A House United
Why analysts touting Ukraine's East-West division are just plain wrong.
Throughout the crisis in Ukraine, experts real and imagined have persistently invoked the country’s vaunted East-West "divide." According to this interpretation, Ukraine is neatly divided into two homogeneous, coherent, and irreconcilable blocs. The implicit message is that partition is inevitable and desirable. As Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev for the pro-Russian and "separatist" Kharkiv on Feb. 22, analysts feared he would ignite a civil war between Ukraine’s irreconcilable factions. But as is often the case with such binary oppositions, they conceal and obfuscate more than they reveal and clarify, creating a simplistic image of a complex condition.
As is obvious to any visitor, Ukraine’s westernmost large city, Lviv, differs fundamentally from its easternmost counterparts, Luhansk and Donetsk. Lviv is pro-Western; it supports Ukrainian independence; it has consistently voted against Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions; it speaks Ukrainian and promotes Ukrainian culture, while being multilingual, multicultural, and remarkably diverse; and it rejects the Soviet past. In contrast, Luhansk and Donetsk are more pro-Russian; they have doubts about Ukrainian independence; they support Yanukovych and the Party of Regions (and when they voice their discontent, they often vote for the Stalinist Communist Party); they speak Russian and favor Russian culture; they are monolingual, monocultural, and homogeneous; and they embrace the Soviet past.
But this neat picture becomes muddled in the environs of Luhansk and Donetsk. For example, the official website of the Bilokurakyn district of Luhansk province (which borders Russia) is in Ukrainian, and the website’s sentiments are distinctly anti-Yanukovych. The countryside and smaller towns of both provinces tend to speak Ukrainian and practice Ukrainian culture. And even in the cities themselves, the vast majority of the population — minus the pro-Russian chauvinists — will happily engage Ukrainian speakers in conversation. One Ukrainian history professor at Donetsk State University has been conducting all his lectures in Ukrainian for over a decade. At first some students grumbled — and he responded by pointing out that if they lack the intellectual ability to understand Ukrainian, they shouldn’t be university students. Since then, there have been no complaints and no problems.
Go to Lviv in the West, and you encounter similar subtleties. The vast majority of Lviv residents are at least proficient in Russian, gladly speak the language, read Russian newspapers and books, and watch Russian television. If a radio is playing in a restaurant or café, chances are as high that it’ll be tuned to a Russian station rather than a Ukrainian one. Lviv is especially popular with Russian tourists, who like it for its Middle European feel, old architecture, and Ukrainian distinctiveness. A favorite Russian watering hole is the Kryyivka (Bunker) restaurant, modeled after the underground hideouts used by anti-Soviet Ukrainian nationalists after World War II.
And between the far East and far West, the supposed East-West divide gets ever fuzzier. Go from far West to far East and the percentage of individuals who speak Ukrainian in everyday circumstances progressively declines. By the same token, go in the opposite direction and the percentage of Russian-speakers declines. In much of the country, and especially in its middle, most people speak both languages. Most ethnic Russians, who comprise about one fifth of the population and primarily reside in Luhansk and Donetsk provinces and in Crimea, have a working knowledge of Ukrainian, and only some, primarily ultranationalists in Crimea, refuse to speak it. Meanwhile, the vast majority of ethnic Ukrainians is effectively bilingual, regardless of where they live. The capital, Kiev, illustrates this point very well. Most of the conversations one hears in public are in Russian — but address Russian speakers in Ukrainian and most will respond in Ukrainian.
Kiev nicely illustrates another important nuance. It’s often said that Kiev speaks like the East and votes like the West: most Kievites are fluent in Russian, and most also support the ongoing anti-government revolution, just as they supported the 2004 Orange Revolution. (In the photo above, anti-government protesters in Kiev sing the Ukrainian national anthem.) This means that language preference does not as easily correlate with cultural preferences (Russia versus the West) or political choices (Yanukovych versus the democrats), as the East-West paradigm suggests. In that vast space between far East and far West, many Russian-speaking ethnic Ukrainians vote against the Party of Regions, support Ukrainian independence, and fear Putin’s Russia. Voters in Dnipropetrovsk, Poltava, Chernihiv, and Kharkiv provinces are known to cast votes for other parties. Neither Yanukoych nor the Party of Regions received 100 percent of the vote in any province. Not surprisingly, about one-fifth of the demonstrators in Kiev hail from Ukraine’s "pro-Russian," south-eastern provinces.
Just as unsurprisingly, every major south-eastern city — Kharkiv, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhya, Mykolayiv, Odessa, and, even the Crimea — has held anti-Yanukovych demonstrations in the last three months. A few weeks ago, some 5,000 people marched in support of the anti-government demonstrators in Yanukovych’s stronghold, Donetsk — a remarkable figure considering the violence they knew could await them from the local security forces. Equally indicative of the degree to which anti-Yanukovych sentiment has permeated the southeast is the fact that, from early November to early February, when pro-regime forces engaged in daily beatings, killings, and disappearances of anti-regime activists throughout the country, the majority of the victims were from the east.
Even the Crimean Autonomous Republic isn’t quite as solidly pro-Russian and pro-Putin as it’s often depicted. The northern part of the peninsula is populated by ethnic Ukrainians, most of whom are bilingual and are likely to have some loyalties to Ukraine. The central and southern parts are populated by Crimean Tatars, who currently comprise about 15-20 percent of the total population. Most of them speak Russian on a daily basis, yet most also oppose Crimea’s annexation by Russia and strongly support the Kiev revolution. Several hundred have even joined the revolutionaries in downtown Kiev.
In sum, the image of two competing blocs is just dead wrong. Ukraine happens to be an extremely diverse place, with a range of languages, cultures, identities, and political preferences throughout the country. In that respect, Ukraine’s diversity is pretty much on par with that found in just about any country of the world: the United States, Canada, Italy, Germany, Turkey, Brazil, India, and so on. Diversity can sometimes spell trouble (as in Great Britain with Scotland and in Spain with Catalonia) and it can sometimes mean vitality (as in the United States and Canada), but we rarely assume, a priori, that it must lead to ungovernability and partition — except, apparently, in Ukraine, where what is business as usual elsewhere is assumed to be a fatal flaw. There are many reasons for such a flawed perception, but the central one may be the inability of Russian elites and their sympathizers in the West to concede that Ukraine is a real country and that Ukrainians are a complex people.
The real divide in Ukraine is not between East and West, but between the democratic forces on the one hand and the Party of Regions on the other. The latter is strongest in the southeast, mostly because its cadres (who are mostly former communists) have controlled the region’s information networks and economic resources since Soviet times and continue to do so to this day. Their domination since Ukraine’s independence rests on their having constructed alliances with organized crime and the country’s oligarchs, in particular with Ukraine’s richest tycoon, Rinat Akhmetov. They have enormous financial resources at their disposal, control the local media, and quash — or have quashed — all challengers to their hegemony. Their rule has been compared, not inaccurately, to that of the mafia. Ukrainians in the southeast tend to vote for them, less because they’re enamored of Yanukovych (they are not), and more because they have no alternatives and, due to the Region Party’s control of the media, see no alternatives.
This real divide could very well end in the near future. Yanukovych’s regime is on the verge of collapse. Most of the country has escaped his control; prominent members of the Party of Regions — including Yanukovych himself — are fleeing Kiev; and the Ministry of Interior declared vowed to support the "people of Kiev," not the government. The parliament — now under opposition control — has reasserted its control, reinstating the 2004 Constitution that truncates presidential powers and empowers the legislators to appoint a reform-oriented cabinet. If and when the regime does collapse, the Party of Regions is likely to collapse with it, and its hegemony over the southeast will end. At that point, Ukraine — still happily diverse — may finally become a normal country as well.