The Impact of Economics, Elites and the Urban Working Class on Ukrainian Identity

Image result for ukrainian oligarchs
Notable Ukrainian Oligarchs – (L – R) – Dmitry Firtash, Rinat Akhmetov, Ihor Kolomoyskiy, Petro Poroshenko, Viktor Pinchuk

Although civic identification with the state may have increased for some as explored in the last blogpost; for a large proportion of the working class and their oligarch superiors, identifying with the state is less of a priority compared to economics and its distribution. This, in turn, has impacted on nation building’s scope and reach towards those who have been traditionally reluctant to embrace it. Oligarchs have been ever present in Ukrainian society and politics since the Soviet Union’s collapse. Their economic power and influence over key industries and jobs has been used to deform the nation building process to their own advantages. This corruptive approach, which was commonplace before Euromaidan and the conflict with Russia, has persisted to varying degrees since. In conjunction with this, ‘a “get rich” ideology without moral or cultural values’ is the main philosophy that drives many ordinary urban citizens’ lives. Making money and surviving is prioritized above any ideological identifications (Korostelina, 2013,297). Once again, this highlights how difficult it is for a top down government led approach to implement effective methods to create a cohesive identity. 

The new government has often spoken about the need to tackle internal corruption alongside its persistent rhetoric and action against the Russian state. This has sent out a message for all ordinary citizens to rethink their association with the neighbouring state, regardless of previous ties and to show greater support for the integrity of the one they reside in. However, reforms on the economy and the clampdown on corruption have not been widespread. The oligarchs hold greater political influence than the government within their strongholds, due to the fact that these regions are quite distant from Kyiv’s centralised authority (Dabrowski, 2017). It is the government administration’s ineffective implementation of legislation and schemes relating to the furthering of both nation building and economic redistribution from the centre, that has meant attitudes have not been altered greatly amongst the older population. 
Oligarchs act in a tribal manner in their support for politicians and political parties to protect their vital interests. Especially in the East, oligarchs such as Akhmetov, rely on trade with Russia to maintain their fortunes, therefore they have consistently favoured stronger ties with the neighbouring country (Neef, 2014). During elections, mobilisation through the forms of bribes and propaganda in the workplaces they oversee are used to coerce the politically alienated to vote for those most appropriate for the maintenance of the oligarchs’ political and economic interests. As they are often the key employers due to their monopolisation of the lucrative industries in the more industrialised East and South East, there is little the government has actively attempted to do to reduce the oligarchic grip over these regions. This is due to their weaker political and economic sway over the local urban working classes compared to the oligarchs (Kozloff, 2015).
Economics are the primary influencer for many ordinary citizens and this subsequently guides their political outlooks and daily motivations. These socio-economic personal priorities are what led many citizens in the South East and Eastern regions of Ukraine to vote for independence in 1991. They had limited association with the ethnos of the Ukrainian nation, but remained optimistic toward wanting to be a part of the new state building project. This was due to the supposed promise of democratisation and prosperity that, in its dying years, the Soviet Union declined to provide and something independence was supposed to rectify (Kuzio, 1996, 585)
In hindsight, this has not played out as the population had hoped. Corruption has remained rife and has embedded itself in almost all aspects of Ukrainian society. This, added with an extended economic decline and the lack of modernisation in the traditionally Soviet identifying industrial areas, has led to the population’s complete economic disenfranchisement with the Ukrainian nation. It was the potential of an increased living standard and economic situation that tied them to the state in the first place. This was a result of the primary culture revolving around ‘looking after one’s own’ and of ‘winner takes all’ persisting (Wilson, 2016, 637).
This has subsequently resulted in low level patriotism being drained out of the urban areas and thus, any government led nation building projects are seldom welcomed and acted upon. This older working class generation draw connections with their poor economic status to the ceasing of the communist system where they reaped the benefits of state welfare, stable income and employment. It is the nostalgia for those times that prevents them from positively approaching and embracing the current Ukrainian state (Polegkyi, 2015, 8). Reactionary legislation to the war with Russia, such as the banning of Russian media channels and decommunization, have been met with further alienation toward the Ukrainian state (Miller, 2017). However, patriotism does still exist for some amongst the urban working class. A large number of the soldiers fighting and many of those who have died in the Donbas, are either natives of the region or from its nearby localities, but this recent arousal of cohesive national identity has not been overwhelming in its nature (Glasnost Gone, 2018). Their identification with the Ukrainian state is less to do with government policies and more to do with defending their own towns and territory from the infringement of Russian aggression. 
Due to the poor economic situation which has been compounded further due to the war and the traditionally low national consciousness, support has maintained for the Opposition Bloc, the new reincarnation of the Party of Regions (Druckman & Laroque, 2017). Whilst also corrupt themselves, they show sympathy for the middle aged and older local populations of the East, by claiming to represent their interests for greater decentralisation. They also strive to defend the regional identities against the imposition of the culturally enthused civic Ukrainian identity that Kyiv attempts to push through via the media and legislation. The Soviet identity has been maintained, as people looked toward Moscow as the model for prosperity instead of Kyiv. Their outlooks have reverted back to how they perceived themselves before independence and galvanized by nostalgia, long for the slightly improved economic times that existed during the Soviet period (Rodgers, 2012, 63). 
Essentially, those most alienated by the concepts of both the ethnocultural and civic parts of Ukrainian identity, are those working class citizens from the urbanized industrial centres of Ukraine. They maintain their association solely with their city as they see their current country’s government as having done nothing for them (Wilson, 2016, 638-639). This, combined with no association to traditional Ukrainian culture or Western liberal values, due to being the descendants of ethnic Russians who emigrated to the area for work during the Soviet period, or due to the enshrining of Soviet culture and values in an area of weak national consciousness and political engagement, has resulted in a difficult to alter identity. Compounded with corruption damaging state apparatuses and the increased attempts at the severance of ties with the entire state’s Soviet past, means there is less of a chance for this part of the population to feel closer identification with the Ukrainian state.

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