember, he’s the “current chair of the board of Silver Bear Resources, a TSE-listed company building a silver mine in Yakutia, Russia.” He’s also involved with Canada Eurasia Russia Business Association (CERBA), whose economic interests in Russia should be obvious. By the end of the article we still know more about Westdal’s personal economic interest in Russia than Canada’s.

That’s probably with good reason. Before sanctions resulting from Putin’s annexation of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine, Canadian foreign investment in Russia was around C$5 billion, according to some guy from CERBA in 2014. That might sound impressive, but keep in mind Canadian firms had twice as much money invested in Peru last year. Yes, Peru, with about one-fifth the population of Russia.

But “re-engagement” with Russia might be in someone’s interests – Canadian transportation giant Bombardier.

Bombardier’s got a joint venture in Russia, a 50 percent stake in a Russian signaling equipment producer and, to top it off, a mention in the Panama Papers linking them to corruption in Russian Railways – whose onetime president Vladimir Yakunin once described Bombardier’s recently-resigned CEO, Pierre Beaudoin, as “family.”

Bombardier is one of the few big Canadian companies with an economic interest in Russia – and they’ve got the government’s ear:

“Records from the The Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying, show that Bombardier CEO, Pierre Beaudoin has met with senior government staff, including the PMO and Minister Dion, over 40 times since the October election – mostly since January.”

If there’s an overarching economic interest in rejecting Magnitsky and reengaging Russia, no one’s coming close to making the case.

What war? And what Ukraine?

This is where both these guys really lost me.

Remember, Canada has sanctions against Russia because of, uh, “everything” that’s gone on here in Ukraine – you know, that whole annexing-Crimea-and-sending-troops-into-eastern-Ukraine-but-pretending-we-didn’t thing. We don’t have sanctions against Russia because they, like, beat us at hockey or something. Putin did something that continues to deserve international condemnation, including from us.

But Westdal bothers mentioning Ukraine only once (my bold):

We seek re-engagement with Russia not to be nice, but to serve major, compelling Canadian national security interests in Eurasia, the Middle East and far beyond. We do so to try to turn the rising tide of a new Cold War, to try to stop the ruinous tug of war for Ukraine.”

At least he mentions Ukraine, but “tug of war?” We’re not having gym class outside today, man.

I got to randomly stumble upon two soldiers’ funerals week on the Maidan over the past few weeks here. Four coffins in total with, thankfully, only one of them open casket. Seven Ukrainian soldiers were killed on Tuesday. Five more were killed today. We all know it’s Russian guns and bullets killing these men, delivered across an international border they don’t want OSCE monitors going near. If it’s a “tug of war,” only one side has to let go to end it.

To his credit, Westdal at least uses the words “Ukraine” and “war,” even if in one of them was in a bad pun. Paikin doesn’t even bother mentioning Ukraine or even use the word “war,” outside of the Sputnikesque “avoiding post-Cold War triumphalism and toning down the incessant demonization of Vladimir Putin” – language I’ve personally heard from people I don’t think Paikin would want to be associated with.

A short conclusion, unaided by any Jump to Conclusions mat

I don’t think these arguments are about to persuade many people – but if some of them are in Stéphane Dion’s circle (and Zach Paikin may well be someday, given that he tried to become Liberal party policy chief when he was just twenty years old), Vladimir Putin might just put us back on his friends list.

For Crimean Tatars, it is about much more than 1944

For Crimean Tatars, it is about much more than 1944

(My latest on Al Jazeera)

There are fewer and fewer survivors of the Crimean Tatar deportations around to tell their stories, but Tamila Tasheva and her colleagues have been able to collect some.

Tasheva is a co-founder of CrimeaSOS, an activist group that provides legal, psychological and humanitarian assistance to Crimean Tatars and others who have fled the peninsula, where the Muslim Tatars make up about 13 percent of the population, since it was annexed by Russia in March 2014.

To commemorate Ukraine’s first-ever official day of remembrance of the Crimean Tatar deportations in 1944, CrimeaSOS organised an exhibition of portraits and the stories of 10 survivors.

In 1944, Stalin ordered the mass deportation of Crimean Tatars, alleging that they had collaborated with the Nazis despite the fact that tens of thousands had served in the Red Army.

Around 180,000 were deported in sealed trains to Central Asia and Siberia. Thousands died during the journey, and nearly half perished from starvation and disease within the first few years of exile.

The survivors and their descendants weren’t allowed to return to Crimea until the 1980s.

‘They were eaten by jackals’

“I remember the stories my great-grandmother would tell me,” Tasheva told reporters at the opening of the exhibition at Ukrainian House in central Kiev.

“The more time goes by, the fewer chances we have to hear about what happened in 1944 from the lips of survivors themselves.”

Among the stories from 1944 that Tasheva and others have collected is Saiid’s.

He was about to turn 10 when soldiers knocked on the door of his family’s home in Yevpatoria in the middle of the night.

“We were told that we were being evicted and we had 15 minutes to get ready to leave,” he recounted.

“We boarded boxcars – there were 60 people in each, but no one knew where we were being taken to. To be shot? Hanged? Tears and panic were taking over.”

For some, the journey would be deadly.

“We spent 18 days on the train [to Uzbekistan],” recalled Radife, a woman in her 80s. “We had one big kettle and a water bailer for drinking.”

Munire, a 93-year-old woman from Bakhchysarai, said that while no one died in her carriage, that wasn’t the case in others.

“We didn’t even have time to bury them on the stops, so dead people were just left there.”

But, for many, the worst was still to come.

Nijar, from a small village in central Crimea, described the conditions inside the former prison barracks where many were housed when they first arrived in Uzbekistan.

“There were unsanitary conditions everywhere,” she said. “We had seven or eight bodies every day.

“When we had no strength to bury them, they were eaten by jackals.”

Rustam Gafuri is a Crimean Tatar and the deputy grand mufti of Ukraine. He wants to ‘teach our culture, the history of our people …’ [Michael Colborne/Al Jazeera]

‘A lesson for the future’

Rustam Gafuri, the deputy grand mufti of Ukraine and a Crimean Tatar, says that these are the types of stories that need to be told if people are to understand the Crimean Tatars’ past – and their future.

At Ar-Rahma Mosque, the Ukrainian capital’s only mosque, Gafuri describes what he believes to be his mission as a Crimean Tatar community and religious leader.

“Our task is to show our culture to other people,” he explains in slow, measured Russian. “It is to try to teach our culture, the history of our people, our traditional language, to people from other countries so that they become familiar with it.”

For Gafuri, the destruction of Crimean Tatar books, manuscripts and mosques by the Soviets after 1944 underlines the need to remember and share stories about life before the deportations.

“We need to understand that memory is not just about remembering what has happened,” he says. “To us, memory is a lesson for the future.”

‘My family is afraid’

Young Crimean Tatars like Sabina take lessons like these to heart.

Sabina has lived in Kiev for nine months, but her family is still in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital. She returns to visit them – in fact, she was there during Ukraine’s early May holidays – but says that she and her family haven’t felt comfortable since the Russian annexation of the peninsula in March 2014.

“My family is afraid to say anything,” says Sabina, who asked that her last name not be published. “They are afraid to talk loudly about problems, about Crimean Tatar issues and things like that.”

Crimean Tatars almost uniformly opposed the annexation. Since then they say they have faced repressive measures, from media outlets being shuttered to activists being arrested and “disappeared”. They weren’t allowed to publicly commemorate the day of remembrance of the deportation.

Last month Russia banned the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar assembly, accusing it of extremism. As a result, anyone involved in one of the more than 250 local Mejlises across Crimea now risks arrest.

It’s because of things like this that Sabina says she doesn’t feel comfortable in public in her home town any more. The constant “pro-Russian” talk of people around Simferopol, she says, means she generally just visits relatives’ houses when she is there instead of going out in public.

“Here in Kiev I am safe,” she says.

Not forgetting 1944 – or 2014

Down on Maidan Nezalezhnosti before the evening memorial service, Lesia feels safe too.

As she sways to Crimean Tatar music with a dripping umbrella in one hand and a Crimean Tatar flag in the other, the young student from Belogorsk is pretty upbeat for a dreary day.

“It seems to me that since the annexation in 2014, people in Kiev know more about Crimean Tatars,” she says.

“People used to know Crimea as just a place to go and relax,” Lesia explains. “But now they seem to be more interested in our culture as Crimean Tatars and who we are.”

As the soulful tones of Crimean Tatar music echo around the Maidan and up the web of side streets, it seems that no one gathered here is about to forget 1944 – or 2014.

“I know that Crimea will come back to Ukraine,” says Sabina with smile. “I don’t know how long that will take. But I believe in it.”

When polls become “polls” become propaganda headlines

When polls become “polls” become propaganda headlines

There are polls, and then there are “polls.”

Polls aren’t just a few questions you slap together and ask to anyone you feel like.

Polls are complicated bits of social science. They’re based on actual sets of scientific principles and industry best practices, like Canada’s MRIA or the British MRS. The pollsters and stats nerds behind polls use the best methods they can to try to get a random sample of a population so they can draw accurate conclusions about that population.

These pollsters and stats nerds are happy to tell you all about these methods. They’ll tell you things like:

  • What they used as a sample frame (i.e., what’s our population? where did we get their contact information? does that source accurately reflect the overall population?)
  • How they selected the sample (e.g., clustered? stratified? quota?)
  • How they contacted participants (i.e., telephone? internet panel? in-person?)
  • How they asked the questions (e.g., did you test the questions beforehand? are they standardized questions? have you and/or other pollsters used them before?) and
  • How they weighted the final data to make it as accurate a representation of the population as possible

You can use this kind of boring, boring information to evaluate whether a poll’s drawn accurate conclusions about the population in question.

Of course, that doesn’t always happen. But when polls do go wrong, like they did in predicting the 2015 UK election outcome, this transparency allows different pollsters to look at what they did, understand what went wrong and how to make their polls more accurate in the future. You know, science.

“Polls,” however, are different.

A “poll” is when someone with an obvious agenda wants an impressive-sounding number to make a sexy headline.

The UK’s Daily Express just gave us one of these “polls.” Take a look at this headline:

80% of Brits would be happy to quit UK for RUSSIA after Putin offers free land”¹

Really? 80% of all people in Britain? Really??

Of course not. This was a “poll,” not a poll.

This “poll” is just a question on their website that was answered by 22,000 people that read “Would you move to Russia in exchange for free land?” with the options being “Yes! Bargain” or “No way.”

Real polls don’t run on websites open to anyone and everyone. If you don’t know who you’re talking to in terms of basic demographics (age, gender, location, etc.), you don’t have a real poll.

Real polls don’t allow people to vote more than once. I did, twice, even though I’m a) not British and b) not in Britain. Try it. Delete your cookies and go again. And again. Maybe three times is enough.

Real polls don’t ask leading questions or have leading response options for yes/no questions that sound like they were written by some guy down at the pub.

And worst here, real polls don’t do all these things and then have the balls to say something as groundless as “80% of Brits” in the headline.

An accurate representation of how “polls” make your average pollster or stats nerd feel.

But “polls” like this make good headlines for propagandists. No wonder then that Russia’s RT and Komsomolskaya Pravda, to name two of the Kremlin’s finest examples, picked up on it.

80% of Brits want to move to Russia after Duma considers giving out free land – poll,” raves RT.

Almost 80% of Brits are ready to move to Russia for a plot of land in Siberia,” Komsomolskaya Pravda says (my translation from the Russian).

Blech. This put me into desk-flipping-over mode.

Propagandists know a few things, especially when it comes to polls and “polls.”

They know most people only read headlines and aren’t about to scroll through an article for details on how a poll/”poll” was done.

They know a lot of people don’t understand how polls are actually done and don’t have the luxury (or pain) of knowing a former stats nerd/pollster monkey to explain all this crap to them. And they know that numbers and percentages stand out, especially anything that reads ‘x% of y think that…’

Think about this the next time you see a headline proclaiming a poll result.


1. Do not trust headlines that feel the need to resort to CAPITAL LETTERS.

Also, the irony of a UKIP-backing, Brexit-loving paper using what I’d consider a Gallicism here has really, really made my day



What Ukrainians think: are there Russian troops in Ukraine?

There are Russian troops in Ukraine.

Here. Here. Here. And here.

This shouldn’t be a remotely controversial statement anymore.

But just over one in ten Ukrainians say they don’t think there are. One in five aren’t sure.

I’ve been digging again into data from the most recent Omnibus Survey run by Kiev International Institute of Sociology, where they asked (KIIS’s translation from the Ukrainian and Russian versions of the questionnaire):

What do you think, are there Russian troops in Ukraine now?”

Almost two-thirds (65%) of Ukrainians said yes – they think there are Russian troops in Ukraine. But just over one in ten (13%) said there weren’t, and 22% (i.e., one in five) said they weren’t sure.

The first go-to breakdown for pretty much any survey in Ukraine – the regional breakdown – doesn’t seem that surprising on its face, as 35% of people in eastern Ukraine said there weren’t any Russian troops in Ukraine.

Dig a bit further though and there’s a lot more to this 35% figure than the oversimplified east-versus-west/’pro-Russia/pro-western’ business.

The curious case of what people in the “DNR” think

In Donetsk oblast, KIIS’ interviewers managed to talk to people in both the government-controlled part of the oblast and the “DNR.”

When it comes to the ‘are there Russian troops?’ question, the numbers are pretty striking.

What do you think, are there Russian troops in Ukraine now? Donetsk oblast, UA-controlled “DNR”
Yes 42% 7%
No 19% 78%
Difficult to say 39% 15%

Yes, people in the “DNR” – you know, that the part of Ukraine occupied by Russian-backed forces and with clear evidence of a Russian military presence – seem to be quite insistent that there aren’t any Russian troops in Ukraine.

Of course, if you’re asked a series of questions by a stranger in a militarily-occupied internationally-unrecognized fiefdom rife with human rights abuses, you might think it’s best to toe the line and say what the men with the guns in charge would want you to say, even if you know damn well what the right answer is.

What about the one in five who aren’t sure?

Keep in mind the one-in-five figure is for the overall population of Ukraine (excluding Crimea). In eastern Ukraine, 36% of people say they aren’t sure whether there are Russian troops in Ukraine, about the same as those who insist there aren’t any. In the part of Donetsk oblast still controlled by the Ukrainian government, 39% people aren’t sure.

I really doubt most of these people are that unsure.

First, I suspect there’s a hell of a lot of social desirability bias going on here – that is, people believing there’s Russian troops in Ukraine but being too scared to say so or admit it. I honestly can’t say I blame them.

Secondly, some of these people are probably experiencing some wicked cognitive dissonance. Some of these people have to know there’s Russian troops in Ukraine, but they can’t or won’t reconcile that with their own ‘pro-Russian’ views or what they’re being fed from Russian propaganda. In that case, it’s easier to cop out with a ‘gee, I don’t know.’

But others, I think, are diving down an epistemological rabbit hole, where they say they don’t know because they can never really ‘know’ for sure whether there are Russian troops in Ukraine. Ironically, this is exactly what I heard from someone back in Canada when I showed them this question from the survey. They innocently asked something like “well, how can people know that for sure?”

This kind of thinking is a total cop out. I mean, I don’t know ‘for sure’ that the earth is round because I’ve never seen it from space. Still, I’m reasonably certain it is round, and challenging me with a conspiracist “how do you know for sure?” line isn’t going to make me change that. I say that I know this because there’s a lot of logically consistent evidence pointing to it, whether I’ve personally seen it or not, and the argument against it has even less evidence and logical consistency behind it.

This kind of “you can’t know for sure” denialism couched as skepticism (“Question More,” anybody?) is just another way to deny the existence of any sort of truth(s) and to get away with saying things that are plainly, obviously and demonstrably wrong. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, you don’t need to eat a whole egg to know it’s rotten.

MH17 conspiracy theories about Ukraine swirl in Dutch referendum

MH17 conspiracy theories about Ukraine swirl in Dutch referendum

(my latest in Sydney Morning Herald)

Amsterdam: Despite evidence that Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by pro-Russian separatists using a Russian-supplied Buk missile launcher, Bart Nijman is not so sure.

He’s convinced Ukraine might be responsible.

“They know more than they’re willing to tell us,” Nijman, an editor at Dutch right-wing shock blog GeenStijl, says.

MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine in July 2014, taking 298 lives with it, including 193 from the Netherlands and 28 from Australia. The evidence strongly points towards pro-Russian separatists firing the deadly missile, but Nijman and others campaigning in the Netherlands against the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement don’t buy it.

Nijman says that Ukraine’s apparent refusal to hand over primary radar data is evidence of something fishy.

“It makes them a suspect,” says Nijman, echoing claims that have appeared in RT (Russia Today), Sputnik and other Russian state media.

“There may have been a Ukrainian warplane hiding underneath or in the vicinity of MH17.”

Claims like these, however tenuous, underpin the No campaign’s efforts to convince the Dutch that an already-ratified, 1200-page treaty with Ukraine is a bad idea.

Thanks to Nijman and his colleagues, Dutch voters will be asked on April 6 whether they approve of a treaty on closer political and economic integration between the EU and Ukraine, one that even No campaigners like Nijman admit won’t be reversed.

Leading No campaigner Thierry Baudet goes even further than Nijman.

“The Ukrainian position [on MH17] is absolutely dubious,” he claims. “It’s a country that’s essentially bombing its own people.”

Baudet even suggests that Ukraine may have deliberately refused to close its airspace over the eastern war zone to gain a tactical advantage over the separatists.

“Either it was money they wanted [from airlines], or they wanted it as a human shield, to make it impossible for the separatists to defend themselves,” Baudet says.

Some of these arguments have found their way, of all places, onto toilet paper. A No campaigner, businessman Ruben Marsman, actually received €48,000 ($71,200) of Dutch government campaign finance money to print and distribute rolls of toilet paper containing statements like “Safety – wasn’t MH17 shot down from Ukraine?”

With a new direct democracy law that puts legislation to a vote with at least 300,000 signatures, Nijman and his Eurosceptic colleagues were able to force the first EU-related piece of legislation in the Dutch parliament to a referendum, even if a treaty with Ukraine wasn’t their first choice. Nijman and and other right-wing Eurosceptic organisations, want to use the referendum to send a message to Brussels.

“We feel left out of our own democracy,” Nijman says. “We’re doing this to send a signal for our own democracy to Brussels. We want to shake up Brussels a bit.”

The connection between Russian-media talking points and Eurosceptic parties is a theme being repeated throughout Europe.

The Ukraine–EU Association Agreement has already had its place in history.

In late 2013, former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign the deal, which kicked off the Euromaidan protests that eventually led to his downfall in February 2014.

If the Dutch vote no, the government could feel obliged to review the agreement, which would throw a spanner into Ukraine’s hopes of European integration. More broadly, a Ukraine that can’t pivot towards Europe is one that has to pivot back towards Russia.

Nijman, despite saying he’s not interested in telling people how they should vote, says that the agreement will be bad for everyone.

“In the first place, I worry that it might anger Putin even more, and you never know what that will lead to,” Nijman says.

Baudet doesn’t feel that Ukraine is a country the Netherlands should have anything to do with.

Aside from claims of economic damage to both Ukraine and the Netherlands from the agreement, it will provoke further conflict with Russia, he says.

“We’re disrupting them in the name of some fantasy,” he says, “that there is some sort of new Ukraine rising up from the old.

“It’s the same sort of nonsense we heard coming out of the Arab Spring.”

Arguments like these anger Yes campaigners and Ukrainians in the Netherlands like Serge Radochyn, who runs the “Oekraïne-Referendum” website.

“These cliches are one for one what I’ve heard coming out of the Kremlin,” says Radochyn in The Hague, the seat of the Dutch parliament. “It’s just a reflection of Russian propaganda to me.”

No campaigners aren’t doing much to dispel that perception. For his part, Baudet echoes the Kremlin’s claim that the EU and the West “supported a coup d’etat” in Ukraine.

“We have brought the country to the absolute brink of collapse,” he says, laying the responsibility for the conflict in Ukraine squarely on the West, particularly the EU and NATO.

Nijman echoes another oft-heard Kremlin talking point – the existence of neo-Nazi elements in Ukraine – and claims that they hold the reins of power.

“You’ve got neo-Nazi members of parliament running around in Kiev,” he claims, referring to the far-right Svoboda party that lost all but six of its seats in the 2014 post-Maidan parliamentary elections, getting less than 5 per cent of the popular vote.

Michael Khrystenko, head of the group Ukrainians in the Netherlands, doesn’t believe the Kremlin has any direct influence on the No campaign.

“This referendum would have happened without Russia,” he says.

For Khrystenko, the No campaigners are just saying what they think they need to about Ukraine to win, which happens to dovetail with what comes out of Kremlin-friendly media.

“They’re trying to find all sorts of different reasons to blackmail Ukraine, to smear Ukraine, just to get to a No vote,” Khrystenko says.
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/world/mh17-conspiracy-theories-about-ukraine-swirl-in-dutch-referendum-20160322-gnp33g.html#ixzz43w9twptI