The singer, Goran Bregovic, was living up to his great reputation, the dancers were rocking, punching the air as the lyrics reached the crescendos of “Kalashnikov!” and “Il partisano”, rousing beats celebrating the struggle against fascism.
It was the end of conference party at Yalta two years ago, and people were letting their hair down: among them the Right Honourable John Whittingdale, the Conservative MP for Maldon, Essex. The conference, a yearly event organised by the think-tank, the Pinchuk Foundation, had been a tense and acrimonious affair with fierce debates over the future of Ukraine. A consensus appeared to have been reached. That, at least, was the view of those we spoke to, in the government and the opposition, the officials from Russia and the Western great and good present, such as Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair.
Five months later we returned to a Ukraine in turmoil. Within days the President, Viktor Yanukovych, who had been at Yalta, had fled along with his close coterie from Kiev. In Crimea, my colleagues and I witnessed Russian victory. A referendum to embrace rule by Moscow, boycotted by those who wanted to remain part of Ukraine, was followed by annexation. At the Livodia Palace in Yalta, where Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill had met to carve up Europe, and where the annual conference was subsequently held, young Russian soldiers, the “Little Green Men” who had carried out the takeover, milled around, their balaclavas off. They were curious tourists.
Times have moved on and I returned from covering the Nepal disaster to what is apparently a political earthquake in the UK. One example of the ideological fault line this has created, supposedly, is the appointment of Mr Whittingdale as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport tasked with cleansing the BBC of its – to the Tories – lefty bias. But is this really going to happen? The Mr Whittingdale we briefly got to know as a firm supporter of Ukrainian independence in the face of Kremlin hegemony, was a defender of freedom of expression who spoke out against the propaganda churned out by the state-directed Russian media as the confrontation turned into civil war. Surely the new Secretary of State, who took such a laudable stance in Ukraine, will not allow bullying of the BBC, whatever the pressure from the right wing of his party. Let’s hope that instead, in the spirit of the revolutionary songs of Yalta, Mr Whittingdale surprises us and emerges a champion of media freedom.Reuse content