Is there a single Ukraine?
From the Economist
From the Economist
Is the modern Ukraine one nation?
The question is not meant to be provocative. But it is worth asking, since Ukraine is deeply divided on its international destiny: roughly speaking, does it belong more closely to the European Union or to Russia? Political divides cut Ukraine into eastern and western halves. The last two presidential elections have split neatly along these lines. In both of them, Viktor Yanukovych, the president, won the vast majority of votes in the eastern half of the country. He lost (after a re-vote when the first vote was considered rigged) in 2004, but won in 2010. The maps of the two elections by region look remarkably similar, so it stands to reason that the number of swing voters was relatively small.
It also so happens that the linguistic divisions of Ukraine run along nearly the exact same lines. The west and north are predominantly Ukrianian-speaking, the east and south predominantly Russian-speaking.
In 2012, a new law upgraded Russian those regions where it is most widely spoken. Ukrainian remains the only national language, but Russian now plays a greater role at the local level. As we , Ukraine is not simply divided into “Russians” who speak Russian and “Ukrainians” who speak Ukrainian. In the days of the Soviet Union, each Soviet citizen had an official “nationality” in their passport, alongside Soviet citizenship. There are former Russians by nationality who ended up in the borders of the independent Ukraine. But to mess up the picture somewhat, there are also ethnic “Ukrainians” who prefer Russian, whatever that means. (There are no other obvious outer markers of nationality—it’s not as though Russians and Ukrainians differ visibly.) And complicating the picture further still, many people are happily bilingual: some people speak Ukrainian at home but Russian at work, or speak Ukrainian but mostly read and watch television in Russian (in which there are more options, given Russia’s presence next door).
Inevitably, politicians try to play with language to their own advantage. Mr Yanukovych is from the east, his political power base is there, and despite his efforts to please nationalists by speaking up for the language, he still makes mistakes in Ukrainian. Yulia Timoshenko, his defeated rival in that election (and now in jail), has spent years mastering Ukrainian, and she called the 2012 law upgrading Russian a “crime against the state”. Debate over it started a fistfight in Ukraine’s parliament.
Language has become a proxy for other battles, not only over Europe versus Russia, but over history. Some Ukrainian nationalists, understandably resentful of Soviet-Russian domination, eagerly joined the 1941 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. So Ukrainian nationalism—including the linguistic kind—provokes nervousness and resentment among some Russian-speakers. One Russian-Ukrainian professor told me that his family celebrate New Year on Moscow time and feel like strangers in western Ukraine. He predicts either federalism (German- or American-style, with a weakened national government) or partition (hopefully peaceful, like Czechoslovakia’s). He says he can live with federalism—so long as he never has to watch parades honouring the old SS “Halichna” division made up mostly of Ukrainians.
Ukraine’s very name means “borderland”. Its sovereignty has remained contested since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Your columnist will never forget finding himself in Lviv (a heart of nationalism, in western Ukraine) on August 24th 1998: it was Ukraine’s sixth-ever independence day, and locals solemnly gathered in front of the statue of Taras Shevchenko, the national poet. Grey-haired men and women held flags to their hearts and bowed their heads, eyes closed, as they stood in tightly formed groups and sang patriotic hymns. This was not a people who took independence for granted, the holiday an excuse to skip work and barbecue. Independence denied was very much a living memory.
Nonetheless, some Russian-speaking Ukrainians still feel that the symbols of Ukrainian nationalism were hastily contrived, and therefore artificial. The role of Ukrainian as sole national language—a role that it never enjoyed in any political unit until 1991—is Exhibit A in their case against nationalism as a manipulated, divisive force.
In a perfect world, everyone would live in the country they choose. Perhaps a partition would be better for many in the current Ukraine. But in practice, partition is far less often a “velvet divorce” of equals as in Czechoslovakia, and more often like the bloody division of Yugoslavia: mixed towns become battlefields and neighbouring powers intervene in their own interests. In this case, the enormous neighbouring power of Russia is unlikely to be able to avoid meddling in any peaceful Ukrainian split. Sergei Glazyev, an adviser to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has already speculated publicly that Russia might feel honour-bound to support Russian-speakers in a partition—fanning the flames.
There clearly is a genuine Ukrainian nationalism, and Russian attempts to portray it as “fake” are self-serving. But though there is a Ukrainian nation, it does not live cleanly within the borders of the modern state called Ukraine. This is a tragedy for all those whom the status quo does not satisfy, and that is looking like a lot of Ukrainians at the moment. Federalism, including linguistic federalism, is often a better solution. But as the punch-up in parliament over Russian in the eastern regions shows, when times gets tense, people’s thinking becomes zero sum: a gain for Russian must be a loss for Ukrainian. The country, as currently constituted, is probably fated for a lot of mutual misunderstanding yet.