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?

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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

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