Thursday, February 27, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Ukraine is as Ukrainian as the Russian Federation is Russian

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 27 – Despite the frequent appearance of maps showing a large swatch of Ukraine being ethnic Russian, Ukraine in terms of the ethnic composition of its population is almost exactly as Ukrainian as the Russian Federation is Russian. Moreover, none of Ukraine is defined as an ethnic autonomy while nearly half of the territory of the Russian Federation is.

            As Rashit Akhmetov, the editor of “Zvezda Povolzhya,” points out in the new issue of his Kazan weekly, 77 percent of the population of Ukraine consists of ethnic Ukrainians according to the latest census.  In the Russian Federation, 80 percent of the population consists of ethnic Russians (no. 7, February 27, 2014, p. 1).

            Given various problems with the censuses especially in Russia where various experts have suggested there was an over-count of several million ethnic Russians (along with an over-count of slightly fewer non-Russians in the North Caucasus), that puts the two countries in a statistical dead heat as far as ethnic homogeneity is concerned.

            Moreover, Ukraine does not have even nominally ethno-federalism: its only autonomy is Crimea which is explicitly defined in non-ethnic terms. Russia in contrast has 21 autonomous ethnic republics, and before Vladimir Putin began his amalgamation program, they formed 53 percent. Now, they form slightly less than half of the territory.

            Consequently, if Moscow and Western commentators who routinely draw a picture of Ukraine as if it were almost equally and deeply divided between a Ukrainian center and west and a Russian east were to prepare analogous ethnic maps for the Russian Federation, the latter country would look to be a better candidate for coming apart than is Ukraine. 

                At present, Akhmetov points out, there are seven million ethnic Russians in Ukraine alongside 41 million ethnic Ukrainians. And in the eastern parts of the country where many assume ethnic Russians dominate, ethnic Ukrainians do in most. Thus, 70 percent of the population of Kharkhiv oblast is ethnically Ukrainian, and 57 percent of Odessa oblast is as well.

            It is true, the Kazan editor acknowledges, that the eastern oblast overwhelmingly vote for the party of power, just as ethnic Russians in Russia tend to do. But the ethnic Russians in both places will do so even if the party of power changes.  As soon as one party of power loses to another, this portion of the population will follow.

            “In the USSR,” he recalls, “there were 16 million communists,” but their power and their support disappeared “over the course of three days.”

            “The myth of the pro-Russia orientation of the eastern oblasts of Urkaine is one thought u by Moscow propaganda,” Akhmetov says.  These regions “are not seeking to unite with Russia,” and not just because 70 percent of the population of these regions is ethnically Ukrainian.  It is because “they want to live in Ukraine” and not in Putin’s Russia.

            It is certainly true, he continues, that ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine do not like what Moscow is describing as “fascists” and “bandits.” But neither do Ukrainians. And the Kazan editor says that he ‘suspects that there are more fascists in Russia today than there are ‘Banderites’ in Ukraine.

            Akhmetov’s own republic, Tatarstan, he says, has been interested in European integration since the 1990s. Indeed, that republic’s president at the time, Mintimir Shaymiyev declared that his strategic goals was “to transform Tatarstan into a model European region of Russia.”

            According to the editor, “the first steps of the ‘Europeanization’ of Russia are completely possible in Tatarstan. The republic should receive the status of ‘a free European political zone,’” and it should be possible to locate certain European institutions in Kazan, such as a branch of the European Human Rights Court.

            Russia would benefit from this, Akhmetov argues; it will not benefit and will be harmed “by a confrontation with Europe.”

            But the Moscow media suggest that many in the Russian capital do not understand this and do not recognize that it cannot rely on force or its own Black Hundreds organizations and hope to both remain in power and to modernize the country.

            If Putin changes course at home and in relations with Europe, he could become “a major historical figure like Peter the Great.”  But if he does not, the future for him and his country – and one should add the countries around it and the world – will be far, far bleaker.

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