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Ukraine’s unity and the Euromaidan’s legacy

The Euromaidan protests over the Association Agreement were for some an epitome of two Ukraines: one focusing on the west and one on the east.

November 22, 2018 - Robert Steenland - AnalysisHot Topics

A scene from 2014 Euromaidan protest. Photo: Wojciech Koźmic

When former President Yanukovych decided not to sign the Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union, protests erupted on 21 November 2013 which at times drew over a million of people to the Maidan square. For many, the agreement represented hope for a democratic and less corrupt future. Others, however, particularly in the east, preferred joining Russia’s Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) instead.

These reflect different ideas on Ukraine’s past and future, guided by cultural, linguistic and ethnic divisions. The stand-off was also a sad example of domestic and external actors exploiting these with devastating consequences, including the death of many protesters, regime-change, Crimea’s annexation and the occupation of Donbas.

Common heritage, different rulers

To understand how it got to this, one needs to go back in history. Ukraine once formed a confederation of Slavic tribes with Belarus and Russia in the fifth century.[1] It were Varangians (Vikings) led by Oleg of Novgorod who united the Slavs under Kievan Rus. After the 1240 Mongol invasion, this dynasty continued in Moscow. [2]

Kievan Rus at its peak in the mid-11th century. Source: (CC) commons.wikimedia.org

Afterwards, western Ukraine was ruled by the Galicia-Volhynia principality, followed by Lithuania/Poland in the 14th century as well as Hungary/Moldavia. Eventually, it became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This resulted in a more European governance system and became influenced by Catholicism, the Renaissance and the Reformation.[3] 

Meanwhile, most of the east and south was ruled by the Russian Empire, and the Crimea by Ottomans. Both had no traditions of rule of law, constitutionalism, liberalism and governmental accountability.[4] The 1648 Cossack revolution against the Polish led to the first Ukrainian state: the Cossack Hetmanate.[5] It became part of the Russian Empire in 1654.[6] After the 1654-1667 Russo-Polish war, Ukrainian territories west of Dnipro River went Poland and those east to Russia. Poland’s 1772, 1793 and 1795 partitions led to the west’s incorporation by the Habsburgs. Crimea was annexed by the Russians in 1783.

The Russian empire was oppressive, imposed Russian language and established the Orthodox Church. In contrast, the Habsburgs provided more room to civil society. Moreover, the enlightenment resulted in compulsory education and religious freedom. [7] 

The idea of Ukraine

Ukraine’s nation building was dependent on freedom given. The Russian Empire suppressed this idea, instead considering Ukraine as ‘‘little Russia’’. Those with different ideas were prosecuted. Revolution and reform that started at the end of the 19th century led to political parties promoting an independent Ukraine. However, these were abolished when the 1905 revolution was defeated by 1907. [8]

Ukrainians living under the Habsburgs regarded themselves as Ruthenians, separate from Catholic Poles because of their Orthodox religion. They also had more freedoms. After 1848, a national Ukrainian movement emerged that facilitated this. Despite later crackdown, Ukrainian autonomy continued, although hindered by the First World War.[9] 

Several Ukrainian states followed the First World War in the east and west. They went down amidst conflicts such as the Polish-Ukrainian war.[10] West Ukraine that fought the Poles was helped by Russian anti-communists (whites), whereas east Ukraine fought the whites with the aid of the communists (reds) that promised them Ukrainian independence.[11] The Polish and Bolsheviks prevailed. Afterwards, Ukrainians under Polish rule in Galicia and Volhynia and Romanian and Czechoslovakian rule were suppressed.[12] 

The Soviet legacy

Soviet rule gave Ukraine an administration, but no independence.[13] The communists welcomed loyal Ukrainians yet purged nationalists.[14] Stalin subsequently allowed less freedom and expanded Russification policies. Ironically, by letting millions starve in the Holodomor famine he brutally facilitated Ukrainian consciousness. He also united most Ukrainians in a single state in the Second World War by annexing Polish, Romanian and Czechoslovakian territories.[15] 

Territorial evolution of the Ukrainian SSR 1922–1954. Source: Ion Cepleanu (CC) commons.wikimedia.org

After Stalin, Ukrainians entered Soviet bureaucracy. Moreover, Crimea was given to Ukraine in 1954.[16] Despite assimilation policies, Ukrainian identity reproduced[17] and developed as it had a state, which they did not have since the 18th century.[18] A 1959 poll showed 75 per cent perceived themselves Ukrainian. Only the Russian dominated Crimea[19] was an exception.[20]

However, Ukrainian and Soviet identities competed. In the faster industrialising east, peasants were caught up in the Soviet project.[21] Russians emigrating to cities like Donetsk also changed demographics.[22] Sovietisation had more impact since it hadn’t experienced Russian-Soviet rule until the Second World War.[23] In contrast, Ukrainians in the west had fought with the whites in the Russian revolution.[24] Ukrainian identity was also stronger due to Polish resentment and demographic domination caused by the Jews’ mass removal and Ukrainian influx to western Ukraine after the war.[25] 

Polarisation in independent Ukraine

In the 1980s, perestroika and glasnost’s opening led to independence in 1991, supported in referendum in all Ukraine, including the Crimea[26]. However, Ukrainian nationalism was more dominant in the west and clashed with the Russian dominated Crimea[27], as well as east of Ukraine where the Soviet ideology remained strong.[28]

Ukraine’s independence referendum results in 1991. Map by Lantus (CC) commons.wikimedia.org

In the 1990s, Ukrainian politics was characterised as ‘‘rapacious individualism’’. Politicians, often oligarch puppets, had fluid ideologies.[29] These shifted based on the power balance of oligarchs that captured the state. Polarising policies were pursued that benefitted electoral fortunes only. Ukraine’s first President Kravchuk (1991-1994) neglected economic reform, causing Soviet nostalgia in the east. He also promoted narrow Ukrainian identity politics popular in the west, which angered those in the east. [30]

President Kuchma (1994-2005) had a flip-flop approach.[31] Supported in the east, he focused on Russia, before seeking NATO membership and being the first to state Ukraine should join the EU. He later focused on Russia again.[32] Elections were often framed as ‘‘us versus them’’. Artificially created frames of ‘‘two Ukraines’’ were used horribly, with one side supposedly wanting to break ties with Russia, abolish Russian and join NATO versus a side that wanted to turn Ukrainians into Russians.[33] During the 2004 presidential elections, Viktor Yushchenko was depicted a Nazi and American spy, whereas Viktor Yanukovych was a criminal that wanted to turn Ukraine into a Russian province.[34] 

Orange Revolution: old wine in new bottles

After 2004’s Orange Revolution, Yushchenko was elected who, together with Yulia Tymoshenko as prime minister, moved Ukraine towards NATO and the EU.[35] Plans to establish a Ukrainian patriarchate and Christian ethics in education angered atheists and non-Christians in the east, as well as limiting Russian broadcasting and harassing Russian cultural organisations.[36] 

Weak progress and infighting led to Yushchenko’s loss in the 2007 parliamentary elections and the first round of the 2010 presidential elections. Tymoshenko, in turn, lost to Yanukovych in the second round, who also won the 2012 parliamentary elections. He pursued anti-Ukrainian language and cultural policies, limited media freedom and put opponents like Tymoshenko in prison, which polarised the country even more.[37] Overall, electoral opportunism prevailed, whereas efforts to consolidate national identity were undermined.[38] 

Euromaidan’s trigger

This brings us to the Euromaidan, triggered by Yanukovich’s U-turn to not sign the EU agreement following Kremlin pressure. Police used brutal force on the protesters, resulting in deadly violence as over 100 people died. After Yanukovych fled the country, a new pro-EU government was formed. The Kremlin refused, and annexed Crimea and invaded Donbas. Thousands died in the conflict. Although the Kremlin’s role was initially unclear, Russian President Vladimir Putin removed doubts, admitting he initiated the annexation and having sent troops to the fight in Donbas.[39]

An inevitable standoff?

Some considered the conflict inevitable, stating Ukraine should split. However, despite polarisation (and Kremlin propaganda), there was no appetite for independence or annexation. Most Ukrainians considered Ukraine their fatherland.[40] Ethnic Russians did not support joining Russia either: before the invasion, a February 2014 survey showed they favoured Ukraine’s independence by a two-thirds majority across Ukraine. Even in pro-Russia Crimea and the most eastern Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, relatively low numbers of 35.9 per cent, 29.8 per cent and 29.4 per cent of people surveyed supported uniting with Russia before the Euromaidan. Support for a Russian military intervention was even lower.[41]

Despite this, many explained the conflict by unbridgeable simplistic ethno-linguistic divisions. However, historical differences – as in many other countries – are not black and white, nor do they imply Ukraine was a country destined to split-up. Ukrainians were united on an independent Ukraine.[42] 

Furthermore, many mixed families exist and are bilingual or speak mixed forms like Surzhyk.[43] Ethno-linguistic maps are often simplified, e.g. in Kharkiv Russian speakers form the majority (due to Russian emigration), whereas outside Ukrainian speakers form the majority.

Euromaidan’s legacy

Oddly enough, just as Stalin facilitated Ukraine’s national consciousness with Holodomor, so did the Kremlin during the Euromaidan. In 2014’s parliamentary elections, support for the pro-Russian political parties Opposition Bloc and Communist Party went from 30 per cent to 9.4 per cent and 13.2 per cent to 3.9 per cent respectively. Pro-Russia rhetoric also declined.[44] Furthermore, for the first time a presidential election was decided in one round by pro-western candidate Petro Poroshenko.[45] No typical pro-Russia and pro-West stand-off took place.

Ukrainian patriotism also increased. A poll showed four per cent in 2017 compared to 9-14 per cent in 2013 in favour of joining Russia. In the eastern parts of Ukraine, only 8.6 per cent now supports unification with Russia and nine out of ten people support Ukraine’s independence. As Steven Pifer put it: ‘‘Vladimir Putin managed to realise the dreams of many Ukrainian nationalists by forcing upon them a stronger national identity.’’

Moreover, more people now support the EU. A June 2018 poll indicated only 15 per cent of people would choose the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) versus 52 per cent for the EU. This compares with a 2014 poll, where respondents were 36 per cent and 41 per cent respectively. Moreover, the south and east now support the EU with 36 per cent and 28 per cent respectively, versus 30 per cent and 34 per cent for the EEU, compared to 29 per cent and 20 per cent for the EU versus 37 per cent and 59 per cent for the EEU in 2014.

Return of the past?

Recent developments show a worrying, yet familiar trend. A new education law in September 2017 banned minority language teaching beyond primary school. It gave Russia a reason to criticise Ukraine and angered Hungary, Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, Greece, and Moldova. The current government has attempted shifting the focus away from the slow pace of progress and from corruption and oligarch influence.[46] Oligarch and incumbent President Poroshenko increasingly plays the patriotic card as elections are planned for next year. Under the slogan “Language. Faith. Army” he attempted garnering nationalist and anti-Russia rhetoric votes.

The issue of Ukraine’s churches being independent from the Moscow Patriarchate was framed as a victory against Russia. The split was realised in October. Moreover, a language law from October 3rd 2018 made Ukrainian official language in all spheres of public life. This has not just serious negative effects for Ukraine’s media (84 per cent controlled by oligarchs), but contrasts Ukraine’s multi-lingual reality.

It shows cultural and linguistic policies are used again for opportunism, as elections are coming next year. Such moves, Poroshenko expects, would rally enough patriots around his cause. In Ukraine’s current fragmented politics, it could potentially also result in a traditional face-off again with a more Russia-oriented candidate. Radicalism has also grown due to the fragmentation of Ukrainian politics and general distrust of politicians. This could prompt (oligarch supported) nationalists to enter the Ukrainian Parliament again in 2019’s autumn elections.

Altogether these play into the hands of the Kremlin, which could polarise the country more through supporting extremist candidates. Putin has played a key role in consolidating the Ukrainian nation by invading it. However, he could have the last laugh if Ukraine’s politicians continue to polarise and undermine national unity.

The way forward for Ukraine

Ukraine’s east and west divisions are explainable by its history of different rulers, as well as by politics of electoral opportunism. Nonetheless, these were bridgeable as most supported independence across Ukraine up until 2014. The Kremlin’s aggression fostered unity and more people now support the country’s European direction. This does not mean divisions have disappeared. However, just as divisions in Ukraine are not black and white, neither should their choices. Ukraine’s current and future politicians should remember this when they play their games of identity politics for electoral opportunism.

In any case, the Pandora’s box of polarising identity politics should never be opened again.[47] Instead, Ukraine should be brought together with respect for its cultural and linguistic differences. The cancer of corruption and oligarchic power should also be removed which were partly to blame for Ukraine’s exploitation. Such a narrative and strategy would be the best to preserve sovereignty against foreign intervention. It is up to Ukraine’s current and future politicians and civil society actors to make sure Ukraine’s divisions are not exploited again, ever.

Robert Steenland is a research associate and analyst with the Centre for International Relations in Warsaw. He holds a double degree masters in European Governance and Politics and Public Administration from the University of Konstanz and Utrecht University.

 

NOTES AND REFERENCES

[1] Chausovsky, Eugene. 2015. Ukraine: Caught Between East and West. Stratfor; Yekelchyk, Serhy. 2007. Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation. Oxford: University Press, pp. 17-18.

[2] Yekelchyk, Serhy. 2007. Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation. Oxford: University Press, pp. 17-22.

[3] Idem., pp. 22-26.

[4] Riabchuk, Mykola. 2012. Ukraine’s ‘muddling through’: National identity and postcommunist transition. In Communist and Post-Communist Studies 45: 439–446.

[5] Kuromiya, Hiroaki. 1995. Kuchma, Kravchuk, and Ukrainian Nation Building: an Essay. The National Council for Soviet and East European Research.

[6] Yekelchyk, Serhy. 2015. The Conflict in Ukraine, what everyone needs to know. Oxford University Press, pp. 26, 30-35.

[7] Idem., pp. 27-29, 33-38.

[8] Idem., pp. 39-60.

[9] Idem., pp. 45-59; 61-63

[10] Idem., pp. 74-78.

[11] Jansen, Marc. 2015. Grensland. Een Geschiedenis van Oekraïne (Borderland: A History of Ukraine). Amsterdam: Uitgeverij G.A. van Oorschot, pp. 96-97.

[12] Yekelchyk, Serhy. 2007. Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation. Oxford: University Press, pp. 122-130.

[13] Jansen, Marc. 2015. Grensland. Een Geschiedenis van Oekraïne (Borderland: A History of Ukraine). Amsterdam: Uitgeverij G.A. van Oorschot, p. 103.

[14] Yekelchyk, Serhy. 2007. Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation. Oxford: University Press, pp. 92-97.

[15] Idem., pp. 108-119.

[16] Ibid, p. 154.

[17] Ibid, p. 175.

[18] Wilson, Andrew. 2000. The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, p. 147; Subtelny, Orest. 2009. Ukraine: a history. Fourth Edition. University of Toronto Press, pp. 386-387.

[19] This was in part due to the earlier expulsions of Crimean Tatars under Stalin’s reign.

[20] Jansen, Marc. 2015. Grensland. Een Geschiedenis van Oekraïne (Borderland: A History of Ukraine). Amsterdam: Uitgeverij G.A van Oorschot, p. 154.

[21] Wilson, Andrew. 2000. ‘’The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, p. 148; Osipian, Ararat L. & Osipian Alexander L. 2012. ’’Regional Diversity and Divided Memories in Ukraine: Contested Past as Electoral Resource, 2004 -2010’’. In East European Politics and Societies 26:3 (2012) 616-642.

[22] Subtelny, Orest. 2009. Ukraine: a history. Fourth Edition. University of Toronto Press, pp. 274-275.

[23] Kuromiya, Hiroaki. 1995. Kuchma, Kravchuk, and Ukrainian Nation Building: an Essay. The National Council for Soviet and East European Research.

[24] Riabchuk, Mykola. 2012. Ukraine’s ‘muddling through’: National identity and postcommunist transition. In Communist and Post-Communist Studies 45: 439–446; Osipian, Ararat L. & Osipian Alexander L. 2012. ’’Regional Diversity and Divided Memories in Ukraine: Contested Past as Electoral Resource, 2004 -2010’’. In East European Politics and Societies 26:3 (2012) 616-642.

[25] Wilson, Andrew. 2000. ‘’The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, pp. 149-150.

[26] Wilson, Andrew. 2000. ‘’The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, pp. 164-165, 172.

[27] People in the Crimea also voted for independence by a small margin of 54%.

[28] Wilson, Andrew. 2000. ‘’The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, pp. 172-173.

[29] Way, Lucan. A. 2005. Rapacious individualism and political competition in Ukraine, 1992–2004. Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 38(2), 191-205.

[30] Yekelchyk, Serhy. 2007. Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation. Oxford: University Press, pp. 197-200; Wilson, Andrew. 2000. ‘’The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, p. 216.

[31] Kuzio, Taras. 2005. ‘‘Neither East Nor West: Ukraine’s Security Policy Under Kuchma.’’ Problems of Post-Communism 52.5: 59-68.

[32] Yekelchyk, Serhy. 2007. Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation. Oxford: University Press, pp. 201-204.

[33] Osipian, Ararat L. & Osipian Alexander L. 2012. ’’Regional Diversity and Divided Memories in Ukraine: Contested Past as Electoral Resource, 2004 -2010’’. In East European Politics and Societies 26:3 (2012) 616-642

[34] Pavlyuk, Lyudmyla. 2005. Extreme Rhetoric in the 2004 Presidential Campaign: Images Of Geopolitical and Regional Division, Canadian Slavonic Papers, 47(3-4):293-316.

[35] Yekelchyk, Serhy. 2007. Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation. Oxford: University Press, pp. 207-208, 219.

[36] Idem., pp. 221-222.

[37] Riabchuk, Mykola. 2012. Ukraine’s ‘muddling through’: National identity and postcommunist transition. In Communist and Post-Communist Studies 45: 439–446.

[38] Osipian, Ararat L. & Osipian Alexander L. 2012. ’’Regional Diversity and Divided Memories in Ukraine: Contested Past as Electoral Resource, 2004 -2010’’. In East European Politics and Societies 26:3 (2012) 616-642

[39] Confirmation of this can be read for example here: and here.

[40] Jansen, Marc. 2015. Grensland. Een Geschiedenis van Oekraïne (Borderland: A History of Ukraine). Amsterdam: Uitgeverij G.A van Oorschot, pp. 201, 205.; Riabchuck, Mukola. 2015. ‘‘Two Ukraines’ Reconsidered: The End of Ukrainian Ambivalence?’’ In Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 15(1): 138-156.

[41] Riabchuck, Mukola. 2015. ‘‘Two Ukraines’ Reconsidered: The End of Ukrainian Ambivalence?’’ In Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 15(1): 138-156.

[42] Jansen, Marc. 2015. Grensland. Een Geschiedenis van Oekraïne (Borderland: A History of Ukraine). Amsterdam: Uitgeverij G.A. van Oorschot, pp. 201-203.

[43] Barrington, Lowell W., and Erik S. Herron. 2004. One Ukraine or many? Regionalism in Ukraine and its political consequences. Nationalities Papers 32.1 (2004): 53-86.; Jansen, Marc. 2015. Grensland. Een Geschiedenis van Oekraïne (Borderland: A History of Ukraine). Amsterdam: Uitgeverij G.A. van Oorschot, pp. 203-204.

[44] Jansen, Marc. 2015. Grensland. Een Geschiedenis van Oekraïne (Borderland: A History of Ukraine). Amsterdam: Uitgeverij G.A. van Oorschot, pp. 223-224.

[45] Idem., p. 222.

[46] De Waal, T. & Jarábik, B. (2018), Ukraine Reform Monitor: March 2018, Carnegie, Link.

[47] Zhurzhenko, Tatiana. 2014. A Divided Nation? Reconsidering the Role of Identity Politics in the Ukraine Crisis. Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen Wien.

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