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Torn between East & West, is Ukraine having an identity crisis? Well, just ask ex-boxer Klitschko & a half-Palestinian journalist

Torn between East & West, is Ukraine having an identity crisis? Well, just ask ex-boxer Klitschko & a half-Palestinian journalist
Ukrainian politics is like the start of a bad joke. A comedian and a boxer walk into a bar... and end up taking over the government. But that is exactly how President Volodymyr Zelensky and Kiev mayor Vitali Klitschko started out.

As a friend once pointed out to me, being a quarter Ukrainian by blood doesn’t give me an instant right to comment on politics in the Eastern European nation. I’ve since realized, however, that given I am also a quarter Russian and half Palestinian, there are few people better qualified to understand the identity crisis Ukraine is going through than someone who has had one themselves.

It’s hard not to scream for help when two parts of you are fighting over Crimea, and a good chunk of your genetic makeup is trying desperately to join NATO. Caught between East and West, with a dozen ethnic groups all calling the country home, Ukraine has ended up like a parallel of me in my teenage years. Not entirely Arab, not entirely Russian, or fully Ukrainian, but pretty much Westernized, thanks to a life spent mainly in Dubai.

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Growing up, I spent most of my summers with my grandmother in Lugansk. Arriving there each year, I went through a strange transition from Arab girl to American-speaking cool kid on the block, translating hip-hop tracks for newfound friends, so I wasn’t entirely an outsider.

In fact, we visited so often that my parents had a dream of building a bed-and-breakfast for tourists near Donetsk airport. The dream evaporated, along with my fragile sense of Ukrainian belonging, when the conflict between Kiev’s troops and forces loyal to the two self-declared Donbass Republics, home to a majority of ethnic Russian speakers, erupted in 2014. 

Suddenly, I didn’t feel Ukrainian, and not really Russian, and, rather, as though I didn’t belong anywhere anymore. I already had one home I couldn’t really go back to, Palestine, and now I was finding that another was unsafe, too. But, while it felt naïve, I found myself wondering whether all Ukrainians weren’t really grappling with an identity crisis.

And then I had lunch at the table next to Vladimir Klitschko’s and it all became clearer. Walking into a Dubai beach resort, I spotted the younger, more charming brother of Kiev’s mayor, Vitali, eating at the table along from mine. The Ukrainian boxing legend was joined by a beautiful young blonde girl, his nine-year-old daughter. Hulking over her at 6ft 6in, he tenderly helped her draw pictures on a piece of paper. I listened in as the man who holds the record for the longest heavyweight title reign taught his little girl to play a game on her iPad. Fight Night Round 4, I wondered?

After about 20 minutes, I realized they were speaking Russian. Not the Ukrainian language championed by nationalist politicians in Kiev, but standard-issue Russian, spoken everywhere from the Kazakh steppes to the Baltic Sea – the one pushed out of modern discourse in Klitschko’s country, with its speakers treated as suspect.

The scene might not be surprising, given Russian is a dominant language in Ukraine, but watching one of the country’s most prominent figures sharing such an intimate moment, and using the same words a father in Moscow would, made me think. Vladimir’s brother, Vitali, is a champion of the country’s plans to join both NATO and the EU. How can you choose the West over your mother tongue?

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While Vladimir isn’t as politically outspoken as his brother, he told CNN in 2015 that, “I never thought that our brother folk were going to have war with us, and that Ukrainians and Russians would be divided with blood,” adding, “I really wish and want this conflict to be solved, and it can only be solved with Western help. Ukraine is looking forward to becoming a democratic country and life under Western democracy.” 

I wondered then if he had missed the lessons learnt from conflicts started by the countries he seemed to be trying to emulate. US aggression in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia – the list goes on. Of course, Russia also has its fair share of foreign interventions, including most recently in Syria, but the facts show clearly that they have had nowhere near the kind of catastrophic consequences that have accompanied the Americans’.

It might not be fair to hold Klitschko to his views from six years ago, however. We should hold him to his views from 2021 instead and, guess what? His faith in the promises the West has made to his country – and never honored – is unshaken. In April, he told the Miami Herbert Huddle podcast that “Ukraine has challenges due to the war in the east of the country … Soon that’s going to pass, and only with the help of allies is that possible.” 

The beach-loving boxer apparently slept through seasons one and two of Donald Trump’s presidency, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement. Nothing had made him question the dreams of American democracy that ignited the 2014 Maidan movement, or whether the West was still the future his country wanted. And evidently he has no qualms over whether a country with the record the US has would make a better ally than one he sees as “brothers.”

Despite that resolute belief that the solution to all Ukraine’s problems would be offered up from outside the country, Kiev is still locked into a civil war and, as President Joe Biden said this week, “school’s out” on whether it will get a path to NATO membership. “It depends on whether they meet the criteria. The fact is they still have to clean up corruption and … meet other criteria to get into the action plan,” he stated. It is clear Washington doesn’t see the world like the Klitschko brothers do.

Biden’s statement came just days after officials in Kiev claimed the US leader had “highlighted the importance of providing the Ukrainian state with a NATO membership action plan” during a call with his counterpart, President Volodymyr Zelensky. In a blunt reply, the American side said Biden’s words had been “misrepresented,” and it emerged that it was Zelensky himself who had made the comments. Talk about rejection…

It didn’t end there, either. In May, the White House waived sanctions on Russia’s Gazprom state energy firm, currently building the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany. The new link will bypass Ukraine, and Zelensky believes the country stands to lose billions in transit fees. While the West has insisted Kiev still be entitled to the payments for the privilege of transporting the gas, in June, Russian President Vladimir Putin blasted foreign leaders’ attitude, asking, “Do we have a duty to feed everyone, or what?”

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Perhaps Putin missed the interview in which Zelensky bemoaned that a drop in Russian transit fees would undermine the funding for Ukraine’s army – which is training for conflict with Russia. Yes, you read that right.

Unfortunately, as Zelensky is finding out, Ukrainians can’t have their cake and eat it too. But they can choose their brother country. They can choose their hang-ups about language. And, when I asked Klitschko, sitting at that table in Dubai, for a media interview, he could choose his answer.

His decision may have been made easier when I confessed, maybe foolishly, to my time in Lugansk. It’s hard to describe the awkwardness that followed. “Don’t take this the wrong way, and don’t be offended, but I will pass on the opportunity,” he told me.

Had I been writing for an American outlet such as CNN, would he have refused, I wondered? I’ll never know. Perhaps I wasn’t Ukrainian enough, or American enough, or maybe he just wanted to enjoy his meal undisturbed. All I know is, I’m not the one with the identity crisis anymore. The Ukraine that the Klitschko brothers and their allies have created is.

It isn’t too late, though. And, luckily for Klitschko, a beach in Dubai isn’t the worst place in the world to have an identity crisis.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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