Regional Diversity in Ukraine: A Prologue

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Euromaidan circa 2014

Having analysed the nation building attempts of the first 22 years of Ukraine’s history in the last blog post, it is clear to see that it had been relatively difficult to portray and promote a cohesive identity resonating towards the state. However, the positives that could be drawn from the period until early 2014 were that Ukraine functioned as an independent state, had control of its borders and no separatist or ethnic conflict had broken out, despite the eclectic views to Ukrainian identity from different regions of the country. As defended by Kravets (2017), the notion that identity differentiations exist in Ukraine do not immediately lead to detrimental circumstances toward the nations existence; rather the de facto allowance of identity variations have created stability by allowing citizens to coexist in their own areas peacefully, whilst identifying with the state primarily through civic means. 

Before an evaluation in of any potential changes to regional dynamics since 2014 can take place, a brief background to the Euromaidan needs to be addressed. Euromaidan sprouted in Kyiv from outrage towards Yanukovych’s decision to shun the signing of an Association Agreement with the EU in favour of joining a customs union led by Russia. After the violent beating of students by government led police forces, Euromaidan switched its protesting scope toward the ousting of the corrupt government and the upholding of liberal democratic values. The pro- Russian administration overstepped its mark and resulted in killing over 100 protesters before many of its elites fled the country, including President Yanukovych. As Ukraine attempted to start afresh after such a watershed political moment, Russia quickly annexed Crimea and militarily intervened in the Donbas (MFAUKR, 2018).
Rather than the incumbent government initiating any immediate nation building procedures, it was through Russian aggression combined with Yanukovych’s harsh and corrupt actions, that ordinary Ukrainians had “gained a new sense of solidarity and identity as a broad movement toward civic and moral renewal” (Diuk, 2014, 88). The dictatorial nature of Yanukovych’s actions galvanized support for democratic values and norms. Subsequently, by trying to disrupt and undermine Ukrainian sovereignty, Putin had in fact increased cohesion between Ukrainians who had, for once, something to unite behind; a common enemy and common values. As Diuk (2014,89) quotes – the general consensus around Maidan was “We came to the Maidan looking for Europe, but instead we found Ukraine.” However, whilst national identity did solidify amongst those who participated and supported Maidan, it is important to see whether this was reciprocated across the country. 
Ukraine’s supposed problem with its regional divergences has been written about by numerous academics such as Sasse (2001) since Ukraine obtained its independence, namely referring to it as a ‘state of regions’. In such papers the analysis leans toward the oversimplified view of the Pro – European western part of Ukraine rivaling the pro Russian / Soviet East in an ideological tug of war, as the politicians had led many to believe. Whilst geographical patterns do garner some links between language spoken, domestic views and foreign policy outlooks, these are by no means definitive as to why Ukraine has been unable to create a unitive national identity and why its citizens associate with particular leanings towards their past and futures. Polegkyi (2016) views the primary divisive markers between Ukrainians today as being related to societal class, generational perspectives and their collective worldviews. 

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.

The Ukrainian Nation Building Experience up until 1991: A Brief Overview

Ukrainians gathering and supporting independence by making the Tryzub (Trident) with their hands – circa 1991
Since its independence in 1991, the unifying factors which are supposed to have united Ukrainian citizens together have instead been in constant dispute between different parts of its population.  This divergence in outlook towards personal and collective identities stems from Ukraine’s territory being shared between European empires for centuries beforehand. With ethnic Ukrainians scattered amongst Polish, Austro-Hungarian and Russian realms, the only thing which bound them together were ethnolinguistic links (Kulyk, 2016b, 91). Any kind of civic identification was impossible due to the lack of an independent Ukrainian nation-state.
The primary reason as to why Ukraine has had such difficulties with its nation building project is due to its history and how the now unitary territory had different influences that impacted on the idea of collective national identity. Western Ukraine until 1939 was under Polish rule and episodes of conflict between them in fact fortified national identity. It is from this region where the contemporary Ukrainian state derives some of its ethnocultural influences and democratic values. However, the reasoning as to why the South and South East have been traditionally hostile to the concept of sharing the ethnocultural and civic identities that Western Ukrainians propagate is due to their own history under the rule of Russia. With the said regions being amalgamated into the Russian Empire from the seventeenth century, steady Russification and a lack of divisive ethnic based conflict left those residing in these territories with a vague sense of commonality with minimal historical mindfulness, merely identifying as traditionally having a close association with Russia (Wolczuk, 2000, 671). 
Somewhat ironically, it was the Soviet regime which incorporated all ethnic Ukrainians into one territorial entity by 1954, with the Ukrainian language being the initial marker for common identification, but decades of Russification, purges and resettlements led to a blurring and misconstruing of what Ukrainian identity was across its own population and territory (Kulyk, 2016b, 91). The notion of national identity was also propagated in the Soviet Union. Soviet citizens were made to identify with a specific ethnicity, which was designated to them in passports, despite those who previously resided in the Russian Empire having little prior knowledge or experience as to what ethnicity meant. Therefore, ethnic identity in the USSR was a largely unemotional concept. People were officially designated with a fixed ethnic nationality but in everyday life preferred to identify more closely with their towns, regions or the Soviet Union as a whole, as they were historically more familiar with such identifications. This is further exemplified by looking into census data where ethnic identity continued to be used as a subjective perception, regardless of a person’s official passport status. People fluidly shifted between ethnic identities depending on their circumstances (Anderson & Silver, 1983, 461-489).  It was these such legacies that left Ukraine in 1991 at a crossroads in relation to its new nation building path. Due to the Soviet processes mentioned previously, there lacked a tangible unifying factor which connected all newly independent Ukrainian citizens. 
With the Western regions of Ukraine having greater historical, cultural and political self awareness, as a result of a more benign imperial experience before 1945, when they obtained long awaited independence in 1991, they felt the need to promote their national identity vision as the true Ukrainian identity. They had been less affected by the repression of political behaviours that those in the East and South East had become accustomed to, and thus were far less passive in their political outlooks (Himka, 2015, 133).
Brubaker (1992, 187) speaks of “habits of national self understanding” which are apparently inherent amongst all people of a shared history and such “habits” are the intrinsic basis for being able to officially identify with a particular state. However, as Shevel (2004, 4) points out, with Ukraine such “habits” were not inherent and homogenous across the population due to the diverging historical experiences within the different empires they were once a part of. This point illustrates that, from the outset, the nation building project in Ukraine would always be an increasingly complex task in a more liberal and globalized world; with the need to create a cohesive identity amidst a backdrop of ‘competing “images” of the nation and myths of national origin and civilization that are propagated by different political forces and find resonance with different segments of the society (Shevel, 2004, 4)’. 
Ukraine faced the daunting task of attempting to facilitate its new role as a nation state of ethnic Ukrainians alongside the multicultural legacies which remained from its past. It did so by granting all ethnicities residing within its territory with citizenship whilst elevating the national symbols, language and history of the ethnocultural Ukrainian majority as the official identity markers of the new state (Kulyk, 2016b, 91). This was an attempt to symbolically distance the new Ukrainian state from that of the Soviet Union, and to instigate a new framework for national identity which would facilitate smoother state building. However, as Geertz articulates in Wolczuk (2000, 671) such attempts to create a particular unifying identity in new states usually always encounters contestation due to the convergence of diverging traditions being encased in a newly formed and for some, alien political entity. 
It should be noted that in the 1991 referendum for Ukrainian independence, turnout was exceedingly high at 84%. 92% of those citizens voted in favour of ceding from the Soviet Union, which shows that there was an initial unitary consensus towards the creation of a separate Ukrainian state. Even the Crimean population that was traditionally most ambiguous towards the idea of a cohesive Ukrainian national identity, voted 54% in favour (Lalpychak, 1991). Whilst such data does not hold the reasoning behind why independence was favoured, it does show that there was some sort of cohesive front which encompassed the entire country to vote in unison. Undertones of a pursuit for greater economic prosperity and self determination from an authoritarian regime are often posited as the primary causes for the voting in favour, with reasons differing amongst regions.