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Fifth Columns Are (and Were) Everywhere

Since fighting first broke out between government and separatist forces nearly four months ago in Ukraine's east, the Communist Party has been a vocal critic of Kiev, voting against the ruling coalition and leveling severe -- and sometimes unfounded -- accusations against the government. The party is quick to denounce the revolutionary government in Kiev as fascists, prompting many leftists' opponents to label them a "fifth column" of Russian influence in Ukraine.

In response, the Ukrainian parliament stripped the Communist Party of its official status in its legislative body, the Verkhovna Rada -- a drastic move. Communist legislators can still vote but they have no influence on the daily agenda and have no guarantee of floor time.

In doing so, Ukraine's ruling coalition once more denounced them as a "fifth column" loyal to Russia. "We only need to tolerate them for one more day," said Oleksandr Tymchuk, the Rada's speaker, when the law passed. Shortly thereafter, Igor Miroshnichenko, a member of the right-wing Svoboda party, called the Communists the "fifth column of the Kremlin" that "announce[s] all of Putin's wishes in parliament."

In a separate move on Thursday, the Office of the Prosecutor General and the SBU -- the Security Service of Ukraine -- filed criminal charges against the Communist Party related to its support for Russia's annexation of Crimea and for aiding the separatists of the Luhansk and Donetsk People's Republics. Kiev's administrative district court hears the case on Aug. 14. If found guilty of encouraging separatism, the party will effectively become illegal and cease to exist.

The crusade against the Communist Party of Ukraine -- and the rhetoric used against it -- is somewhat ironic. After all, the concept of a "fifth column" -- a disloyal, subversive, and hidden element in society -- was a favorite theme of Soviet propagandists.

As a military tactic, the presence of sympathetic forces within a society working on behalf of its enemies dates all the way back to the Peloponnesian War, where revolts started by interlopers shifted the balance for both sides. But the term "fifth column" originated in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. It is credited to General Emilio Mola Vidal, who uttered the phrase when he was poised to attack republican Madrid. "General Mola stated he had four columns of troops, but that the attack would be initiated by a 'fifth column' already inside the city," said Paul Preston, a professor of history at the London School of Economics. A fifth column is therefore traditionally defined as government-backed sympathizers or infiltrators spreading misinformation and rumors, as well as employing force in preparation for an external attack.

In the lead-up to and during World War II, fifth columns were not only feared but actively employed. The Nazis used one to seize the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia in 1938 with the local German minority's help, and again when "German tourists" -- soldiers in disguise -- helped capture Luxembourg in 1940.

Germany's success in using fifth columns spurred paranoia within the Soviet Union and inspired Joseph Stalin to deport ethnic Germans from the western Soviet Union to Central Asia and Siberia. Despite the legitimate threat of fifth columns, more important was the language of an enemy within, which presented a convenient way to scapegoat huge swaths of the population that Stalin feared could undermine his authority. Under the guise of eliminating internal enemies, Stalin deported Chechens, Koreans, Crimean Tatars, and many other minority groups and relocated them to the Soviet steppe, often leading to huge death tolls.

In an address to the Duma on March 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin highlighted the threat of a "fifth column." Such terminology has sparked fears within Russia and even inspired a website called predatel.net, which lists public figures who have allegedly betrayed Russia, whether by criticizing the Crimean annexation or by supporting sanctions against the Kremlin and its allies.

This obsession with internal unity and the unwillingness to brook dissent has consequences. The distinguished Russian history professor Andrey Zubov was dismissed in March from his post at Moscow State University for writing an op-ed critical of Putin's foray into Crimea.

The same conspiratorial line of thinking is alive and well in Ukraine. On Wednesday, Petro Symonenko, the first secretary of Ukraine's Communist Party, accused the country's security services and members of the nationalist Svoboda party of killing citizens in the east to use their bodies for black-market organ transplants -- a story propagated by Russian state media. In response, Svoboda members accused Symonenko of disseminating false information and offered to physically eject him from the parliament.

A full-blown brawl ensued:

After the break, the news of the Communist Party's dissolution was announced, upon which all its members walked out of parliament.

Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images

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Russian Paper Issues Front Page Apology to Netherlands for MH17

In the aftermath of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, many Russian media outlets have put forth a variety of ridiculous conspiracy theories to explain the plane's demise. In the face of overwhelming evidence that Moscow-backed separatists shot down the plane, the Russian media stubbornly insists that the thugs armed, funded, and led by the Kremlin could not possibly have done such a thing. On Friday, a corner of the Russian media offered them all a powerful rebuke.

In a striking front-page design that serves as a testament to the power of that dying medium, the liberal Novaya Gazeta offered an apology to the people of the Netherlands, which lost 193 citizens in the crash. "Forgive us, Netherlands," reads the headline.   

Novaya Gazeta is one of the few -- if not the last -- liberal newspapers operating in Russia. It has a small circulation and its readership is mostly limited to Moscow. Anna Politkovskaya, the legendary war reporter who chronicled the horror of Russian military operations in Chechnya only to be murdered for running afoul of the regime, wrote for the paper. Mikhail Gorbachev is a shareholder.

But it's hard not to think that this front page will land the paper on the Kremlin's blacklist. It was precisely this kind of offense that saw the liberal television network TV Rain booted from many providers' lineups. After the channel ran an online poll asking whether Russia should have surrendered Leningrad to the Nazis during World War II rather than suffer the horrors the followed during the siege, TV Rain was dropped by many satellite providers.

Similarly, the Novaya Gazeta front page seems to violate the received nationalist wisdom as it has shaped Russia's understanding of the MH17 tragedy. Rather than stubbornly refuse to acknowledge any wrongdoing, the paper has done the graceful, necessary thing.

But grace, in this case, is all too likely to be interpreted as weakness.

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