Andrew Wilson: The reality of these divisions in Ukraine

Is Europe faced with a replay of the break-up of Yugoslavia, or a serious land grab by Russia?

Share
Related Topics

The latest twist in Ukraine's tumultuous revolution is that the eastern regions that supported Viktor Yanukovych are sensing defeat and threatening a referendum on autonomy, even secession. How real a threat is the break-up of Ukraine after such a bitterly divided contest? Is Europe faced with a replay of the break-up of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, or a serious land grab by Russia? Can Ukraine survive a second attempt to elect a new President as a united nation?

The latest twist in Ukraine's tumultuous revolution is that the eastern regions that supported Viktor Yanukovych are sensing defeat and threatening a referendum on autonomy, even secession. How real a threat is the break-up of Ukraine after such a bitterly divided contest? Is Europe faced with a replay of the break-up of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, or a serious land grab by Russia? Can Ukraine survive a second attempt to elect a new President as a united nation?

Much that has been written about the current east-west split within Ukraine has been wide of the mark. The outgoing President Leonid Kuchma has been mired in serious scandals since 2000. As a result, the main establishment parties suffered a serious defeat in the last, parliamentary, elections in March 2002. The shadowy "political technologists" that advise the authorities therefore decided to play the "Russian card" in this year's election. It was the custodians of the state, in other words - who clearly have a very limited sense of patriotic responsibility - who deliberately sought to polarise the election as a means of hanging on to power, not the challenger. Moreover, as they found it difficult to portray Viktor Yushchenko as a wild-eyed nationalist backed by the West, they covertly paid four other candidates to play this role, to bring out the vote in Russian-speaking east Ukraine.

Nevertheless, the underlying divisions that have been so cynically exploited are real. Ukraine is a fragile state, which has only enjoyed independence in its current borders since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Fortunately, the various divisions do not coincide so as to split the country neatly in two. They don't have too much of a history either. A political divide might set the westernmost 10 per cent of the country that was part of the Habsburg Empire between 1772 and 1918 against the rest. Religious divides are more complex: most of the west is Greek Catholic, most of the rest is Orthodox; but there are two main rival branches of the Orthodox Church, one loyal to Kiev and one to Moscow; and religious fervour is largely absent from the heavily Sovietised eastern regions.

The Russian minority is not as large as it used to be, now only 17 per cent; but there is a much larger "Russian-speaking" population. Except, it is difficult to say how large. Nearly all Ukrainians can speak Ukrainian and Russian. Smaller numbers of Russians are effectively bilingual,and a modus vivendi of sorts has emerged since independence. It is not one Ukrainian nationalists like but, nevertheless, the issue of language rights was not a live one until Yanukovych's campaign team, many of whom are actually Russians from Russia, decided to exploit it.

Hence the conflict in the (distorted) voting figures has not been matched on the streets. Most of the TV pictures have come from Kiev where Yushchenko's supporters predominate. But the rival demonstrations in eastern cities like Donetsk have been ritualistic. The authorities have been stymied by their instinctive preference for staging fake rallies. Yanukovych "supporters" bussed into Kiev have usually disappeared pretty quickly - particularly when they were paid in advance.

So what are we to make of the rallies in the east that now demand autonomy or worse? Obviously, they are a sign that the Yanukovych camp thinks it is losing. But the Yanukovych electorate, although several million fewer than claimed in the official results, is real enough. So far, Yushchenko's team has played a cautious game, seeking to avoid provoking the east. Accepting the need for a repeat vote was actually a tough call for the side that has no doubt that it actually won. But if the authorities are unlikely to win a second vote, they can get the referendum result they want in the areas they still control.

In which case, Russia's attitude is crucial. The Kremlin risked a heavily one-sided bet on Yanukovych. Not only does it now face a humiliating reverse, it also fears the potential backlash in Russia itself, where what is politely known locally as "directed democracy" had seemed so secure. Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov attended the key rally in east Ukraine on Sunday, obviously with the Kremlin's approval. There is nowhere for a mini-republic based in Donetsk or the Crimea to go on its own. The east could only go its own way, if that way took it towards Russia. Would Putin really risk so much, however, despite having committed himself so personally, having been promised an easy victory for Russia's man? Russia has manoeuvred itself into a highly advantageous position as a partner of the West in the war on terror. Its more serious problems are in the south. And it could quietly seek to rebuild links with the Yushchenko side.

The Ukrainian state is probably strong enough to survive a Yushchenko presidency, if the current divisions are allowed to fade and some kind of government of national unity established. And if Ukraine can work through its crisis, it has much to offer - an economy with 13 per cent GDP growth moving closer to European standards, and an exemplar for Russia itself. One or more splinter states would be in nobody's interest. Two states that were better partners for the West would be a prize indeed.

The writer is Senior Lecturer in Ukrainian Studies at University College London

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yvette Cooper campaigning in London at the launch of Labour’s women’s manifesto  

I want the Labour Party to lead a revolution in family support

Yvette Cooper
Liz Kendall  

Labour leadership contest: 'Moderniser' is just a vague and overused label

Steve Richards
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine