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…