Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Ukraine between East and West

UkraineUkraine’s Orange Revolution was always painted (in the western media, at least) as a conflict between western-looking Yushchenko and the eastern-looking former Prime Minister Yanukovich, the man whose suspect election to the presidency sparked popular protests and an eventual turnaround back in November 2004. Yushchenko was, it is alleged, the target of an assassination plot backed by Moscow, while Yanukovich was merely backed by Moscow. When the Revolution got its way and Yushchenko came to power, it seemed the West had won.

But it was never going to be that simple, or that easy. After countless disputes between Ukraine’s various political factions over the last four years, another post-Orange Revolution government is nearing collapse thanks to yet another spat between former Orange allies President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko – and all as the aftermath of the Georgia crisis continues to rumble with the US handing Saakashvili a tidy $1 billion in reconstruction money (otherwise known as a fiscal two fingers to Moscow), and Russia announces a review of its global trade relations. Although the EU may account for 31% of Ukraine’s export market, Russia makes up 21% – and after the various spats over gas supplies over the last couple of years, you can be sure that Ukrainians are somewhat worried about just what Moscow may have planned to reassert the influence she lost with the fall of former President Kuchma back in 2004.

And so it would appear that the spread of the Georgia standoff does indeed seem likely to spread to Ukraine.

The thing is, though, that even without the squabbles between the various political leaders, the position of Ukraine was never going to be resolved by a simple election. Did Yanukovich try to steal the election back in 2004? Quite possibly. But that still doesn’t alter the fact that the country’s vote was split almost exactly down the middle.

Of course, it’s easy to label this an East vs West thing, and that’s part of it. But the actual reason is cultural and linguistic. Ukraine’s just like Belgium, in fact. The parallels are painfully evident:

Belgium and Ukraine by politics and language

You see, just as Belgium has a north/south split between Flemish and French speakers, so too it has a north/south political divide. And in Ukraine, there’s a northwest/southeast split between majority Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers, echoed in political support for the “west-leaning” Yushchenko/Orange Revolution in the northwest and “pro-Russia” Yanukovich in the southeast.

So, why does Ukraine have the borders that she does? They’re a fairly recent creation, after all – with the origins of Ukraine lying in the medieval Kievan Rus’, which stretched north from Kiev through modern Belarus and Poland to the Baltic, not south and east to the Black Sea. It went on to be absorbed into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (covering much the same area – but again missing out the south and east of modern Ukraine, which was part of the Crimean Khanate, before being sucked into the similarly vast Kingdom of Poland via the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Check the maps below (very rough, I know) charting Ukraine’s geographical history up to the 19th century (when it was absorbed by the Russian Empire) – notice something?

Historical geography of Ukraine

Yep – that’s right. The Russian-speaking, Yanukovich-voting part of modern Ukraine was not, historically, part of Ukraine – it’s a later addition tacked on during the Russian Empire. During the chaotic times following the Russian revolution and around the Ukrainian War of Independence of 1919, the northwest that tried to break away as a Ukrainian state (actually, several Ukrainian states, after repeated failures to consolidate their position), while the southeast (briefly) went its own way as the Crimean People’s Republic. It was really only under the Soviets – who took the Tsars’ attempts to crush the Crimean Tatars and put down Ukranian nationalism (especially after the Second World War, where Ukrainian nationalists fought both the Russians and the Germans, depending on who was occupying the area at the time, in a campaign that lasted until 1956) to the usual near-genocidal extremes – that Ukraine’s current borders began to be fixed. In fact, you can even put a precise date on it – 19th February 1954, the day the Crimean Oblast was transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

So here’s the question. If northwestern Ukraine is the linguistic, cultural and historical hub of the Ukrainian people, and southwestern Ukraine has only been spliced on within living memory, why persist with the pretense that the current borders of the modern Ukrainian state are actually meaningful? They were created by the Soviet Union as a handy administrative division, not based on any of the usual factors that go into the creation of a coherent state. Artificial borders have, time and again, led to conflict and division – be it via European colonialism in Africa or the carving up of the Middle East after the First World War.

If Ukraine really is torn between east and west, in other words – and it is – and if its artificial makeup keeps leading to political stalemate and unrest – and it does – isn’t the logical thing to do to follow the Belgian example and consider splitting the country down the middle? (This would also, one hopes, have the added benefit of shutting Russia up for a while as she regains part of her old sphere of influence – and enable the EU to focus on the more “European” northwest for development and eventual integration.)

Am I serious about this as a suggestion? It’s about 50/50 at the moment. But the longer Ukraine goes without forming a stable government, the more likely an outcome this will be…


  1. I don’t know if Ukraine divides as neatly as Belgium. The electoral maps are a good example, actually:

    – in Ukraine, a majority in the north-west backed Yushchenko, and a majority in the south-east backed Yanukovich. But there was a significant minority backing the other side in each case. Also, most Ukrainians identify as ‘Ukrainian’ rather than ‘Russian’, even in the East (exception: Crimea, which was tacked on by Krushchev), though among Russophones I suspect there is a spectrum of identities in between. If you divided up England into large regions in a suitable way, I’m sure you’d be able to come up with a similar map for the 2005 election where the North is coloured red and the South blue. But would this mean Labour is the Northern party and the Tories the Southern party?

    – in Belgium, there are *no* nationwide parties of any significance, even strongly Belgicist parties. (I think the largest is the Workers’ Party of Belgium, a communist party which won 0.84% of the vote in the last elections.) If you live in Wallonia, you can *only* vote for Francophone parties, and in Flanders you can *only* vote for Dutch-speaking parties. Individual voters no longer have any choice in this, because collectively their political landscapes have separated so completely. Belgium at the moment really is like two countries, which just happen to overlap over a small proportion of the total territory, namely Brussels and its environs, and so can’t formally separate because they’d lose their claim to some of the overlap.

  2. I concur with Colin’s analysis. A large portion of the argument here is based on the linguistic component, which assumes that if Russian then not Ukrainian. This is a flawed assumption.

    Even briefly surveying the .ua internet forums or going to “Russian-speaking” regions in Ukraine, one will discover that Russian speakers can be some of the most Ukrainian Ukrainians as it gets. This is not surprising, because often times these are ethnically Ukrainian, who use Russian in the day-to-day life, but are comfortable in communicating in Ukrainian if necessary.

    The assertion that only former Kievan Rus/Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth areas were always “Ukrainian” and that the southeast part of Ukraine was never such is mistaken. I have no time to devote to debunking this at the moment, but a reading of history of the region and its population shifts will show the weakness of this claim.

    Props, however, for bringing this issue for a discussion.

  3. Pingback: Ukraine: aah the joys of democracy « The 8th Circle

  4. You’re both right, of course – it’s a much simplified take. (And I also skipped over the inconvenience of the economic angle, which would show that the southeast is wealthier, possibly making the northwest less economically viable as an independent state.)

    But still. As you know, I’m not much of a fan of the nation state, but do believe in subsidiarity. The Ukrainian nation may well end up more of a diaspora of the country splits in two, but is that such a bad thing if, by doing so, the two parts can break out of their current political deadlock and pursue their rather different aspirations? Split Ukraine. Split Belgium. Split the UK. Split the US. Why not? Why is territorial integrity so important when historical territories (like those above) are so easily forgotten?

  5. There is a real problem with this analysis, precisely because of the identification with Belgium.

    First of all, Belgium already has a federal structure that divides into Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels. There is no equivalent for Ukraine, except in the case of Crimea, which is a special case we will deal with below.

    Secondly, there is a strong national feeling in Belgium, where people assert their regional identities – people say they are Flemish or Walloon. This is more developed for the Flemish, but still exists. There is no comparable feeling in Ukraine. Even in the east, the majority of people say that they are Ukrainian. They may speak Russian day to day, but their national orientation is Ukrainian, and they increasingly send their kids to Ukrainian-language schools. There are more people who call themselves Russians in the south-east, but they don’t make up a majority anywhere but Crimea.

    The national identification is important, but so are the trendlines. Everywhere in the country, knowledge and competence in Ukrainian is increasing, and since the majority identify as Ukrainian – they tend not to have a problem with it. The cities tend to be more Russophone than the surrounding area, but as people move to the city and the urban dwellers send their kids to Ukrainian schools this is already changing, most notably in Kiev.

    Crimea is an autonomous area of Ukraine attached there by Khruschev. It’s majority Russian and overwhelmingly Russian-speaking. The authorities there pursue a distinct policy of Russification in education and civic life. The reason it is majority Russian is because the original inhabitants (Crimean Tatars) were completely ethnically cleansed by Stalin and sent to Central Asia. As more and more of them return and since they have a significantly higher birth rate than the Ukrainians and especially the Russians, they make up a greater and greater percentage of the population – now 13%. Half of them still haven’t come back. Even with 200,000 of them returning after the fall of the Soviet Union, Crimea is still cratering demographically, losing 16% of its population since 1989. If we just wait ten years and the Russian fleet leaves, the area won’t be majority Russian anymore and will likely integrate much more greatly with the rest of Ukraine. This problem will solve itself.

    So your equivalence with Belgium is wrong and harmful.

    You seem to think splits of this nature are cost-free. No one outside of Belgium is really calling for a breakup of Belgium. It’s an internal political issue. That is not the case in Ukraine. There is no mass movement in Ukraine for splitting the country in the way you suggest. You are trying to impose a solution that no one in the country desires. The only people who would be in favor of this seem to be people in the Russian Federation who would wish to annex this part of Ukraine. So it is an essentially hostile act of annexation by a neighboring power. These actions are never cost-free.

    Here’s a direct problem with your divide of the country. Kherson is the oblast directly north of Crimea. You would put it in the secessionist Russophone country. It’s 82% Ukrainian by nationality, and only 25% Russophone. Only 17% of students are in Russian-language schools. Why should 25% of the population get to decide what country it is in?

    If internal political forces want to divide a country, that’s one thing. But siding with hostile external powers and claiming that there is no harm to splitting a country when the desire and push for it is external to the country itself is harmful.

  6. Of interest may also be mapped results from the 2007 parliamentary election, which provide a detailed analysis of how the three major parties at the time have constituents across the country. While Yushchenko’s and Yanukovych’s parties are centered respectively in the West and the East, Tymoshenko is much more spread out gathering votes in the center and parts of the south-east. This further shows that the popular east-west/north-south split often mentioned in the newspapers fails to capture the complexity of the political reality.

    Direct link to the maps:,_2007

  7. While I also disagree with the somewhat (though not wholly inaccurate) simplistic east-west divide analysis/comparison, I’m darn impressed with the accurate historical synopsis. Major news sites never get this right…