A Divided Nation? An analysis of early nation building attempts in a newly independent Ukraine

Former Presidents of Ukraine – (L – R) – Leonid Kravchuk, Viktor Yanukovych, Leonid Kuchma,  Viktor Yushchenko

From the outset of independence in 1991, the Ukrainian nation building project ran into socio-political and cultural problems. If the government were to impose a Ukrainisation policy, it had the potential to cause ethnic conflict due to the large Russian minority and number of ethnic Ukrainian Russian speakers who identified heavily with the Soviet national idea. In other post soviet states, such as the Baltics, there were greater fears of tensions due to larger Russian minorities. However, their elites were much clearer about their own national identities. This enabled them to act more conclusively (Chalabi, 2014). 

Anti – Soviet sentiment was higher and stronger politically than in Ukraine and thus it was far more straightforward for their elites to enforce their nation building projects and instill their ethnocultural based national identities as the new hegemony (Zhurzhenko, 2014, 252). Therefore, it was due to the weakness of the Ukrainian state’s political hegemony, Ukraine’s elites continuing to harbour communist sentiments themselves and the government’s fears of ethnic conflict, that everyone who found themselves on the territory of independent Ukraine was granted citizenship. Furthermore, the centrist government, wanting to maintain its power and legitimacy, favoured a more liberal policy as it portrayed them as neutral civic alternatives to both the ‘anti – Soviet/Russian’ and ‘anti – Ukrainian’ political camps for the formidable future (Shevel, 2004, 11). This worked formidably for presidential candidate Kuchma in both 1994 and 1999 as he stood against the nationalist painted Kravchuk and Communist Symonenko, and beat both on the card using identity politics to draw in votes, but did little once in power to impose a unified identity around which all Ukrainian citizens could distinguish themselves with (Wolczuk, 2000, 680).


With some parts of the demographic still resonating deeply with the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s soviet identity was decidedly not relinquished. Instead it was amalgamated with ethnocultural Ukrainian history and culture which derived from the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the Zaporizhian Host and Kievan Rus, in the government’s attempts to satisfy all citizens. With essentially competing conceptions of nationhood coexisting, the newly independent Ukraine inadvertently became a “civic nation by default” rather than by design (Shevel, 2004, 4-5). By not cleanly breaking from its Soviet past, there was no clear consensus amongst the general population towards what kind of collective identity they would cooperate with in the nation building project. Weak political infrastructure, ineffective imposition of rule of law and the constant distorting of historical and cultural memory from all sides of the political spectrum, were all factors as to why Ukrainian citizens were not able to unilaterally identify with the confused idea of the state. (Zhurzhenko, 2014, 254-255). 

The ‘top – down’ approach to nation building in Ukraine has been half- hearted and easily manipulated from its conception. Nation building in academic literature often infers that it is primarily the government’s initiative that spurs the process and maintains its progression through laws and funding (Polese, 2011, 47). However, by applying this to Ukraine it can be seen that its governments have often skewed the national identity problem to their perceived advantage; rather than intending to create societal cohesion they have pulled on the cleavages to further either their own interests or to prioritise a particular ethnic group at the expense of the others. 


This can be most vehemently illustrated during and after the Orange Revolution of 2004. Yushchenko advocated a Ukrainian civic national identity that was tied to a Ukrainian ethno-cultural base and garnered fervent support from those who opposed the coexisting veneration of Soviet culture and history. On the other hand, the Party of Regions and the Communist Party utilized the displeasure and fears of those with Soviet sympathies and used identity politics themselves as a tool for the garnering of popular support and furthering their own vested interests. By simplifying Ukraine’s identity divisions into a stand off between a ‘nationalist’ West against a Soviet – Russian sympathizing East and South East, the Party of Regions’ elites succeeded in driving Ukrainian national cohesion further apart, undermining Yushchenko’s own presidential tenure and then being able to succeed him with their own candidate Yanukovych (Kulyk, 2016a, 592; Zhurzhenko, 2014, 254-255). 


Once in power, the Yanukovych administration neglected the nation building project, preferring to maintain the limbo of diverging resonations to the idea of the national self. It can be inferred that during this period, efforts were actually made to weaken national unity by permitting the Russian language to be officially used at regional levels where national minorities exceeded 10% of the population. This is contrary to the views held by academics such as Korostelina (2013,297) who claim that the Yanukovych era focused on the de-ideologization of society. In reality this created greater grievances amongst those supporting the Ukrainian ethnocultural identity, claiming it undermined the Ukrainian language and its role as the official state language set out in the Constitution of 1996 (Riabchuk, 2012).


Therefore, it can be envisaged that Ukrainian nation building up until 2014 fared relatively unsuccessfully in creating and maintaining a cohesive national identity. There are numerous reasons as to why the nation building project advanced so lethargically and poorly. Polese (2011,47) correlates nation building success with the ability that elites have to implement and impose their chosen methods and to what extent the general public has the power to reject or undertake such asked of measures. In both instances across two decades, Ukrainian elites approached the implementation of nation building processes such as language and education laws by rarely acting upon their own rhetoric or legislation. Due to the lack of a tangible and coherent Ukrainian national identity being articulated from above, many citizens never became engaged in the process themselves. 


Funding and application of the various schemes was not worked upon and with no formal incentives to motivate local administrations or citizens, this resulted in the status quo being maintained. This status quo was the amalgamated version of Ukrainian history and cultural practices and its Soviet counterpart being venerated equally in society. This left a perpetual confused identity for Ukrainian citizens, with the combination of such histories and practices being used to win votes and create greater divisions within the country, with some leaning towards closer ties with Europe while others hoping for stronger relations with Russia.

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