Christian Caryl

A House Still Divided

Ukraine's problems go deeper than President Yanukovych.

Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images
Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images

The news from Ukraine earlier this week was horrific. Government security forces gunned down dozens of protestors on the streets of Kiev. There was talk of civil war.

Friday dawned in a somewhat more hopeful mood. Three European Union negotiators announced that they had agreed with President Viktor Yanukovych on a deal to end the crisis. With Yanukovych on the defensive, the anti-government protestors pressed their advantage — and the government fell. Opposition lawmakers took over parliament, passing a law that freed ex-presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko from jail. Yanukovych and many of his allies fled Kiev.  On Sunday, the new parliament appointed its new speaker, a Tymoshenko ally, to the post of interim president.

I hope that everything ends well. I have to confess, though, that I’m inclined to be skeptical.

A few weeks ago two Reuters journalists published a report that looked into Ukraine’s regional divides. In the city of Lviv, in Western Ukraine, they found plenty of people who approved wholeheartedly of the anti-government protests, and who wanted to see Ukraine firmly in the Western camp. But in Yanukovych’s home city of Donetsk, in the East, the reporters came across a steelworker named Viktor Chernov, who described the turmoil in Kiev as “a disgrace.” “If they go on for another two weeks,” Chernov commented, “there will be no pensions, no wages, the whole economy will collapse.” Then there was Tatiana Orekhova, a professor of economics at Donetsk University: “Now we have to take a break and seek a compromise that balances our ties with Europe and with Russia.… We need both markets, and the protesters’ slogans provide no answers.”

Now it’s possible that Chernov and Orekhova are ill-informed, or members of some stubborn, irrelevant minority, or in the pay of Vladimir Putin. But I’m inclined to doubt it. That Ukraine trades heavily with both Europe and Russia is objectively true; some 60 percent of the country’s trade goes to the republics of the former USSR, and most of its manufactured exports come from the heavily industrialized East. Many Eastern Ukrainians have close personal ties with Russia and other ex-Soviet territories. Europe is far away. And as for corruption — well, is the opposition really immune?

In 2010, there were enough Ukrainians like these to give Yanukovych a victory in that year’s presidential election. (He won with 49 percent over main rival Yulia Tymoshenko, who garnered 45 percent.) His political machine, the Party of Regions, increased its support among the electorate enough to win parliamentary elections in 2012. It may well be that those who supported President Yanukovych then no longer do, especially now that he’s shown himself willing to kill his compatriots. There are many indications that his legitimacy is ebbing by the day.

But his party isn’t going to disappear even if the president leaves the scene. That’s because it has deep roots in the East. The Ukrainians who voted for Yanukovych aren’t going anywhere, and I’m really not convinced that they side with the protesters in the center of Kiev. A poll published earlier this month by the respected Ukrainian pollster SOCIS showed that Yanukovych still enjoyed the highest approval rating of any potential candidate for the presidency (about 21 percent). To be sure, the combined forces of the opposition would still be enough to beat him (assuming they could agree on a common candidate, hardly a given in the highly fractious world of Ukrainian politics). Over the years, though, presidential candidates from the East have been able to count on core support of some 30-40 percent of the Ukrainian electorate. I doubt this will change even if Yanukovych resigns from the presidency (which, by the way, I’d be happy to see him do — it would probably spare everyone a lot of anguish).

Some observers argue that the long-standing regional divides are exaggerated or “oversimplified.” They say that Ukrainians are unified in their desire to vanquish the corruption and authoritarianism embodied by the president. According to this interpretation, the Ukrainian people are entirely unanimous in their struggle against the arrogance of one man: Yanukovych. By this logic, the fact that Ukrainians in the East haven’t taken to the streets in his defense means that they tacitly approve of the opposition’s handling of events. (Actually they have: the photo above shows members of the party demonstrating in Donetsk in December. But never mind.)

If this view is correct, removing Yanukovych will solve everything. As soon as he’s gone, Ukraine can move forward to the wholehearted embrace of Western norms. Corruption will evaporate. Those Ukrainians who want to maintain closer ties with Russia will quietly acquiesce. Everything will be fine.

This is wishful thinking. The fact of the matter is that Ukrainians have deeply divergent views on the future of the country, and that these views are strongly shaped by which part of the country they’re from. And since these views are strongly reinforced by geopolitics, language, and economics, the differences are not momentary, but deeply rooted. That Eastern Ukrainians aren’t taking to the streets in defense of the government is about as meaningful as the fact that Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” of disgruntled conservatives in the United States didn’t take to the streets to demonstrate against 1960s radicals.

To emphasize these complexities is not — as some would claim — to deny Ukraine’s viability as a state. Nor does it imply that Ukraine ought to be carved up into constituent units. Ukraine is perfectly capable of continuing its existence as a state if it can find an institutional framework that will take its political diversity into account — instead of lurching from one crisis to the next as it has over the past 15 years.

Ukraine’s regional differences do, however, mean that we should take the possibility of civil conflict seriously. Reporters in Kiev have already described the rise of quasi-military “self-defense units” among the protesters. What has gone largely unremarked is the rise of similar paramilitary groups in the East. As this map by political observer Sergii Gorbachev shows, Yanukovych’s political machine has been busily standing up “militia units” throughout the East, sometimes with overt ties to local gangland structures. Here, for example, is a Russian-language interview with one ex-convict who’s setting up his own pro-Yanukovych militia in the Eastern city of Kharkov. He won’t say how many members the new group has, but he’s quite open about its aims: “I’m preparing my population and my people for war.”

(This, by the way, is just the sort of thing that Russia has been happy to exploit for its own purposes in other parts of the ex-Soviet Union, exploiting conflicts to establish separatist territories in Georgia and Moldova that are happy to do Moscow’s bidding.)

In any case, acknowledging the existing divides, rather than trying to wish them away, is the first step to developing viable reforms. I’m glad to hear that there is once again talk of constitutional change in Kiev, and that many members of the political elite understand that a new system is needed. (As I’ve argued elsewhere, the first purpose of any such reform should be to limit the powers of the president and give greater powers to parliament.) Believing in the myth of happy national unity despite all evidence to the contrary, however, is not the way to go.

 Twitter: @ccaryl