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A Ukrainian Oscar, crackdown on Russian dissent and border disputes between allies

This year’s Oscar for the best feature-length documentary went to the harrowing Ukrainian picture 20 Days in Mariupol, depicting the agony of the city stormed by the Russian army in the spring of 2022. Receiving the statuette – a dream of film-industry professionals the world over – the film’s creator Mstyslav Chernov said that he would have preferred not to have received an Oscar and that the film had not been made because there was no war in Ukraine. For a short moment, the atmosphere of Hollywood glitz was broken by this sombre reflection on Russian aggression and its victims.

An Oscar for a Ukrainian war film can be seen as an expression of the empowerment of Ukraine that has occurred not only in the political sphere but also in the cultural realm. So it was with some bitterness that the Ukrainian media – which had planned to relay the abridged version of the Oscar gala – noted that a part of the award ceremony featuring “20 Days in Mariupol” and its crew had been cut from it. The organiser and producer of the event, Disney Entertainment, explained that such cuts were necessary when shortening the full event, which lasted several hours, into a 90-minute broadcast.

But Ukrainian columnist Vitaly Portnikov had another theory. On the Ukrainian media Espreso, he believes that for the Western conscience the Russia-Ukraine war is now history. It is a story which has disappeared from the front pages of newspapers and occupies a place somewhere on the periphery of the imagination. This despite the fact that, in his view, the war is only just gaining momentum and it is inevitable that the conflict between democracies and authoritarianism will spill over into more areas of the world, with Vladimir Putin declaring his readiness for a nuclear war with the West. Portnikov also points out that a year ago, no cut was made to Yulia Navalny’s award-reception speech for the film Navalny, in which she did not once refer to her country’s Russian aggression against Ukraine.

The opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died in a Russian penal colony in February, was honoured with a minute’s silence at this year’s Oscars ceremony. Anthropologist Katherine Verdery once pondered on the politics of dead bodies in the context of Eastern Europe’s post-communist transition. Those musings take on relevance when we see that, for many audiences, the symbolic weight of one body can be far greater than the lives taken from thousands of people.

Alexei Navalny’s supporters have avoided the topic of Ukraine for a practical reason. It is because they are fighting to influence Russians, not Ukrainians. Their battle is against Putin’s regime, and so far their victories are only moral.

Just a few weeks after the prison murder of Alexei Navalny, on 12 March one of the leaders of his movement Leonid Volkov was attacked near his home and severely beaten with a hammer. This happened not in Russia, but in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius. On the same day Volkov was giving an interview to the exiled independent Russian portal Meduza. In the interview, he stated that he considered the biggest risk to be “that they would kill us all”.

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The Lithuanian security services believe that Russian agents most likely organised the attack in an attempt to counter opposition influence over Russia’s presidential election on 15-17 march 2024. On Twitter, minister of Foreign Affairs Gabrielius Landsbergis said that the relevant authorities were at work and that those responsible for the attack on Leonid Volkov would be punished.

The attack comes on the heels of the poisoning of reporter Yelena Kostyuchenko in Germany and the brutal death in Spain of Maksim Kuzminov, a Russian pilot who went to work with Ukraine. Europe’s counter-intelligence services are evidently strugglng to ensure the safety of exiled Russian opposition figures. As the popular Russian political analyst Ekaterina Shulman put it, Russian agents are roaming freely around Europe as if at a buffet.

In Poland, protests by farmers and a few other groups have been ongoing for many weeks at the border with Ukraine. Officially, the protest and blockade is aimed at imports of food and agricultural products from Ukraine. In practice, however, the disruption of border crossings and roads is hampering the transport of all goods – including those needed at the front. After several situations where Polish protesters had dumped Ukrainian goods from train carriages and containers, the Polish prime minister finally decided to include border crossings in the list of specially protected critical infrastructure. It came as a surprise to many that the border with a country at war had not been considered as critical.

The border blockade is casting a shadow over Polish-Ukrainian relations. The Ukrainians are keen to maintain the favourable trade arrangements that the EU has offered them since February 2022. Polish farmers, for their part, want a complete closure of the border to Ukrainian produce. Meanwhile, specialists – widely ignored – have explained, as Kaja Puto reports in Krytyka Polityczna, that low grain prices on the Polish market are not the result of an influx of Ukrainian grain, but a reflection of prices on world markets. Those prices have certainly been lowered by Russia’s huge output.

Over in Ukraine there is some outrage that Poland is demanding the closure of its border to them while seeing no problem in trade with Russia or Belarus. Such trade is not illegal, after all, because food commodities are not covered by sanctions. The atmosphere was further heated by the detentions in Poland of some Ukrainian journalists who were trying to document this situation.

Ukrainians have also taken a very dim view of the scenes of Polish farmers dumping Ukrainian grain. For a nation which suffered the Holodomor, a famine artificially induced by Stalin in the 1930s that killed millions of Ukrainians, such acts amount to sheer profanity. This is especially true, as President Volodymyr Zelensky often points out, given that Ukrainian farmers have sometimes been harvested their crops under fire, or killed by mines left in their fields by the Russian army.

Unfortunately, no simple solution exists that would satisfy all sides completely. Instead, Poland has local elections on the horizon, scheduled for 7 April. The ruling coalition is keen to defeat Jarosław Kaczyński‘s Law and Justice party, including in its traditional strongholds, i.e. in the Polish provinces. And immediately after that, the election campaign for the European Parliament will begin. So, for the Tusk government, this is not the time for a showdown with farmers.

Local elections in Poland

The farmers’ protests, and especially the narrative of low-quality Ukrainian food ending up on Polish tables, is stoking a resentment towards Ukraine that would have been unthinkable after the Russian attack just two years ago. The atmosphere of solidarity that prevailed in those days now seems distant indeed. According to a poll by Ipsos, 78 percent of Poles support the farmers’ protest and its demands. A similar proportion reject the argument that stopping Ukrainian imports could harm Ukraine in its war with Russia.

On the Ukrainian side, meanwhile, the situation looks similar to that of autumn, when Poland’s parliamentary elections were approaching. Many now believe that it is necessary to wait out the election cycle and the situation will normalise. The problem is that the war on the Russia-Ukraine front is not dependent on the Polish electoral calendar and will not wait until the summer.

In partnership with Display Europe, cofunded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the Directorate‑General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.

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