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

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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.


Identity in Ukraine’s South and South East regions – Realities and Misconceptions

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Map of contemporary Ukraine


Outside of the occupied territories, Ukrainian forces have established a united front against the Russian aggression. Local businesses, civil society and oligarchs have bounded together through a shared common interest focusing on the need to maintain order and stability in the regions closest to the conflict. The driving force for this unity is characteristically tied down to the maintenance of Ukrainian sovereignty against a common enemy; Russia (Trenin, 2018; Kulyk, 2016a, 589). It is the combination of pro Ukrainian elites and civil society that have catalyzed the rise in collective identity in the East. As Zhurzhenko (2014, 262) notes that Dnipro and Kharkiv have been the main support centres for the Ukrainian volunteers fighting in the Donbas; whilst across the Eastern and South Eastern cities there has been a rise in the public display of symbols and colours which are associated with the ethnocultural Ukrainian identity. Rather than the government in Kyiv implementing such schemes, who have little agency in the enforcement of certain nation building processes, it has been civil society that has taken the task upon itself to instigate the rise in cohesive behaviour in favour of an independent Ukraine (Pomerantsev, 2018)

Using survey data that Chaisty & Whitefield (2015) conducted, there is conclusive evidence that outside of the Russian separatist controlled territories there does not persist any further support for separatism, rather they collectively defend the notion of remaining as part of the Ukrainian state (Schneider-Deters, 2015). Russian aggression has alienated the majority of those in the East and South East, who in the late 1990s showed their highest proportion of popular support for unification with Russia, registering at one point at 70% in favour (Kravets, 2017). By July 2015, public opinion in government controlled areas of the Donbas showed 0% favoured secession, whilst support for unification with Russia tallied at 4.8%. The region is now indifferent to the rest of Ukraine in its outlook. There is now continued preference for remaining as part of Ukraine whilst being granted greater benefits through the decentralization process (Bekeshkina, 2017, 27).


Identity in the current Russo-Occupied Ukrainian Territories – Realities and Misconceptions

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Due to the annexation of Crimea and the occupied territories of the Donbas by the Russian military and local separatists, it has made it difficult to be able to accurately measure collective identity perceptions in these regions. As their separations from Ukraine were forcefully undertaken through military means, the new status quo of Russian control has seemingly detached the populations away even from having a civic identification with Ukraine. It seems extremely unlikely that any of the territories will be reassigned back under the full control of the Ukrainian government in the near future. It is therefore important to understand why these regions have seemingly lost all attachment to the Ukrainian state.

Ethnic Russians have always been a majority in the Crimea and identified that way in the last available census of 2001, with over 58% of the peninsula viewing themselves as having Russian nationality (CCSoU,2001). It is difficult to know to what extent this ethnic identity outlook was objective. The Soviet ethnicity concept mentioned earlier, revealed that many approached their national identities in a subjective and unemotional way. Nevertheless, when Russian special forces took over and annexed the area in Spring 2014, limited resistance ensued from both the citizens that resided there and even from the Ukrainian government. This was a result of a combination of the Ukrainian armed forces being dilapidated, alongside Crimea’s cultural and political detachment from Ukraine, which it had exercised since 1991. The lack of struggle and welcoming by the majority of Crimean citizens for their Russian occupiers, who had never viewed themselves as part of the collective Ukrainian identity, was subsequently unsurprising (Motyl, 2015). 

Whilst the current Ukrainian government refuses to acknowledge the annexation, many Crimeans themselves have limited pull factors for the return of their territory to Ukraine. Limited cultural, political and economic reasons resonate with them towards Ukraine due to personal and historically close ties with Russia. Prior to the annexation, Crimeans were becoming less satisfied with the functioning of the Ukrainian state, with it having a poor economy, currency and lack of decentralisation; it perceived that the government in Kyiv was neglecting it. This, accompanied with the frequented exposure of Russian government controlled media with amplified discretions and numerous invented smears about Kyiv; in turn solidified the weakening of any kind of allure towards identifying with the state their territory previously belonged to (Zhurzhenko, 2014, 251; Sotiriou, 2016, 64)

However, not all of the Crimean population harbours such an outlook. The minority Crimean Tatar population always held closer civic identification with the Ukrainian state. However, due to their small numbers they were unable to influence the annexation outcome. Many have since left for mainland Ukraine, whilst those who have remained have experienced persecution for their association with the Ukrainian state (HRW, 2017).

The authorities in the so called DNR and LNR quasi-republics have also decimated Ukrainian identification through the use of Russian propaganda, coercion and the manipulation of the largely older generation, by attempting to reincarnate a miniature version of Soviet Republics. With similar grievances to that of Crimea, hoping for greater decentralisation and traditional closer associations with Russian and Soviet culture and values, those that have remained within the ‘separatist’ territories have done so due to their lack of attachment to the Ukrainian state, which they never truly resonated with. Whilst the lawlessness and foreign military presence also play a role in influencing national identity perception through the portrayal of Ukraine as a common enemy, it was the already weak connection to the Ukrainian collective identity, primarily in the urbanized areas of Donbas, thata significant part of the populationhave maintained enmity towards the Ukrainian state and its government (Schneider-Deters, 2015; Sotiriou, 2016, 64)

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.