This is NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson -- starting at 2 p.m. EST, ask me anything about Ukraine, from where I returned two days ago. (It's the fourth revolution I've covered for NPR in three years)
My short bio: I'm the Berlin correspondent for NPR. Before that, I was based in Cairo during the Arab Spring and in late 2006, set up NPR's Kabul bureau.
My Proof: https://twitter.com/sorayanelson/status/438687935680901120/photo/1
When you talk to the people in the square, they bristle at the notion of a civil war because they see their uprising as being civilians vs. authorities. But the reality is that yes, this could degenerate into a civil war.
It's pretty clear that not everyone in Ukraine is satisfied with Prez Yanukovich's ouster and the speed with which what's left of the parliament is moving ahead to take control. And there are other countries in the region where protestors could take their cue from what happened in Ukraine. That's certainly what happened in North Africa and the Middle East, although not necessarily successfully.
Most important is that people understand that these revolutions are about people and affect people. From the minute I boarded the plane in Berlin for Kiev, I was struck by how passionate Ukrainians are -- seated next to me was a young lady who with her sister were pro-revolution and their parents, against it. Neither side is speaking to the other, which is sad. And then there are the many families who've lost loved ones to the violence.
Hello, Ms. Nelson.
I recently read a rather disturbing article about the evolution of the violence going on in Ukraine that appeared on FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmond's website, boilingfrogspost.com. The article was by Eric Draitser, who writes:
The protests remained largely peaceful until January 17th when protesters armed with clubs, helmets, and improvised bombs unleashed brutal violence on the police, storming government buildings, beating anyone suspected of pro-government sympathies, and generally wreaking havoc on the streets of Kiev. But who are these violent extremists and what is their ideology?
The political formation is known as “Pravy Sektor” (Right Sector), which is essentially an umbrella organization for a number of ultra-nationalist (read fascist) right wing groups including supporters of the “Svoboda” (Freedom) Party, “Patriots of Ukraine”, “Ukrainian National Assembly – Ukrainian National Self Defense” (UNA-UNSO), and “Trizub”. All of these organizations share a common ideology that is vehemently anti-Russian, anti-immigrant, and anti-Jewish among other things. In addition they share a common reverence for the so called “Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists” led by Stepan Bandera, the infamous Nazi collaborators who actively fought against the Soviet Union and engaged in some of the worst atrocities committed by any side in World War II.
Would you mind addressing the concerns that the violence was caused by essentially fascist factions?
There is little doubt that the Far Right Sector is heavily involved in the "Self-Defense Forces" as they are called. But by the time I got there on Feb. 19th, a lot of different groups in the square were engaging the police with bats, knives, axes and probably guns, although I didn't see any until after it was over. It's important to remember the police carried out a lot of attacks on protestors, first with beatings and then with sharpshooters who took out scores of them last Thursday. I saw that bloodshed firsthand, and it was the police, not the protestors, who were shooting.
How much did people in Kiev talk about a general failure of governance over the years in Ukraine? Are people actually concerned about poor economic conditions and bad institutions? Or was it just mostly a feeling of populism and misrepresentation?
It was a key motivating factor. Anti-Yanukovych protestors felt unrepresented and complained about corruption and theft by officials.
Hi Soraya, always enjoy hearing world news on NPR. What projects do you enjoy doing from Berlin when there isn't breaking news taking your attention?
Also, is Robert Siegel as cool as he sounds? Who is the funniest NPR personality, maybe among the anchors or even the other correspondents?
Hugs and best wishes from a fellow journalist (print).
Robert Siegel is definitely as cool as he sounds. As to projects outside of war zones, I love people stories -- whether it's how immigrants are adapting to life here or animals encroaching on population centers and a story that will air soon about the Americanization of the German language.
Covering 4 revolutions, are there things or events you've come to expect? Certain events will signal an end to the fighting, and others that will signal an increase in aggression?
I really did have a sense of deja vu in Kiev -- the euphoria of a people's triumph at ousting a hated leader, the release of political prisoners, the fleeing of police. But what was disturbing was how quickly the "self-defense forces" from the square started displaying guns, taking over police equipment, setting up neighborhood patrols that were bullying/hassling people -- All of which I also saw in Cairo.
I think it's absolutely fantastic that you were also in Cairo during the Arab Spring- My question: what do you make of new technologies and their importance to these uprisings? Do you think there is a point at which Twitter and Facebook are more than just a new element to societal change, that in fact the ability to spread images and ideas and coordinate real life activities has enabled these revolutions. tl;dr Would there have been an Arab Spring or Ukrainian revolution without social media?
Haben Sie Deutsch?
Social Media definitely plays a major role in the speed with which these folks are able to communicate with each other and launch plans. But I think it played a greater role in Egypt than in Ukraine, but that's just a personal observation. Und ja, ich spreche Deutsch.
FB post by journalist Mustafa Nayyem started the protests Nov. 21. FB readers responded with protests in east and west. Multiple FB groups translating and spreading news since early December.
It did play a role as you note. But it was far more noticeable in Egypt, where Mubarak shut down the internet and cell phone service to try and stop what was happening. That ended up only galvanizing people more.
I am actually just happy to finally see how your name is spelled after hearing it so often.
Thanks, I think. ;-)
I'm greatly appreciative of your reporting. I wondered if your work has familiarized you with the social unrest in Moldova, which faces potential internal fissures partially as a result of tugs from several directions, not to mention regional identities. How would you assess the situation?
I wish you safety and success; cheers!
Thanks, I must plead ignorance as to Moldova, but you've peaked my interest and I'll be getting up to speed on that and other European countries where unrest is bubbling up.
Since this is reddit, I feel compelled to correct your word usage. I believe the expression is "piqued my interest".
Thanks. We radio reporters can't spell! ;-)
What is the condition of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine (or ones in the Russian speaking areas) and the ethnic Ukrainian population? As a result of the repeal of Russian being the second official language in those areas, could we expect similar consequences as in Estonia for those individuals?
Didn't get to the east, unfortunately, because the action was in Kiev while I was there. People aren't against Russia, fwiw -- many bristled when I asked about whether this is an EU/US vs. Russia fight.
Thank you for the reply, I'm wondering then if the emphasis on Russian involvement/ engagement in American media is skewing perceptions of the real roots of this uprising?
There is a tendency to portray this as an east-west split, but it's definitely more complicated than that.
What would you say to the claims that the Ukrainian conflict is being orchestrated as a coup by American and EU interests to force the Ukraine into joining the EU so that the Americans can place military emplacements there to put more pressure on Russia? Presumably because of the embarrassment of the Russians harboring the whistle-blower Edward Snowden.
Conspiracy theories abound when you have a volatile situation like this. What I saw is that protestors were fed up with the EU, Russia and the opposition leaders, and took matters into their own hands, which led to Yanukovych's ouster.
While true, let's not forget that the CIA has a history of stirring up social unrest for strategic reasons.
That is true, but no one I interviewed spoke of this.
Is there a difference between how the Ukranian protestors would define "success" in their revolution and how the Egyptians (or others) would define it?
More similar than different -- both want a real democracy, end to corruption and new leaders
Is the "east-west" divide really so stark in Ukraine as it's portrayed in the media?
How unified/organized is the opposition?
It's not that black and white, but there are definitely people in the east who feel closer to Russia and people in the west who feel closer to Western Europe. As to the opposition, they are only unified in their hatred of the Yanukovich government, which is similar to what I saw in Egypt. That all tends to unravel once the person they hate is gone.
What role, if any, did the U.S. play in destabilizing the country?
Let me answer this from the perspective of protestors I spoke to: They were disappointed not only in the US, but in the EU, which they were looking to for help, but felt only provided rhetoric with no follow-up. That's why when the deal was announced that Yanukovych signed, the protestors said no way and pushed ahead with their plans to force him out.
Wow, that's a tough one. I had to read an awful lot of stories to even begin to understand what was happening and once I was there, I discovered that even those insights weren't useful. I do think the story I did for Morning Edition on Monday before I left on Monday about Yanukovych's palace captured some of what led to this revolution. But I wouldn't say anyone has had the definitive story.
What do you think are the next locations in the world most primed for a forcible revolt?
Following Syria, Egypt, Ukraine, and the Arab Spring over the last several years (shout out to Venezuela) seems to indicate a growing trend of intolerance with long-standing regimes.
Several countries in the former eastern bloc in Europe are possible candidates -- Bulgaria, for example.
I took over the Berlin bureau with hopes I'd be able to escape revolutions and wars. But it seems like they follow me ;-) I don't think we can limit this to one country and if I had to venture a guess (hopefully an educated one) Ukraine is likely to spark unrest in other former Soviet bloc countries.
One thing we seem to hear little about is what happened to the captured police/militia. Any word on how they were treated?
I saw eight policemen who surrendered to protestors and then were escorted out of the square to a safe location, or so we were told. But the protestors escorting them were definitely protecting them rather than being abusive. One protestor claimed she brought them milk and food. And police who switched sides were cheered as heroes, even after what happened on Thursday. I'm not saying there wasn't mistreatment, but I didn't see it.
First, thank you for your reporting and this AMA. Second, given the Russian Military Readiness test announced nearby, do you think the Russians would invade to re-establish influence and control?
I seriously doubt it. No one appears to want a regional or world conflict nor can they afford it. But the Russians have to be included in any final international "solution."
Fourth in three years!! Where are you planning to report from next? What's country in the region is most likely to face turmoil in the coming year?
Hey there, Sonia! Not sure where I'll be reporting from next, but my bet's on eastern Europe as to turmoil.
Thanks! This trip was more dicey than anything else I've done since coming to Europe in fall 2012, including covering Neo-Nazi rallies in Germany. For this trip I lacked some of the protective gear that I had in the Middle East and Afghanistan because frankly, no one really expected violent revolutions in Europe.
There is no average protestor, and as the crisis intensified last week, I saw people of all ages, educational and economic backgrounds heading to the Square. They were definitely regular citizens even though it started with young people -- students, journalists, etc.
Can you speak to the levels of neo-nazi/facist involvement in these protests?
I didn't see anything resembling Neo-Nazis and as to the facist/right wing groups, they were very much involved in defending the Maidan and engaging police. I know a lot of the other protestors were uneasy at their presence. But I personally didn't see them hassling any of the anti-Yanukovich groups.
Where do you see Ukraine headed in the next ten to twenty years?
Likewise what do you predict Russia/US relations in Eastern Europe will be over the next ten years?
It's hard to say about Russia/US relations, but they certainly are strained and Ukraine has made them worse. I think Yanukovych going is only the tip of a very big iceberg. Even if all the sides there come together, there's still the issue of ending widespread corruption and overcoming economic struggles that are worse now than during the early post-Soviet days
Were you able to go inside Yanukovych's palace and if so, what were your impressions of how he lived?
They wouldn't let us inside on Sunday, but I was able to peek in the windows. As I noted on Morning Edition Monday, it was rather gawdy and extravagant. He also had two fleets of expensive cars -- one an antiques collection and one to be driven around in.
Fourth in three years, eh? Let me get right to the point: Are you starting all these revolutions? Ok sorry, serious question, I have heard the recent revolutions can be linked to higher food prices. Do you find this hypothesis reasonable, or is there more to it than that?
I'm not sure it's only about higher food prices, but money is a key issue. So is corruption. When the regular person who is struggling to get ahead also must pay bribes, it doesn't go over well.
Soraya, one of the things that have stood out most during Euromaidan over other protests/riots I've watched has been the civility that has taken place. You don't see Ukrainians looting or other forms of lawlessness (especially when police abandoned their positions). Everything has been directed at government entities. Can you speak about this?
It's the same sort of thing I saw in Cairo and Tunisia in the early days after the revolutions here. People helping each other, pitching in to clean up the debris, cook meals for those building barricades and guarding the front lines, and donating food and medicine. Very inspiring!
Yes, I am a subscriber to Euromaidan.
Do you think there is anyone who can step in as a leader and take control of the situation?
It seems that Vitali Klitschko is the lukewarm favorite (not even sure we can call him a favorite, actually) because he doesn't have history as a politician and is a sports icon for Ukrainians. But the problem is that he doesn't have much political experience. This is a key problem for the Ukrainians, just as it was for Egyptians and we see what happened there.
Thanks to everyone for your great questions and comments -- I'm signing off now as I have an early morning plane to catch. Please feel free to keep posting questions and I will get to them as best as I can in the coming days. Best, Soraya
Do you think there is a significant risk in Russian military involvement if the revolution threatens to compromise the naval base arrangements at Sevastopol?
That would certainly be a trigger, but I don't think the Ukrainian opposition is looking to redo that arrangement in the foreseeable future.
Hello Soraya, can you give us an example of a display of humanity that has stayed with you longer when reporting from conflict zones?
From this conflict, it was the way people helped each other. At St. Michael's monastery, which was one of the main makeshift protestor hospitals, volunteers brought all sorts of medical supplies and others with medical knowledge braved the freezing rain on my first night there to sort through those supplies. Everyone would pitch in to help and do the most menial chores, whether it was cleaning up the square after every conflict, preparing food in makeshift kitchens to help hungry fighters, etc.
One of the slogans repeated in social media is that the revolution is not over. Do you think the revolutionary fervor among those occupying the Maidan is strong enough to pressure the current government into fulfilling the demands of the people?
Since there is no formal procedure for conducting public consultations on ministerial appointments, it seems that the only way for the Maidan to voice their approval or disapproval is through further protests and booing, as we saw with Klitschko's announcements on Friday night. How do you think this relationship between the protesters and the Rada will play out in the upcoming days and weeks?
How does this revolution compare to the others you've covered in terms of how well-organized the protesters are? Have the Samoobrona teams played a meaningful role in keeping the peace, improving morale, preventing looting, etc? How would you describe their cooperation with the police and other Ministry of Internal Affairs forces?
Thanks for doing this IAmA!
What remains of the parliament certainly appears to be in a hurry to fulfill not only protestors' demands, but to ensure they retain control and can persuade the West -- particularly the IMF -- to start sending money. The economic crisis is more urgent than the political one, with reports today saying the currency ist at its lowest value today since the crisis began.
I am baffled by Russia's insistence that the protests and removal of Ukranian President Yanukovych are, in some sense, illegal and blatant acts of terrorism. Do these accusations, as well as Putin's orders for military exercises, bear any weight in the minds of the Ukranian people? Do they consider Putin more of a threat to their progress than, say, their own internal turmoil?
I didn't hear anyone complaining about Putin per say, although there is a lot of anger that Yanukovych may be harbored by the Russians or pro-Russian Ukrainians. Every single protestor I interviewed wants him to stand trial after what happened on Thursday.
What advice would you give to someone trying to break into the world of freelance journalism? Particularly if that someone was an American living in Eastern Europe who spoke a couple local languages, including Russian?
If you are in a hot spot, make a point of meeting some of the correspondents on the ground -- or reach to Western media by looking up contacts on their web site. There are a lot of opportunities for freelancers.
I just wanted to say that I’m a huge fan of your work!
What is the scariest situation you have been in? While covering revolutions of course
too many scary situations to mention just one, but last Thursday was pretty bad in Maidan when bodies and wounded were being rushed past and angry armed protestors were storming past to take their placeo on the front lines.
I keep finding myself expecting you to sign off with "Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul." With that said, how are you liking Berlin?
Hello, thanks for doing this! Random questions.
What do you think about the (rumoured?) austerity measures that the IMF etc may or may not impose as part of any deal to bail the Ukraine out, is there much knowledge or talk of this among the protesters.
What do they think of large parts of eastern Ukraine being supportive of a close relationship with Russia (also in your opinion are large parts of eastern Ukraine supportive of a close relationship with Russia) are people disscussing the possibility of a federated state or a break up of the country?
Also how much support is there for the younger political figures like Klitchko, do people regard them in a similar way as they did the orange revolution leaders, or is there a more pragmatism. Is this a sustained period of political mass participation or a single action. Would you say the protesters are more a group of people with a system/various measures/policies/etc in mind looking for politicians who can achieve this, people looking for a leader or just dissatisfied with the ex president and Russian influence. For example, if Klitchko or whoever is elected and they pursue unpopular policies will the same people be on the streets like in Egypt.
I'm sure people have asked you about the right sector and other far right groups (if they have ignore this). How powerful do you think they are and how much support do they have among the protesters.
There is some talk of secession butt may be more the heat of the moment than anything imminent. Klitschko is among the more popular opposition leaders because he's pretty new to Ukrainian politics and a beloved sports icon, but it's uncertain whether he has enough support to win in the May presidential elections.
What are your concerns about the economic situation in ukraine, from what I understand Russia was one of the primary sources of relief in an economy that was crumbling. If "pro-russia" factions are losing support in the country how likely is it that some other outside economic force will keep the country on its feet? (EU, IMF etc)
The U.S. and EU have pledged some help, as has the IMF, but they would like to see some stability first. The economic situation in Ukraine can definitely be described as a crisis and the Russians refusing to pay anything more of the $15 B promised was a blow.
I'm not sure if you're still checking this, but do you have any insight into Poland's political situation with the rise of fascism and general stagnation? As one of the most successful post-Soviet economies, I know Poles consider themselves more Central than Eastern.
I don't see any signs of this happening in Poland in the foreseeable future and they are doing pretty well economically at the moment to the point where Poles are nervous about joining the Eurozone.
I don't have a question., but want to thank you for being a wonderful part of NPR.
Thanks and thanks for listening!
I didn't see civilians with guns until after the police fled and the protestor "self-defense forces" began carrying them. I didn't meet anyone who brought up the topic, but my coverage was limited to Kiev, so I don't know what folks in other parts of the Ukraine think.
Ms. Nelson, I am a huge fan as your reporting (and NPR) has kept me informed and entertained for a few years. What are some of the difficulties of putting on a radio report on location? How close to the action do you get? Have you ever felt as if your life was ever in danger? Oh and will you marry me?
Thanks for the offer, but I'm already married. Although if I wasn't, you'd have to compete with an Iraqi sheikh who offered two horses and a camel to my translator if I became his wife. :-) And yes, I've often been reporting from locations where I felt my life was in danger.
Is it a pre-requisite to have a strange name while working at NPR? I've been an NPR junkie since I was 17, and the sheer number of different names I hear every day is hilarious. Ky Risdall? Lakshmi singh?
Love your work! Just thought I'd toss in some funny since news is pretty depressing these days.
No funny names required, but thanks for the laugh!
Is the element of extreme rightism as powerful as I'm hearing, or is the general gist of the movement focused around dealing with government corruption and issues of regional complexity?
The latter. But that doesn't mean the right should be ignored, nor the pro-Russian crowd because he only way to make this work is or all to have a say.
Realistically, do you believe the sepratist movement will be limited to just the Krim or do you believe that as a result of Russian interference there could be a multi-regional secession?
I think it's too soon to talk about secession -- most Ukrainians don't want that. But Crimea could prove the exception to the rule.
Do you think the statements of support from EU officials hurt the protestors' credibility with the public, helped it, or had no effect?
For those seeking closer ties with the EU, it helped. But protestors were rather fed up with the EU by the time I arrived, saying they were all bark and no bite. (Similar sentiments toward the US) They mainly wanted to see the EU freeze Ukrainian officials' accounts rather than protect what they see as corrupt money.
Wouldn't know as I didn't try any. But I did like the Ukrainian Borscht!
You have a very weird name. What's your background?
I'm ethnically half German and half Iranian, but all American.
Actually I was struck more by the similarities than the differences, although on a lighter note, having to take a funicular to get to the action was different. :-) As to the similarities, you have a widely diverging group of people united in an effort to rid themselves of an authoritarian leader without having thought through what comes next.
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