Ukraine is a country torn between east and west

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A woman lights candles in memory of the victims of clashes between police and protesters in Ukraine, in Bucharest, Romania, Friday.

By Henry Srebrnik (guest opinion)

If you think the struggle between the pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, and his pro-European opponents has been going on for months, think again.

This is actually the second go-around. The first time was during the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, when then Prime Minister Yanukovych faced off in a presidential election against the pro-western Viktor Yushchenko.

Yanukovych was declared the winner, but independent observers reported widespread vote rigging. Yushchenko launched a campaign of mass street protests and civil disobedience, and the Ukrainian Supreme Court annulled the results. In a rerun a month later, Yushchenko won.

But within a few years, the political coalition he had put together had collapsed and some of his supporters joined Yanukovych’s forces in the Party of Regions. In presidential elections held in 2010, Yanukovych was returned to power.

And so the stage was set for the current crisis, which began last November. Thousands of protesters in Kyiv and other cities rallied to object to the government’s sudden decision to abandon an association agreement with the European Union in favor of a Russian loan bailout of $15 billion. The demonstrators blamed the about-face on Russian pressure.

In Soviet times, Ukraine was the second biggest republic in the country, after Russia itself.  As the USSR was collapsing, Ukraine declared independence following a nationwide referendum in December 1991.

The loss of its 603,628 square kilometers and 46 million people still irks many Russians. When Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2005 described the dissolution of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, he was referring in particular to the loss of Russia’s Slavic neighbours, Belarus and Ukraine; both had been part of the Russian Empire for centuries.

Although most of the protests we see in newscasts today concentrate on Kyiv’s Independence Square, areas in western Ukraine around the city of Lviv have been in the forefront driving the insurgency against Yanukovych.

The region favours closer ties with

the European Union.

Why is western Ukraine so opposed to Yanukovych? It’s a long story — in fact it goes back centuries.

Although a sovereign state for more than two decades, Ukraine still faces questions regarding its national identity. It is an example of what political scientist Samuel Huntington called a “cleft” or “torn” country, because it faces both east and west religiously and politically. It comprises two distinct cultures — a Western-oriented western portion and an eastern section that looks towards Moscow.

The eastern part of the country was controlled by tsarist Russia after 1654. As a result, the people are overwhelmingly Orthodox in religion, and many people speak Russian. Indeed, in the early 1990s, 22 per cent of all Ukrainians were ethnic Russians, living mainly in the east, and 31 per cent of the Ukrainian people spoke Russian as their primary language.

But the western portion was for many centuries part of Poland, Lithuania, and then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the partitions of Poland in the 18th century, the western Ukraine fell under the control of the Habsburgs.

A large proportion of western Ukrainians had over the centuries coalesced around the Uniate (Ukrainian Greek Catholic) Church, which combines Orthodox rites with a fealty to the Pope in Rome. Western Ukrainians speak largely Ukrainian and retain strong nationalist sentiments.

When Poland was reconstituted as an independent state after the First World War, these territories became part of the Polish republic. (Another small area, Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, came under Czechoslovak rule.) The eastern Ukraine, meanwhile, was incorporated into the new Russian-dominated Soviet Union.

Following the Second World War, the victorious Soviet Union annexed the western Ukraine and united it with the Soviet Ukraine. But there was strong opposition.

So cities like Lviv (previously in Poland) and Uzhgorod (previously in Czechoslovakia) were only under Soviet domination for some 45 years.

The recent elections have made these splits come to the fore. Yanukovych gained most of his support in the east, his challengers — Yushchenko in 2004 and YuliaTymoshenko in 2010 — in the west.

Yanukovych has agreed to create a national unity government and hold new presidential elections later this year, but now even that is in doubt, as protesters — many from Lviv — seem to have taken control over much of Kyiv.

Will Ukraine eventually split in two, each half going in its favored direction? Huntington himself in his seminal “Clash of Civilizations” felt that “Ukraine will remain united, remain cleft, remain independent, and generally co-operate closely with Russia.”

But centrifugal forces that may destroy the country’s unity are gaining strength.


Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Organizations: Ukrainian Supreme Court, Party of Regions, European Union Russian Empire European Union.Why University of Prince Edward Island

Geographic location: Ukraine, Russia, Kyiv Lviv Poland Soviet Union Belarus Western Moscow.The eastern Lithuania Austro-Hungarian Empire Rome Czechoslovakia

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