Deep Divide

Ukraine’s contested election reflects Russia’s push to reunify

Fred Weir

This breakdown of the presidential vote shows a clear division between the Western-leaning and the Russia-friendly parts of the country. A breakup of the former Soviet state is possible.

—Anoth­er street revolt rocks an east­ern Euro­pean cap­i­tal, and the world stops to watch a now-famil­iar tele­vised sce­nario: an elec­tion alleged­ly stolen, ener­gized but peace­ful crowds bat­tle for democ­ra­cy with staunch West­ern back­ing and, in the final act, fright­ened Sovi­et-style bureau­crats make a clum­sy exit from power.

As In These Times went to press, it wasn’t clear whether Ukraine’s Chest­nut Rev­o­lu­tion” will turn out as neat­ly as its recent pre­de­ces­sors in Ser­bia and Geor­gia, but there are grounds to hope that it might. A com­pro­mise, which would result in new elec­tions, appeared to be tak­ing shape, but what­ev­er the short-term out­come, Ukrain­ian soci­ety has like­ly been changed for­ev­er. Thou­sands of pro­test­ers surg­ing through the streets of Kiev and oth­er cities were con­fronting the semi-author­i­tar­i­an, oli­garch-backed régime of Pres­i­dent Leonid Kuch­ma, which almost cer­tain­ly tried to fal­si­fy the results of November’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in favor of Kuchma’s annoint­ed suc­ces­sor, Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Yanukovych. They were also defy­ing the Krem­lin, which invest­ed huge sums of cash and the per­son­al pres­tige of Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in a brazen effort to manip­u­late Ukraine’s vot­ers into choos­ing Yanukovych over his lib­er­al, west­ern­iz­ing chal­lenger, for­mer Cen­tral Bank Chair­man Vik­tor Yushchenko.

But there are rea­sons to wor­ry that Ukraine’s frag­ile post-Sovi­et sta­bil­i­ty has already been under­mined by the bit­ter dis­pute, which has deeply aggra­vat­ed the long­stand­ing divi­sions between the country’s heav­i­ly Rus­si­fied, indus­tri­al east and the large­ly agri­cul­tur­al, nation­al­is­tic west. Since leav­ing the USSR in 1991, Ukraine has man­aged to main­tain a vibrant — if mud­dled — demo­c­ra­t­ic polit­i­cal cul­ture, with rel­a­tive­ly inde­pen­dent par­lia­ment, media and courts, while neigh­bor­ing Rus­sia and Belarus have become aggres­sive­ly recen­tral­ized states run by super-pres­i­den­tial fig­ures. Though nation­al­ists have made desul­to­ry efforts to com­pel schools, media and pub­lic orga­ni­za­tions to use only Ukrain­ian, these have had vir­tu­al­ly no impact on those Ukraini­ans, rough­ly half the pop­u­la­tion, who describe Russ­ian as their first language.”

In for­eign pol­i­cy, Ukraine has walked a care­ful line between Moscow and the West, glad­ly accept­ing sub­si­dized Russ­ian oil and gas and favor­able terms for its oth­er­wise unmar­ketable agri­cul­tur­al prod­ucts, while tak­ing aid from the West and mak­ing polite nois­es about even­tu­al­ly join­ing NATO.

In the past few years, how­ev­er, the world has become more inter­est­ed in Ukraine. An expand­ing Euro­pean Union has moved right to Ukraine’s bor­ders, tak­ing in Poland, which has strong his­tor­i­cal links with west­ern Ukraine. Putin’s Rus­sia, flush with oil prof­its and seek­ing to reassert hege­mo­ny in the for­mer Sovi­et space, has designed a four-nation com­mon mar­ket for Rus­sia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kaza­khstan as a spring­board for Russ­ian eco­nom­ic modernization.

We would like to restore what was lost with the Sovi­et Union’s dis­in­te­gra­tion, albeit in line with dif­fer­ent con­cepts,” Putin told a meet­ing of post-Sovi­et lead­ers last June. We must steer toward inte­gra­tion … con­cert­ed action is the only way to sur­vive in con­di­tions of [glob­al] competition.”

Ukraine’s elec­tion, fea­tur­ing two mod­er­ate mem­bers of the country’s tra­di­tion­al elite, thus became a proxy bat­tle between larg­er glob­al forces. Inevitably, and dan­ger­ous­ly, Yushchenko and Yanukovych spun their mes­sages to appeal to the country’s two very dif­fer­ent constituencies.

Ukraine, Europe’s sec­ond-largest state by ter­ri­to­ry, is split down the mid­dle between east­ern and west­ern pop­u­la­tions whose his­tor­i­cal, lin­guis­tic, reli­gious and cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences make them almost for­eign­ers to one anoth­er. West­ern Ukraini­ans, who have spent much of their his­to­ry hon­ing a strong sense of nation­al iden­ti­ty under Pol­ish and Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an rule, strong­ly favor Yushchenko’s plans to steer Ukraine into NATO and the Euro­pean Union as rapid­ly as possible.

But half the country’s 48 mil­lion peo­ple live in the indus­tri­al east­ern zones, which were part of Rus­sia and the USSR for more than 300 years. Many of them speak no Ukrain­ian and iden­ti­fy most close­ly with the Russ­ian pop­u­la­tion just across the recent­ly estab­lished bor­der. Yanukovych’s pledges to make Russ­ian the country’s sec­ond offi­cial lan­guage, to allow dual Ukrain­ian-Russ­ian cit­i­zen­ship and to join the Krem­lin-spon­sored free-trade union with Rus­sia res­onate strong­ly in Ukraine’s east­ern reaches.

No mat­ter which Vik­tor emerges vic­to­ri­ous in Ukraine’s pow­er strug­gle, he is like­ly to adopt rad­i­cal mea­sures to sat­is­fy his loy­al con­stituents. In either case, the breakup of Ukraine looms as a real pos­si­bil­i­ty. Sev­er­al west­ern regions reject­ed offi­cial elec­tion results that labeled Yanukovych the win­ner and rec­og­nized Yushchenko as pres­i­dent. The east­ern regions, where most of Ukraine’s indus­try is con­cen­trat­ed, are already plan­ning ref­er­en­da on auton­o­my” — read rejoin­ing Rus­sia — if Yushchenko becomes pres­i­dent. And with Moscow and the West fac­ing off over Ukraine, with sharply diver­gent agen­das, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a new Cold War looks more like­ly than at any time since the USSR’s demise.

Fred Weir is a Moscow cor­re­spon­dent for In These Times and reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to the Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor, the Lon­don Inde­pen­dent, Cana­di­an Press and the South Chi­na Morn­ing Post. He is the co-author of Rev­o­lu­tion from Above: The Demise of the Sovi­et System.
Limited Time: