The enormous Eastern European country of Ukraine has lived with uncertainty for centuries, and although the current conflict is truly significant, it is also nothing new. Sandwiched between Central Europe and Russia, Ukraine is about the size of Texas. Ukraine (not “The Ukraine”) has for centuries been an intersection between “east” and “west” and this split sentiment has contributed to the current crisis there. Even its name is thought to mean “borderland,” although some believe “homeland” to be more accurate. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine gained independence in 1991.
The recent demonstrations – and resulting diplomatic crisis – began mostly in Kiev, the capital, after President Viktor Yanukovych rejected an anticipated agreement for greater economic assimilation with the countries of the European Union (EU). At the time, polls indicated that support throughout the divided country was about 43 percent. However, Yanukovych’s inaction on the agreement was about more than economics. It was emblematic of a conscious desire to separate more from Europe and into the hopeful arms of Moscow. Russia responded to the President’s overture by buying a chunk of economically-crippled Ukraine in for the form $15 billion of government bonds and also a pledge to radically lower natural gas prices. Such a handout was appealing to Ukrainian economists, but the historical context is that Moscow has either subdued or undeniably ruled Ukraine over hundreds of years. To many, the bailout represented yet another effort by Russia to take charge. Many were riled and protesters pushed for Yanukovych’s expulsion.
Yakunovych first won a presidential election in 2004, but there was widespread suspicion of election fraud and the so-called “Orange Revolution” kept him from taking office. Not to be deterred, he ended up as President in 2010. Since then, however, he has his government have been widely perceived as mismanaging the economy and corrupt.
In January, Yanukovych signed a law which, among other things, severely restricts free speech and media critique of his government. That is when protests kicked into high gear, and a number of government administration buildings were seized outright.
Yet Ukrainians are not at all unanimous in wanting to be more European. As a whole, Ukrainians are uncertain they even want the EU deal Yanukovych took a pass on, and any new deal could instead end up being a formal connection with the newly formed Eurasian Customs Union. Created in just the last month, the $2.7 trillion economic connection unites Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia.
Ukraine has been – and continues to be – divided by language, history and politics. Geographically, the eastern half of the country mostly speaks Russian while Ukrainian speakers generally are in the western part of the country. A map showing the language, ethnic, and political divisions within Ukraine are identical. Yanukovych is from the eastern, Russian-speaking half of Ukraine and learned to speak Ukrainian only in his 50s.
Anger against Yanukovych centers around his reported mismanagement of the economy and his attempts to suppress dissent have flirted with despotism. Yet it is not all about him: Ukraine’s identity crisis – a tug-of-war between two halves of the country and two identities – is not new and remains plainly unresolved.
Over the centuries, Ukraine has been conquered and divided by a number of outside forces but mostly the Russians. The renowned and amorous Catherine the Great (matriarch of Russia’s “golden age” in the late 1700s) took control first of eastern Ukraine, where she developed industry to fuel Russia’s expansion. At that time, so many Russians arrived in southeast Ukraine that it took on the moniker of “New Russia.” The Ukrainian language was banned at that time.
With the continued uncertainty in Ukraine, there may not be anything new that Western powers can do to influence a Western-positive outcome. Ultimately, Ukraine’s problems are its distressed economy and confused identity.
By Gregory Baskin