Interview: Is Ukraine too divided to have a future as one country?

17 february 2014 – For months there have been protests in Ukraine. People from across the country are occupying governmental buildings and demanding the departure of President Yanukovych . Although protesters from various parties are now united with one purpose, looking towards the future the old question arises: is Ukraine too divided to have a future as one country?

According to the Kremlin, the answer is yes . The links between Eastern Ukraine and Russia are closer than that between East and West Ukraine, political advisor Gergej Glazujev told Ukrainian newspaper last week.

Nonsense, says Ukrainian strategist and political scientist Yevhen Hlibovytsky, who is part of a multi-disciplinary group of experts who researched cultural differences in Ukrainian regions. “There is a difference between the east and the west, but that does not the mean the country is heading towards a split. There are more things that unite Ukrainians than those that divide them, but apparently unity isn’t sexy enough, apocalyptic scenarios sell better.”

Is Ukraine on the verge of falling apart?

“I don’t think that is likely. The differences between East and West lie in language, religion, and views on the history of the XX century, but the importance of these differences is seriously overestimated. When asked if quality of schooling or language would be a decisive factor to pick a school for their children, parents choose quality. Surveys of the publics show that Ukrainians care about prices, inflation and jobs more than identity issues.

“Resolving security threats – from physical safety to uninterrupted winter heating and economic stability— is more important in the eyes of Ukrainians. However, these issues are mostly unaddressed by the corrupt political elites in both the government and the opposition, who have learned how to score votes by stirring identity politics rather than confronting real long term challenges to Ukraine.

“A common political charade is to cast the media spotlight on some controversial law or high profile discrimination case several months before elections. This polarizes voters and hijacks the elections agenda, moving it away from the important issues. Ukrainian democracy is immature, big media is weak and corrupt, so the society has limited ability to impose an agenda.”

“From the inside, division is not in question. Polls show that about 80 percent of the population ascribes themselves as having a Ukrainian identity – which consists of both Ukrainian and Russian speakers. A small minority – just over 10 percent – say they have a Soviet identity. These people mainly live in the areas next to the Russian border, in Donbass and Crimea. The real fault line goes along the cultural perceptions, not language or religion as we are often told.”

Do these regions threaten separatism or open affiliation with Russia?

“Not unless there is a deep third party involvement. Donbass is unhappy about Maidan, but doesn’t have the passion of Maidan. The government has to pay people to participate in anti-Maidan rallies. It is difficult to find genuine support for such an impotent government with so many inadequate policies. As a local self-made hero Yanukovych has support in his home region, but it is not passionate.”

“Crimea is the only potentially troublesome region. They already have a form of autonomy, with their own government. Pro-Russian sentiment is strong there. However, when Russia tried to overtake the Ukrainian Tuzla island in 2003 to control the Azov sea strait, the Crimeans were appalled. Though some Crimeans would like to be part of Russia, many are indifferent or care about their jobs and social wellbeing foremost. The Crimean Tatars, indigenous Muslims on the peninsula, (about 12% of Crimean population) are passionately pro-Ukrainian.”

Is there such a thing as a Ukrainian national identity ?

“Ethnically, yes, no doubt. Politically, the Ukrainian identity is more inclusive and includes people of other nationalities living in Ukraine. The first two victims at Maidan were an Armenian and a Belorussian. Research shows that the distance in values between people of East and West of Ukraine is less than the difference with neighbors across the border in any direction.”

“Ukrainians are similarly insecure as a result of the terrible loss of life in the XX century. Stalin deliberately starved millions of people in the famine and Hitler’s war in the east was fought mostly on Ukrainian territory. Soviet repressions and Chernobyl also contributed to this insecurity.”

“Unlike Russians, who view their government as an ultimate authority that cannot be defied, Ukrainians treat their governments like bad weather: if you don’t like it, it will pass. In Russia the authorities make the final decisions, in Ukraine the grass-root does. Russians have historic experience of successful use of violence, and Ukrainians view violence as a path to suffering. ”

Do you recognize some of these values in the protests ?

“Yes, I do. Euromaidan started as a small non-violent protest by students, who were in favor of association with the EU. It became a big movement when Yanukovych’s police violently dispersed the sleeping youth at 4 am, under the excuse they had to clean up the square to install the Christmas tree. The next day tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians angry about government unaccountability took to the streets.

“The protest has catalyzed many processes in Ukraine. Civil society is evolving fast and it claims that it wants to control the political agenda. The protesters are becoming more realistic in their understanding of the EU. In the beginning many viewed the EU as a single actor like Russia, and expected the EU to act in some way. Now the EU is perceived more as a group of actors, with different, sometimes contradicting needs. This pushes the protest away from looking for a shortcut solution by striking some kind of perfect deal, and towards a longer more systemic change. There is a growing understanding that all the homework in democracy building will have to be done inside the country. No shortcuts. Then, if Ukraine succeeds, it may become an attractive model for other former Soviet countries.”

But Putin does not like to see this happen. What will he do ?

“I think it is unlikely that he will invade. I cannot totally rule out some provocations in Crimea. Russia can act as a spoiler, but it does not have the resources to sustain Ukraine in a Belorussian way. It is less willing to play along with a nation of 45 million people. I am not sure if corrupt Russian officials are willing to gamble access to their fortunes in the West, which would probably be blocked in the event of invasion, at least if the West sticks to its declared integrity.”

“At the same time Ukraine is very important for Putin. If Ukraine loses, Russia will remain the center of gravity in the former USSR. Should Ukraine manage to break away and modernize itself successfully, other post-Soviet countries may find this path attractive too. The Kremlin has many friends in Ukrainian politics, media, and business, and finding vulnerabilities will not be too difficult for the Russians. For the Ukrainians this will be an important resilience test.”


Yevhen Hlibovytsky, 39, is a founder of pro.mova, an independent think tank that conducts research on cultural values in the post-Soviet countries and inside Ukraine. He is a member of the visionary multi-disciplinary Nestor group. His educational background is in political science, professional background (until 2005) in political journalism. In 2002 he was one of the co-founders of the independent television channel Kanal 5. This year he was involved in the establishment of the station HromadskeTV, a prototype of Public Service Broadcast in Ukraine. He is a lecturer at the UkrainianCatholicUniversity in Lviv and Kyiv-Mohyla


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