Fifty lies and a truth: Experiencing controversy in Ukraine and Georgia

South Ossetia war 58 army

Russian BMP-2 of the 58th Army of the North Caucasus Military District in South Ossetia during the 2008 South Ossetia War.

This past Spring Break I had the opportunity to travel to Georgia and Ukraine as a member of one of the YIRA research trips. Over the course of nine days, three spent in Tbilisi and six in Kyiv, we conducted by my last count roughly twenty-five interviews, interspersed with sightseeing excursions in and around the cities.

The experience was unlike any I had ever had before, made all the more enjoyable by my incredible group members, who proved equally comfortable in interviews with editors-in-chief and senior government officials as they were discussing Russian electoral politics back at our apartment. To summarize everything we learned is far beyond the scope of any single article. However, one idea proved immensely helpful in guiding my own analysis of our time overseas.

On the first day of the trip, we met with a former member of the Georgian government, and while he was describing his experience with politics, he said that if you want to get the sense of an issue, talk to fifty people and prepare to hear fifty lies; only by combining all those lies can you drill down to the truth of the matter.

Perhaps “lie” is too strong a word, but nevertheless I noticed that rarely, if ever, did any two individuals share the same opinion regarding an issue. Even the individual who introduced us to this lense espoused a fiercely contested perspective on Georgian geopolitics, stating that the 2008 Russo-Georgian War was brought on by then-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s provocation of Russia. This very argument was dismissed as “Russian propaganda” in an interview with a local organization the following day, who went on to place the blame squarely on Russia for manufacturing separatist movements in a blatant land-grab strategy. The sheer diversity of motives, ideologies and experiences we encountered made analyzing the Georgia-Russia conflict an exercise in navigating controversy even ten years after the cessation of open warfare.

In Ukraine, less time has elapsed, rendering the range of opinions and debate even more polarized. On the matter of corruption and reform for instance, positions tended to run the range from at times naive optimism to nearly apocalyptic pessimism. Government officials tended to argue, quite convincingly at times, that the current state of anti-corruption efforts was good and only getting better. They pointed to ProZorro, the online procurement system instituted by the Ukrainian government to prevent the use of government purchases to build oligarchs’ fortunes. They discussed effective decentralization efforts in the healthcare and energy sectors and said that while reform may not be proceeding at the rate desired by the West, change is nevertheless palpable and growing.

On the other hand, former government workers and American expats living in Ukraine painted a starkly different picture. To them, reform only came when international pressure reached a boiling point and even then only shifted corruption to other sectors such as the Ministry of Defense. They highlighted civil society’s lack of interest as rendering meaningful reform impossible for as long as politicians continue to have incentives to enrich themselves at the expense of their theoretical constituents. In between both extreme points of view lay all manner of other public actors, from NGOs to news outlets who combined varying degrees of discontent with the current system and hope for future reform.

While no one can claim to hold a monopoly on the truth, this article is not arguing that all potential interpretations of a situation are automatically on equal rhetorical footing. The examples of corruption we heard about in Ukraine led us to question precisely how effective reform efforts, especially in the realm of government accountability, have been at countering rampant bribery, insider dealing and the siphoning of public funds by politicians for their own purposes. Simultaneously, the existence of some dramatic policy changes so far gives nuance to purely doom-and-gloom pronouncements about the future of Ukraine and Georgia.

It is clear that Georgia and Ukraine both face steep uphill battles on a number of fronts, from combatting Russian aggression and propaganda and treating the victims of armed conflict, to encouraging accountability in corrupt political institutions.

Neither fifty nor five hundred interviews are likely to yield a perfect understanding of the present situation in Georgia and Ukraine. The complex questions of statehood and good governance, the conflicts between those who remember the age of Soviet rule and the younger generation as well as the unique challenges of living in a country partly under occupation all create a multifaceted reality subject to endless interpretations. It falls to those seeking to understand more fully the nature of this nebulous amalgam of perspectives to bring those seemingly irreconcilable differences into dialogue with one another.

We can never claim to have a perfect understanding of such complex political and historical moments as the ones facing Georgia and Ukraine today. However, we may forge a closer understanding from a synthesis of disparate perspectives, the merging of example and counterexample to create a nuanced and factually grounded analysis. I am glad to have the chance to help do just this, and hope to do justice to those voices we heard from.