Zelensky speaks heart to heart to Indonesians. Part II: Zelensky, the Semar of Ukraine

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Zelensky, the Semar of Ukraine. Illustration: Agung/IO

IO – “Journalists have done no less for Ukraine than the weapons sent to us by our friends and allies – and the journalists’ reports and writings have proven to be a far more humane type of weapon. I use this weapon myself, for I try to have my voice heard through journalists. There are 6000 journalists working in Kyiv from many different jurisdiction and I want to thank them and to convey my condolences for the many journalists and their crews killed covering the war in Ukraine. You journalists are for us like food and water and you help to keep Ukraine alive. Just tell the truth and what you feel and we shall win together!” declared President Zelensky in answer to a question put to him by Bambang Harymurti senior journalist, veteran Tempo editor and member of the Indonesian Press Council, about the many journalists killed in Ukraine, during Zelensky’s recently held virtual global town hall meeting with Indonesians.

Merdeka atau mati was the Indonesian battle cry during its war of independence and Ukrainian Ambassador Vasyl Hamianin announced that it is Ukraine’s battle cry too – as with any nation truly determined to fight for its freedom and independence. Amongst the most important weapons that Indonesia used were also diplomacy and the press and this was proven when America finally pressured the Netherlands to give Indonesia independence or forfeit Marshall Plan aid. One of President Zelensky’s strengths is his extraordinarily good relationship with the press and his great skill at communicating. He has a canny understanding of the value of PR and is more adept at using it than President Putin.  

People are familiar with the fact that Zelensky was a law graduate who became a comedienne. In 2015 when corruption and oligarchs were rife in Ukraine politics and hindering the democratic process, he played in a television series known as the ‘Servant of the People’ the role of a teacher who rants about Ukrainian politics, especially the corruption. Ukrainians loved the series which went viral. It led to the formation of a party called ‘Servant of the People’ and by April 2019 Zelensky had won the presidential elections in Ukraine with 70% of votes favouring him. He became president with no real experience of politics or of running a country but promised to rid Ukraine of its enormous corruption – a task that would have been daunting even for a seasoned statesman and in the first 3 years, his popularity ratings went down.

One of Zelensky’s tasks as president was to carry out the results of the referendum in which the Ukrainian people had voted overwhelmingly to join the EU and NATO. He did not really expect Russia to consequently invade  Ukraine and the ensuing war both changed him and seasoned him as a leader. On the first day of the invasion Russian troops searched for Zelensky and his family and came within minutes of finding them. They tried twice to storm his compound. The Americans and the British offered to evacuate him and his staff to lead Ukraine from a government in exile – and it was then that he gave his iconic response that went viral worldwide, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

The next night, with fighting in the streets close by, Zelensky stood with his staff in the courtyard and filmed a video where he told his people, “We’re all here. The head of the president’s office is here, the prime minister is here, the presidential advisor is here, the president is here, our troops are here and citizens are here. All of us are here protecting the independence of Ukraine and it will continue to be this way…”.

In doing so he united his people and gave them the courage and determination to fight for their freedom. He understood his role as president and has played it steadfastly ever since. One of his toughest moments was seeing the bodies of the hundreds of civilians that the Russian army had brutally murdered and tortured in Bucha. It broke his heart but not his will or determination to lead his people in the face of such brutality.

In Indonesia, Russia’s influence on netizens has been strongly felt and many support Russia and admire Russian President Putin. One of their favourite taunts is, “who wants a clown as president?” but in doing so they forget their own culture for is Semar not a clown? For Indonesians Semar is the most important figure in the pantheon of wayang or shadow puppets. Unlike most of the other wayang characters, Semar did not originate from India. We, Indonesians created him and he is the best loved wayang. Semar is a clown and leads a band of clowns. He is not a god or a king or a rich business man. He is just an ordinary man but he is wise and kind and honest. He criticizes the kings and gods of the Mahabharata and tells them the truth. Semar stands up for and defends the little man in the street. The greatest clowns or comediennes make people laugh and feel good but they also dare to speak the truth to tyrants – and that is why Indonesians love Semar. We live in a democracy and for democracy to flourish, we need the truth.

Zelensky is a symbol both to his people and to the outside world and he understands that one of his most important task is to communicate Ukraine’s struggle to the world and to convince the world to support it. It is the only way that Ukraine can win. Just as it was the only way Indonesia could gain its independence in 1945.

Since March of this year Zelensky has made a speech nearly every day to very diverse bodies from the EU to the World Bank to the Korean parliament to the Grammy awards – and yes – to the people of Indonesia. He always crafts his speeches to the interests and aspirations of his target audience and when he spoke to Indonesians recently at a virtual town hall meeting held by the Indonesian Foreign Policy Community headed by Dino Patti Jalal, he did not just convey Ukraine’s struggles but also spoke about what holds relevance for his Indonesian audience.

One of the points that he touched upon was, “The very fact of a sea blockade of Ukraine by Russia is not the least, in destabilizing peaceful cohabitation in the world. It is not just an act of aggression of one country against another. It is a certain training for potential aggressors who wants to subjugate their neighbours or who want to take over their territories. If Russia is successful in going unpunished in its war against Ukraine then other nations will see that sea blockades are admissible instruments of exerting pressure in the modern world which will mean that no trade route, no country will be able to feel safe”

In speaking about Russia’s control of the Black Sea as well as the Sea of Azov through force of arms and blockades and then comparing it to other nations who may one day exert similar pressure in the modern world making no trade route or country safe, Indonesians must consider China’s claims over the South China Sea and its seizure of several islands located there which it has turned into military bases. Added to this just recently, China also signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands. This will certainly heighten tensions in the Asia Pacific region although most Indonesians may not have realized yet that the Solomon Islands are right next to Papua – not far out in the Pacific somewhere.

Some have questioned whether Russia is in fact not following a flawed strategy in focusing so much attention on its western borders when along its eastern borders there is a country that is far more likely to try to annex parts of Russia. As an Indian observer recently commented, “China is unlikely to conduct an all-out invasion of Russia but rather as one of our generals put it, ‘through salami slices’, incrementally.” Meanwhile, Putin has made his country very reliant on China in this war and there have been reports that China has pressured Russia in return to sell them their top grade weaponry systems which normally no nation sells. Also, the war has made the world – including China cognizant now with many of the weaknesses of the Russian military: ill-trained troops, poor logistics, low morale of their soldiers, the use of old equipment, the lack of good military strategy from their generals who seem focused on simply bombing cities to complete destruction and worst of all, the corrosiveness of corruption in the Russian military.

Zelensky reminded Indonesians of the laws of war and the Geneva Convention when he said, “Hundreds of Ukrainian cities, towns and townships have been completely ruined by Russian air and artillery strikes. Now, these are just ruins – black, scorched empty cities. For three months, Russian military planes have appeared in our skies more than 3200 times and there is no facility or object that they have not bombed: more than 600 health institutions: hospitals, maternity houses and outpatient departments have been destroyed. They also destroyed nearly 2000 educational institutions from universities, to schools to kindergartens. Different regions of Ukraine see dozens of religious objects like churches, mosques and other religious places either burnt or damaged by Russian shelling. Just yesterday Kharkiv – one of our cities – saw 9 people die because of artillery strikes… These are the daily realities our country has to live through since the 24th of February.”

Recently, one of the most sacred sites of the Russian Orthodox church which supports Mr Putin and his policies in Ukraine, was bombed killing 4 priests and nuns. It shows the lack of a clear strategy from the Russian military or a lack of concern by Moscow which would be surprising as Mr Putin claims to be a devout supporter of the Church and the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has spoken out in favour of Russia’s invasion. Zelensky meanwhile, has demanded the removal of Russia from UNESCO.

In his talk Zelensky also spoke to Indonesians about something they really understand and do not like namely, neo-colonialism and also about the longing of a people to be free when he said, “This is in fact a story that started long ago. Back in 2014 Russia took our Crimean Peninsula and began the war on Donbas in two regions of our country. Eight years later, Moscow decided to launch an assault against the whole of our state. The Russian government thinks that Ukraine has to be a colony of Russia. They attack from the territory of Russia and they deport our people to their root district. So, we are counting hundreds of thousands of people. This is another way of splitting our people and it is really astonishing how ready they are to reintroduce the old colonial times and orders and impose their power on other people.”

In the 21st century alone, Russia has attacked Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Chechnya and Ukraine. Markian Dobczansky, a historian at Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institutes says that by waging war on Ukraine, Putin is, in essence, trying to hold onto a colony. Meanwhile, high profile guerilla attacks in the Kherson and Zaporizka regions in southern Ukraine have now increased, reflecting a trend towards greater partisan activity.

Zelentsky then appealed to Indonesians as Muslims stating that, “The fourth aspect of Russia’s invasion is how the Russians treat the people in their occupied territories. We have the experience of Crimea which since 2014 has been under the control of Russia as the occupying force. It was turned into one of the most dangerous places in Europe. For all the people who value freedom and for the indigenous people, the Crimean tartars and the peninsula Muslims there is no week within those 8 years, without news on new repressions or of trials against those people who do not make the occupying force happy. You cannot find in Europe any other place like the occupied Crimea where on such a massive scale they repress and persecute Muslims who want to live their free lives. How can we ignore that or take no heed of that? This is happening in front of the whole world.”

Finally, Zelensky spoke about something all nations understand namely, nuclear weapons, “And the fifth aspect of this invasion, is that it has been a long time since we had such a great risk of weapons of mass destruction being employed. Openly, the Russian authorities are threatening the world with the use of nuclear weapons and globally politicians are preparing for the possibility of the use of the so called ‘tactical nuclear weapons’ as well as chemical and biological ones for that matter. What does this mean for all of us? For you? What does it mean for the world?

First of all, it can lead to changes; changes of attitudes in different jurisdictions towards weapons of mass destruction – if there is impunity towards Russian black mail more countries in the world may think it logical to acquire nuclear weapons for themselves for their own purposes. To say that this is dangerous is to make an understatement. Ukraine gave up and abandoned its nuclear arsenal which was the third largest in size in the world with a commitment on the part of Russia to guaranty Ukrainian security after we gave up our nuclear weapons. Instead, Russia is waging a colonial and predatory war against us and they are wielding nuclear weapons. Who can then believe in nuclear disarmament? How can we possibility provide and guaranty security for the regions that hope for non-nuclear or nuclear-free status? Six months ago we could not even imagine that such issues would be on the agenda but now this is one of the outcomes of Russia’s aggressive policy.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have presented you with just 5 aspects of the global implications of this Russian war against Ukraine. I am sure you realize that there are many more. This is the biggest war in Europe since the Second World War and no one can prophesize with certainty what negative aspects the world may experience as a result. The sooner this war is ended the better it will be for all the people on this earth. Not just for Ukraine.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed reading this article you may also like to read Part I:
https://observerid.com/zelensky-speaks-heart-to-heart-to-indonesians-part-i-global-food-crises-and-the-face-of-famine-/