How to break the cultural deadlock in Ukraine
There will be no peace in Ukraine until its domestic policy is brought into line with its cultural reality.
Ukraine’s independence in 1991 created a nation-state whose two predominant cultural constituencies were unevenly distributed between urban and rural areas, between the richest and poorest regions, and between the more and less educated. . The historical imbalance in favor of Russian speakers in each of these groups has automatically made the status of the Russian language in Ukraine a matter of political contention.
The political elites in the westernmost region of Ukraine, Galicia, which were part of Poland before 1939 and before that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, vehemently argued that in order for Ukraine to become truly independent, the use of Russian was to be restricted. State policy, they argued, should aim to create a Ukrainian national identity based on their own Galician identity which, given the oppression of the Soviet era, was now the only genuine Ukrainian identity. In those happy days, many Russian-speaking Ukrainians, seeking to distance themselves from the legacy of communism, also supported progressive Ukrainization. As the first Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk explained to them in the run-up to the independence referendum, they would be the “full owners” of the country, and they would always be guaranteed “to preserve pure and unimpeded ties with Russia and other sovereign states of the former Union. With this understanding, they voted in large numbers for Ukrainian independence at the end of 1991.
But the widely divergent historical memories of eastern and western Ukraine quickly led to mutually exclusive visions of Ukraine’s future.
In the Galician narrative, Russia is the root of all evil. The reason there is corruption in Ukraine is that Russia has imposed its slave mentality on the Ukrainians; the reason the country is not more prosperous today is because of Russia’s colonial business practices; the reason Ukrainian politics continue to be unstable is because Russia is always intervening. Since all problems point to Russia, the solution is to sever all ties with Russia.
In contrast, in Maloross’ narrative, which predominates in the half of the country east of the Dnieper River, Ukraine is a distinct nation with indelible cultural and religious ties to Russia. Many Ukrainians in Maloross see the Russian and Ukrainian ethnic identities as interchangeable and still believe, as Vladimir Zelensky did in 2014 and Vladimir Putin today, that the two are one people. Rather than blaming Russia for Ukraine’s woes, the Ukrainians of Maloross blame the policies of the Ukrainian government. They see the solution not in the separation of Ukraine from Russia, but in the reestablishment of their close ties.
For more than two decades, these two competing regionally based national identities have managed a tense coexistence by alternating the presidency between them and hampering the ability of parliament to function as an effective oversight. This prevented either region from achieving absolute political domination.
Many observers say that this stalemate has thwarted economic and political reforms in Ukraine. True, but it was also Ukraine’s way of avoiding the civil war, which many believed would erupt as soon as one side gained enough control to turn its own cultural identity into a litmus test. of loyalty.
This is precisely what happened in February 2014, when President Yanukovych was overthrown by a revolt led and led by Western Ukrainians, of whom up to a quarter, according to polls conducted at the time, identified themselves as to radical nationalist parties. According to Volodymyr Ishchenko, deputy director of the Center for Research on Society (Kiev), “the tolerance of the far right against Yanukovych’s ‘greatest evil’ has enabled Svoboda to play the most visible role in the Maidan protests. and then helped to delegitimize them for the majority of the population in the southeastern provinces of Ukraine, thus forming the ground for civil war.
The ouster of Yanukovych was therefore seen as a violation of the delicate balance that had been established between eastern and western Ukraine, and a direct threat to the fundamental interests of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. They responded by challenging his ouster on constitutional grounds. Immediately after Yanukovych’s impeachment, some 3,700 local elected officials from all parts of the East and South (but none from the West) gathered in Kharkov to condemn what they saw as an illegal coup. . The Crimean delegation even called for a national assembly to draw up a new federal constitution for Ukraine.
The new government in Kiev responded by consolidating all levers of power – executive, legislative and military – in the hands of the former head of the Ukrainian security forces, Alexander Turchinov. The stage was thus set for a confrontation between Western Ukraine, where the overthrow of the government was seen as an expression of the will of the people, and Eastern Ukraine, where it was seen as a nationalist coup.
This stalemate did not last long. The head of the Ukrainian navy, as well as more than 70% of the Ukrainian army in Crimea, have switched sides, making military defense of the island impossible. Crimea was annexed on March 21st, four days after 80 percent of the total population voted to join Russia.
The same scenario was already brewing in another historic conflict zone, the Donbass, but there Russia reacted very differently. When the rebels scheduled a referendum there, President Putin urged them to step down. When the rebel leaders voted anyway (66.8% of the total population of Donetsk supported “autonomy”, while 77.8% of the total in Lugansk supported “independence”), Russia declared that while respecting the will of the people, it would not recognize the results.
Second, after conducting military exercises near the Ukrainian border at the end of February, Russia returned its troops to their barracks at the end of April, after the start of Kiev’s counterterrorism campaign, making it clear that it did not intend to involve its troops in this conflict. Finally, on June 24, as the Ukrainian military campaign in the East intensified, the Russian parliament recognized Petro Poroshenko as Ukraine’s new president and repealed Putin’s power to use troops outside of the country. Russia.
After taking office, Poroshenko promised victory in the East within hours, but after his offensive suffered a catastrophic defeat in Ilovaisk in late August 2014, he was forced to negotiate directly with the rebels. A disastrous second defeat at Debaltsevo in February 2015 led to the Minsk peace accords which, despite persistent violations, were not repudiated as neither side sees a realistic prospect of military victory.
What’s the end game, and why was it so elusive?
As I said at the beginning, any solution must bring Ukrainian policy in line with cultural reality. There are two ways to do this.
The first is to create a multicultural Ukraine in which minority communities can maintain their different cultural and religious identities as part of a common Ukrainian civic identity. The second way is to create a culturally homogeneous Ukraine in which Russian-speaking Ukrainians are subordinate by law, and will therefore be powerless to change their status.
A multicultural Ukraine would resolve the divide in Ukrainian identity by defining it more broadly; a monocultural Ukraine would solve it by making the identity and values ââof Galicia normative for all Ukrainians.
The multicultural option was rejected by the current president and by the current majority in parliament. Thanks to the war in the East, the monocultural option became more viable than ever. This is because there are now six million Russian-speaking Ukrainians less under the control of the Ukrainian government than before the Maidan. This is a 28% reduction in the number of local voters. Furthermore, as a direct result of the local nature of the military conflict, Maloross Ukraine lost 43% of its GDP and 46% of its export capacity compared to 2012. The ten Russian-speaking regions that were once able to influence the national policy in their favor, thanks to their higher levels of wealth, education and economic productivity, are simply no longer able to do so.
While everything points to the establishment of a monocultural Ukraine, the question currently being debated in the Ukrainian media is how to treat the rest of the Russian-speaking population, which still constitutes a third of the population? Should they be allowed to use Russian in public? Will they be allowed to educate their children in Russian? Are they even part of the indigenous population of Ukraine? A series of laws passed in recent months have answered all of these questions in the negative.
Prominent nationalist intellectuals have argued that Russian-speaking Ukrainians simply need to be re-educated in a proper appreciation of their suppressed Ukrainian identity, or forced to leave. Elena Styazhkina, professor at Donetsk University, calls this “positive and peaceful colonization”. Others, like the Deputy Prime Minister responsible for the reintegration of the temporarily occupied territories, Alexei Reznikov, argued for a more direct approach: to expel those who are disloyal and limit the rights of Ukrainian citizens of these regions to participate in life. politics for 25 years.
So I expect the region to continue to resist until the Kiev government grants them significant autonomy or independence. As for the rest of Maloros’ Ukraine, it remains to be seen whether the population will assimilate, leave the country or remain there as a disgruntled minority.