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Where Does Ukraine’s Separatism Come From?

A de-escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine is a big challenge for the country’s new president – Petro Poroshenko. The way this problem is handled will not only determine the future of the Ukrainian state, but also the issue of regional security. Polish and foreign media constantly report on the issues in Ukraine creating a chronological approach to the process of the conflict escalation. With the information overload, it is very difficult to focus on what really is the source of separatism in the east of Ukraine. Among many opinions, there is a belief that this is a planned activity carried out by the Russian Federation and the Russians’ reaction towards the EuroMaidan revolution. However, the real genesis of this conflict lies much deeper.  

May 31, 2014 - Maryana Prokop - Articles and Commentary


Photo by Wojciech Koźmic

In 1991, Ukraine regained its independence and found itself at the threshold of state-building. The decade of the 1990s are characterised by stagnation and a-politicisation of the Ukrainian civil society. Ukrainians got their state, but they did not get the awareness of having a state, as this process was not accompanied by the consolidation of civil society and the values which this society should execute.

Differences between western and eastern Ukraine in terms of language, economic potential and religion have served as a ground for many concepts of the division of the state. It was this same myth of a divided Ukrainian nation that was used during the Orange Revolution. Another issue is the category of divisions of the state in the context of Ukraine’s foreign policy; in this case the west of the country is considered pro-European while the east is considered pro-Russian.

To a large degree, this is a consequence of the government’s foreign policy, termed by researchers as “two-winged” or “multi-winged”. These terms were most often used to describe Ukraine’s foreign policy during the presidency of Leonid Kuchma (1994-2004) and it meant a lack of a clear, one direction in international cooperation. Another issue here is a certain dualism related to the shaping of Ukrainians’ national identity. The country’s constitution of 1996 introduced two concepts: “the nation of Ukraine” and the “Ukrainian nation”. In the context of the current conflict in eastern Ukraine, we can observe a tendency to differentiate these categories, even though for the legislator they appear to mean the same thing.

Being Ukraine’s citizens, not all “Ukrainians” declare that they feel Ukrainian. When I was talking to separatist from Sloviansk, I learned that he does not feel Ukrainian: “I prefer to die than be called a Ukrainian”, he said. These words surprised me mainly because my interlocutor was a young person and could not remember life before Ukraine’s independence. “Ukraine as a state did not give me anything,” he further said.

The duality in the shaping of national identity is related mainly to the existence of two models of national identity of the Ukrainian people. Ukrainian historian, Yaroslav Hrycak distinguishes these two models: ethnic (Galician) and political (Donbasian). The ethnic model is based on values such as language (Ukrainian), history, cult of national heroes (from the Cossacks to the leaders of the freedom-independence movements) and a strong orientation towards the West. The Galician model which is of Galician origin is not limited to a specific territory in the state; it can be found throughout Ukraine including the east where there are numerous nationalistic organisations. The weakness of this model is that it tends to be short-term, does not last more than five years as it dies out quickly.  An example of this model can be seen in the “Orange Revolution” this large explosion of national sentiment did not last long and as its result the society became even more apolitical. The second model, the Donbas model, includes the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts which are inhabited primarily by the Russian-speaking population. It is characterised by a conscious rejection of everything that’s Ukrainian through a different understanding of history and absorbs the symbols from Soviet history (Lenin, Stachanov). The population in this model does not support integration with the West.

Returning to the main question of this article, where does separatism in Ukraine come from, it should be noted that the two extreme views on the future of Ukraine is not only and solely an effect of the events that took place in the last few months. The division that characterises today’s Ukrainian society is at least 20 years old. However, throughout this whole time we did not realise that it could lead to such a serious threat. Should we have understood this earlier and made more efforts to unify the society, maybe today the separatists would not be able to escalate the conflict. Thus, the fault for today’s situation in Ukraine should be assigned to the country’s authorities and elite who have not managed to create a consistent policy unifying the east and the west. Political candidates (be it in presidential or parliamentary elections) were artfully using this division between the east and west, directing their campaigns either westwards treating their electorate as pro-western or easterwards, treating it as pro-Russian.

For many years, the emphasis was placed on the things that divide Ukrainians. In general, the country’s west did not have a picture of the east, nor vice versa.  That’s why it is easy right now to manipulate information; Ukrainians in the east believe that those who live in the west are nationalists, while those who live in the west see those from the east as Russian agents.

The post-communist hibernation, state nihilism, political apathy and differences in voter preferences have not gone in vain. It all contributed to the deepening of this division within the state, giving ground to the separatists. They did not come out of nowhere. The separatist sentiments are a result of an ineffective language policy by Ukrainian authorities and are now strengthened by Russia’s activity in Crimea which seems to have been a spark which awoke them to life.

In this context, the new Ukrainian government is faced with a serious challenge: to solve the conflict in the east, manage a deep economic crisis, decide on a choice of foreign policy and deal with the division of the Ukrainian state. Above all it must reconstruct trust in the society and build a unified and strong Ukraine.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Maryana Prokop is a Ukrainian-born PhD student at the Faculty of Political Science and International Studies, Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, Poland, specialising in the Ukrainian political system.


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