Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

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[BRIEF NOTE] Ukraine's Underestimated Strength

Yesterday, Nick Barlow quoted from Green Mars, the final novel in Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy of Martian colonization and settlement.

She could have kissed him. Instead she nodded, not trusting herself to speak, and went to the doorway to the living room. Jackie was still in the midst of her exhortation, and it gave Maya the greatest of pleasure to interrupt her: "The demonstration's off."

"What do you mean?" Jackie said, startled and annoyed. "Why?"

"Because we're having a revolution instead."

That seems to be what the Ukrainians are doing, after more than a decade of economic decline and dubiously authoritarian politics. (Nick Barlow has another relevant quote, this one from V for Vendetta). The ultimate outcome of the situation is uncertain, though the fact that the Ukrainian Supreme Court has blocked Yanukovych's inauguration can be taken as a hopeful sign. A variety of blogs are covering the Ukrainian situation in detail, including the Head Heeb (1, 2), Far Outliers (1, 2), and most prominently, A Fistful of Euros (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Dragan Antulov has also made an interesting post on Ukraine's future, examining its status as a frontier zone and as an internally divided land.

Ukraine, as it is pronounced in Croatian, sounds very much like "Krajina", which is the word for "Frontier". Whatever happens with this elections, this is the fate that awaits that country – Ukrainians are either be Russian buffer zone towards NATO and West or NATO/EU buffer zone against Russia. It is understandable why so many in EU want Yuschenko to win this contest – idealists want new, big and nuclear-armed addition to future European superpower, while realists see Ukraine as some kind of European Mexico – source of cheap labour and cannon fodder which happens not to be tainted with Islamic fundamentalism. US administration, on the other hand, tries to use Ukraine in order to improve its standing with Europeans and world leftists by standing on the side of liberal democracy. Both USA and EU also want to re-establish some its great power prestige at the expense of weakened Russia.

Another thing seems very likely. Whoever won this elections had rather slim margin and whoever wins post-election stand-off would have to deal with the country bitterly divided on sectarian and ethnic lines. Unlike Serbia, Georgia and East European countries in 1989, there won't be any magical "velvet" or "rose" revolution to instantly transform authoritarian regime into liberal democracy. If some kind of meaningful compromise isn't reached very soon, all kinds of unpleasant scenarios, ranging from military dictatorship, civil war and Yugoslavia-style break-up, are likely.

And indeed, the BBC Online article "Ukraine: a divided country" (via pompe) makes it clear that Victor Yushchenko's orange dominates the north and west of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych's blue the south and east. This distinction maps fairly well onto Ukraine's ethnolinguistic divide; the areas of the north and west, with populations largely Ukrainian in ethnicity and language save for certain minorities (Magyar, Polish) in the far west, voted for Yushchenko, while the more ethnically complex and linguistically Russophone areas of the south voted for Yanukovych. The recent Reuters article "Fears of Ukraine Split After Disputed Election" goes into more detail of this sort.

This analysis is flawed, though. The Reuters article I reference above claims that the "west is home to Ukraine's large eastern-rite Catholic minority, having been ruled by Poland and Austria-Hungary at different times[, and] feels distinctly part of central Europe." As this map makes clear, though, only a comparatively small portion of Ukraine was ruled directly by Austria-Hungary. Kyyiv--also known as Kiev--left Polish rule in 1648; the Ukrainian lands east of Kyyiv fell to Russia at a still earlier date. Certainly, the legacy of Austro-Hungarian rule and Polish influence played; I argued in my recent post on Belarus and Russia that the lack of comparable influence may have doomed the Belarusians towards a strongly Russophile and Russophone identity. Austria-Hungary, however, certainly cannot explain why Kyyiv and Chernihiv are strongholds of modern Ukrainian nationalism and Yushchenko supporters.

As for ethnic tensions, Taraz Kuzio's 2000 note "The Myth of Russophone Unity in Ukraine" makes the very important point that speakers of the Russian language in Ukraine do not constitute a unified body, but in fact (as in Kyyiv) often prefer Ukrainianization measures. Graham Smith's July 1997 "Rethinking Russia's post-Soviet diaspora" goes into further detail about the fragmented nature of the Donetsk Basin's Russophone community. Further, Ukrainian and Russian ethnic identities are not nearly so distinct as (say) Serb and Croat identities, or even Baltic and Russian identities; many Ukrainians are Russophone, there is a high rate of intermarriage across ethnicities, and there are low and readily permeable ethnic frontiers. Paul S. Pirie's 1996 "National identity and politics in Southern and Eastern Ukraine" and Stephen Rapawy's 1997 "Ethnic Reindentification in Ukraine" presage the findings from the 2003 census, which recorded sharp shifts upward in the proportion of self-identified ethnic Ukrainians and speakers of Ukrainian even as the total population contracted by more than 6%. Ukraine's ethnic frontiers are porous; Ukrainians themselves are a highly mobile people. Ethnic and even linguistic identity in Ukraine is fluid, and this fluidity definitely plays to the advantage of the Ukrainian nation-building project. How else to explain the popularity of Ukrainianization measures in Kyyiv, a city mostly Russophone by language (if mostly ethnic Ukrainian by population)?

I'm skeptical, in short, that Ukraine is at real risk of splitting apart along ethnolinguistic-cum-political lines. And yet, I can't help but remember Andrew Wilson's The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation, which suggested that the most likely and the most stable course for Ukraine would be a broadly centrist position, relying on slow Ukrainianization and a Ukrainian balancing act between the European Union and Russia. Going to one extreme (a strongly Ukrainianizing regime intent on immediate European integration) or another (a strongly Russophile regime intent on Eurasian integration) could, Wilson suggested, disturb the equilibrium. Mass secessions wouldn't be the result so much as growing alienation, the formation of more coherent ethnic groups with stricter frontiers. This would be a problem for Ukraine, needless to say.

And yet, as destabilizing as the events of November and December 2004 could be for the long-term future of Ukraine, there is no way I can do anything but wish the protesters in Kyyiv and L'viv and dozens of other cities around Ukraine, Europe, and the world the best of luck. Ukrainians deserve to live under a democratic polity in a liberal society just as much as Poles, or Russians, or Canada. Long live free Ukraine!
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