International Committee for Crimea
Cartoon Controversy in Ukraine: A Press Review
By Kemal Seitveliev
As the controversy over the twelve cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed in a negative light continued around the world, the response in Ukraine and Crimea was relatively calm. Ukraine has a population of two million Muslims (estimated), amounting to about four percent of the total population of 48 million. There are about 200 mosques and 20 Islamic centers nationwide.
On February 6, however, the Segodnia newspaper decided to reprint two of the cartoons, sparking an angry response from the various Muslim organizations in Ukraine. They quickly demanded a public apology from the Segodnia staff. (Parallel Media, reprinted on http://maidan.org.ua/n/krym/1139329753).
Refat Chubarov, Vice-chairman of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis and a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, published a statement (http://maidan.org.ua/n/krym/1139264267), condemning the actions of the journalists that "could not have a place in a civilized society, and offended the deep-rooted feelings of the people." Chubarov appealed to the "genuine democratic principles," demanding more individual responsibility for one's actions and noted that the scandal was triggered by professional journalists. He further expressed doubt that these actions were of journalists own making; rather they were part of a broader effort to unsettle the search by the world and the European society for a mechanism that would support peaceful co-existence of different nationalities and religions. At the same time, Chubarov said it was also "unacceptable" for the Muslim world to respond with violence and similar offenses.
Mr. Chubarov's statement was widely publicized on the Internet and in print media. He also discussed the topic in a live program on the Radio Liberty (http://ukraine.radiosvoboda.org/article/2006/02/8c6ffe00-991c-49b3-bc26-98b46e79100c.html).
Chubarov's statement appeared all the more relevant because the Segodnia newspaper happens to belong to Rinat Akhmetov, the oligarch behind the ex-Prime Minister Yanukovich, the former candidate for presidency and the principal opponent of Yushchenko's in the Orange Revolution. It is ironical that Akhmetov, a Ukrainian businessman of Kazan Tatar origin, founded as part of his many political projects the Party of Muslims. Financed by Akhmetov, the Party worked intensively to gain the votes of over 2 million Ukrainian Muslims in the 2002 Parliamentary elections.
Once Akhmetov and the Party of the Regions found themselves in a vulnerable position, Yuschenko's National Union Our Ukraine, one of the heavy-weights in Ukrainian politics, issued a statement (http://razom.org.ua/ua/news/9482/), strongly condemning Akhmetov's and Party of the Regions' "dirty methods" of electoral campaigning and thus "generating religious intolerance and conflict" in Ukraine. Yuschenko himself, via his media representative Irina Geraschenko, also condemned the reprints of the cartoons in the Segodnia as "offending the national and religious feelings."
The Mejlis Chairman and MP Mustafa Jemilev commented that the reprints in the Segodnia pursued the political goals of destabilizing the public life in Ukraine. He noted, however, that the response was overblown in some cases. "The cartoons were unpleasant, even mean, but responding to them with violence was counterproductive" (Poluostrov, #5, 10-16 February 2006; http://www.poluostrov.com.ua/2005/57/1/2.html). Not wishing to be left out in such a highly visible controversy, the leader of the Crimean communists Leonid Grach rushed to make his own statement that the reprint of cartoons could spark a religious conflict in Crimea, and that the Segodnia had to apologize publicly for its ill-conceived action (http://yalta.org.ua/news/news.php?id=1139577851).
The Party of the Regions sought to distance itself from Segonia's publishing policy, saying that the Party's position "on such delicate issues was meticulous." (http://www.qirimtatar.org/modules.php?name=News&file=print&sid=869).
At the end, the Segodnia decided to apologize, if the publication indeed offended people's feelings on the Ukrainian 1+1 and the Russian NTV TV stations. The apology, however, did not come to mean they would avoid publishing the cartoons if they could. Igor Gujva, the editor in chief, claimed that the newspaper "had to print the cartoons" for the "right of their reader to know what caused the unrests," in other countries and lashed back at his critics who, in his opinion, "sought political capital by attacking the newspaper." (http://obkom.net.ua/news/2006-02-08/1746.shtml). The Ukrainian Ar-Raid organization, together with a number of related Islamic organizations from Ukraine who were the first to condemn Segodnia's reprints, decided to issue a statement on behalf of the Muslims of Ukraine saying that they "accepted the apology" (http://www2.maidan.org.ua/n/krym/1139418012).
An influential Ukrainian daily, the Day, carried an overall balanced overview of the cartoon controversy in the world and in Ukraine, noting that it would be unwise to carry the conflict over to Ukraine by making careless reprints or comments (http://www.day.kiev.ua/156858/). No other significant articles about the scandal and its consequences were found on the Web sites of the Crimean and Crimean Tatar press.
Posted: 23 March 2006