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

QA/BA - Agile

£400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently seekin...

Primary Supply Teacher

£121 - £142 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Primary supply teacher Hertford...

KS1 & KS2 Teacher

£115 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Luton: We are looking for infants and...

Secondary Trained Teachers for the watford area

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Qualified secondary teachers - ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Ebola virus in the US: How did the disease ever spread this far?

Sophie Harman
 

The most common question I am asked is 'How do I become a YouTuber?' This is my reply

Jim Chapman
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?