Long live Ruthenia!

Click to follow
Question: Which of the

following countries exists?

a) Ambrosia b) Ruritania c) Ruthenia

Answer: None of the above

following people is real?

a) Billy Liar

b) Tintin

c) Professor Ivan Turyanitsa, Prime Minister of the would-be nation state of Ruthenia (currently known as Transcarpathian Ukraine)

Answer: You guessed it

Question: Is he a chicken short of a Kiev?

Answer: Not necessarily

Whence they came, no one can tell. Nobody knows exactly who, how many or where they are. They live in six states and in none. They are loyal to each of these states, and to none of them. Their language is written in five different versions; in the Cyrillic, but also in the Latin alphabet. Some regard themselves as Ukrainians, others as Slovaks, others again as Poles. Or Romanians. Or Hungarians. Or Yugoslavs. But many insist they are "Rusyns", or "Carpatho-Rusyns", or rusnatsi. Or, they throw up their hands and give the ancient answer of the peasant from Europe's Slavic borderlands: "We're just from here."

Yet now they have a provisional government that wants to form a new nation- state. A state called Ruthenia.

And here I am, talking to the Prime Minister. We are sitting in the office he occupies as a pharmacologist at a large hospital in Uzhorod, the capital of what Ukrainians call Transcarpathian Ukraine but he insists is Sub- Carpathian Rus'. Professor Ivan Turyanitsa is a stout, cheerful, energetic man, with a shock of black hair, bright eyes and the gift of the gab. He is dressed in what I find to be the current style among the Ruthenians: synthetic sports jacket above, pin-striped trousers below. He has just introduced me to the Foreign Minister, who has come specially from Slovakia, and the Justice Minister, who is a surgeon in the same hospital. "But," he hastens to add, "only two of the Cabinet work here."

While the Justice Minister - still wearing his medical white coat - makes me a cup of tea in the corner, the Prime Minister expounds. In the December 1991 referendum on Ukrainian independence, he says, 78 per cent of the people in this region voted for greater autonomy from the rest of Ukraine, on the far side of the high Carpathian mountains. But what he calls the "Ukrainian national fascist regime" ignored this popular wish. So in May 1993 he and his colleagues formed the Provisional Government of Sub-Carpathian Rus' - or in English, Ruthenia.

How did the Ukrainian authorities react?

"Normalnie!" he replies. (As befits these trans-frontier folk, we are speaking a mixture of Slovak and Polish.) "In the normal way. They arranged a car crash for me." Later, he takes me outside to show me the damaged car. At present, he says, he and his colleagues are tolerated, but given no access to the media.

They want their own state, in the boundaries of the present Transcarpathian oblast of Ukraine, but with close ties to fellow Ruthenians in Slovakia and Poland. As responsible politicians, they will leave defence and what they call "global" foreign policy to the Kiev government. Everything else - including "local and European" foreign policy, education, health and so on - would be their domain. They would have their own currency, "though it could be called the same". Professor Turyanitsa hands me a lapel badge showing their national symbol: yellow and gold stripes, with a red bear, prancing. Rather handsome.

Do they have a national anthem? Yes, of course. Could I see the text? Well, er, um, they don't seem to have one to hand. "But," says the Foreign Minister helpfully, "we could sing it for you!" Yes, please. Unfortunately, they get bashful and, instead of singing, they dig around until they do find the words, written by Aleksander Dukhnovych, a 19th-century priest regarded as the father of the nation. "Sub-Carpathian Rusyns," the anthem begins. "Arise from your deep slumber.'

It's tempting to dismiss this all as a joke. Ruthenia even sounds like something out of a Tintin book: perhaps a neighbour to Ruritania. And the provisional government is certainly good for a laugh. Yet the Ruthenian question takes you to the heart of one of the most important problems of international politics in our time. For in the decade since the end of the Cold War, in the new freedom, these suppressed or sometimes only half-formed nationalities have re-emerged and formulated political aspirations all over Europe.

To understand the Ruthenians' case, you need first to swallow a little potted history. The Ruthenians are a part of the family of east Slavic peoples, like the Russians, Belarussians and Ukrainians, all of whom were at one time or another described as part of Rus'. One scholar wanted to call them "Rus'ians" as opposed to "Russians", but you can see why the fine distinction did not catch on. Everything about their origins, culture, language and politics is disputed.

For most of their modern history the majority lived in the Austro-Hungarian empire. They were mainly farmers or woodcutters in the heavily forested Carpathian foothills. (You still see peasant woodcutters at work in mountain villages that look like pictures by Chagall). It was the Habsburgs who christened them Ruthenen: the English word derives from the German. When the empire was broken up after the First World War, they found themselves scattered between Poland, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia and what would shortly become the Soviet Union, but the greatest concentration was in the new state of Czechoslovakia.

Czechoslovakia, the most democratic and liberal of those successor states, gave them considerable autonomy, in a province it called Sub-Carpathian Rus'. The book in which they found the words of the national anthem was actually published in pre-war Czechoslovakia. In those golden days of freedom, there was a great debate between Ukrainophiles, who argued that the Ruthenians were really Ukrainians; Russophiles, who thought they were closer to Russians; and Rusynophiles, who said they were altogether different. Today, the debate has revived as freedom has returned. In Slovakia, I visit two rival organisations: the Union of Rusyno-Ukrainians, who insist that they are just a kind of Ukrainian, and Ruthenian Renaissance, whose spokeswoman tells me it's impossible to be both Ruthenian and Ukrainian.

The autonomy of Sub-Carpathian Rus' reached a perilous height after Britain and France agreed to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938. For six months it was a separate unit in a rump federal Czechoslovakia. The official English name for this unit was Ruthenia. Then, as the Nazis marched into Prague, Ruthenia was gobbled up by Hungary. But that didn't last long either. At the end of the Second World War, Stalin seized it for the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed, it became part of Ukraine.

Through all this, the Ruthenians went on chopping their wood. Professor Turyanitsa tells me the classic East European joke about the old man who says he was born in Austro-Hungary, went to school in Czechoslovakia, married in Hungary, worked most of his life in the Soviet Union, and now lives in Ukraine. "Travelled a lot, then?" asks his interviewer. "No, I never moved from Mukachevo."

One of the big questions that little Ruthenia prompts is whether the ethnically chequered successor states of the former Soviet Union might yet go the bloody way of former Yugoslavia. Are the Ruthenian rumblings an exception, inspired by the relatively recent experience of autonomy in pre-war Czechoslovakia? Or are other suppressed nationalities even now forming provisional governments in remote hospital offices?

Perhaps 800,000 to one million Ruthenians live in Ukraine. But there are another 100,000 or so in Slovakia, some 60,000 in Poland (where they are called "Lemkos") and smaller numbers in Romania, Hungary and the Vojvodina province of rump Yugoslavia. (They also have one vital asset for any would- be nation: a large community in the United States.) So they live across half a dozen frontiers. One dramatic way in which they describe themselves is "the Kurds of Central Europe".

Moreover, these are not just any old frontiers. Samuel Huntington argues in his influential book, The Clash of Civilisations, that the great dividing line in Europe, after the end of the Iron Curtain, will be that between Western (Catholic or Protestant) and Eastern (Orthodox) Christianity. Here, according to Huntington, is the new Eastern boundary of Europe and of "Western civilisation", no less. The Ruthenians, true to form, cut right across it. They worship in both the Eastern Orthodox and the Uniate (or Greek Catholic) church, which uses the Eastern rite but acknowledges the authority of the Western Pope. If you drive through the Ruthenian mountain villages of eastern Slovakia, you often see two churches side by side: an old wooden-built one, which is Uniate, and a new Orthodox one. The original wooden churches were illegally given to the Orthodox by the communists after 1945, then returned to the Uniates after the end of communism, whereupon the Orthodox congregation stormed off and built their own next door.

More immediately, the Ruthenians will soon straddle the new Eastern frontier of Nato. That will be true when Poland joins Nato this April, and even more so if a new, rapidly reforming Slovakia

enters the Western alliance in a few years' time. Then you will have significant numbers of Ruthenians on both sides of the West's front line. The Foreign Minister tells me confidentially that his government is "delighted to see Nato coming closer to us".

The Ruthenian story is, in every respect, a quintessentially East European one, and those of us with the perverse taste for such things may love it for its own sake. But it's not just an East European question. In Western Europe, too, we have nationalities, in varying degrees of formation, striving for anything from autonomy to statehood. Think of Scotland and Wales in Britain, for example, or of Catalonia and the Basque country in Spain. And it's not just Europe. When I ask the Prime Minister if his government has achieved international recognition, he proudly declares: "Yes indeed, we have been accepted into UNPROFOR."

"UNPROFOR? But that was the military force in Bosnia!"

"Sorry, I mean UNPRO."

Finally, we establish that it's UNPO, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation. On my return, I visit UNPO's website and find a list of more than 50 of these, starting with Abkhazia, Aboriginals in Australia and Alcheh/Sumatra, then on to East Timor, Kurdistan, Nagaland and Tibet. And, in the middle, Kosova - the Albanian spelling of Kosovo.

All over the world there are these peoples who would be states. Or at least, recognised political units. This is a problem in dictatorships, when established identities are brutally suppressed, as in Tibet or East Timor. It's also a problem in liberal democracies, when people wish to be governed by those they feel speak the same language or are of the same kind. Perhaps most of all, it's a problem at the fragile half-way stage between dictatorship and democracy. So often the road that begins with an UNPO ends in the need for an UNPROFOR.

The Ruthenians are still far from being Kurds or Kosovars. For now, their "representatives" want some basic minority rights, such as education in their own language. Improvements in Slovakia will increase the grievances in Ukraine. They demand that Ruthenian nationality should be an option in the Ukrainian census that is scheduled for 2001, and that Ukrainian state forestry companies should stop the mechanised stripping of trees from their beloved hills. Those forests are their national heritage. They also hope to prevent the Transcarpathian oblast being incorporated into a new, enlarged province that would be ruled from Lvov, in a planned reform of public administration for which, they tell me, the International Monetary Fund has been pressing. And finally, they look for more co-operation across the frontiers, in what is already the Carpathian Euroregion.

That's a long way short of statehood. But Professor Turyanitsa is a gifted demagogue. If the circumstances were right, and he was given access to the media, I could see him - or someone like him - persuading an audience of Ruthenian hill farmers, woodcutters and impoverished town-dwellers that they are heirs to a great tradition; that they were more prosperous and free as part of Czechoslovakia before the war; that the Ukrainian "national chauvinists" - a phrase he repeats often and with relish - are to blame for all of their troubles: in short, that they would be much better off governing themselves.

As we speak, rainwater is pouring down from the Carpathians and flooding the lowlands on the border with Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. "You see," he exclaims, "the very waters are pushing us to the West."

Absurd as it may sound, I have a strange hunch that one day we will again see the name "Ruthenia" on the map, if not as a sovereign state, then at least as some sort of autonomous province. When that day comes, remember: you read it here first.