Saturday, February 1, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Ukrainians Less Divided Between East and West than Between Those in Power and Those who are Not, Portnikov Says

Paul Goble

                Staunton, February 1 – Despite the expectations of some and the fears of others, the real dividing line among Ukrainians is not between the western, central and eastern parts of their country or between ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians but rather between those who are in power and those who are not, according to Vitaly Portnikov.

                The conflicts in the regional capitals of Ukraine show, the Kyiv commentator says, are “a tragic but precise confirmation” that Ukrainians are far less divided regionally and ethnically than many imagine and far more divided between the powers that be and the overwhelming majority of the population (

                The reason that the central and western oblasts of Ukraine appear to be overrepresented in the Maidan is because in addition to this underlying divide, these regions have “political representation in the form of opposition parties.”  Residents in the eastern part of the country don’t. There, the government’s Party of the Regions has “cleansed” itself of competitors.

                Despite pressure from Kyiv and Moscow, residents of the largely Russian-speaking if not ethnic Russian East often have voted for those, like Sergey Tigitsko who present themselves as “a wise alternative” to the dictates of Yanukovich’s party. But Tigitsko has not pressed his case, preferring instead to devote his attention to business.

                As a result, Yanukovich and the Party of the Regions have been able to be more repressive in the east and to force people there into quiescence but not into active support.  They are the most intimidated, and Kyiv expects they would go along with the division of the country I that is what Moscow and Kyiv decide.  But that is not where their hearts and minds are.

                That means, Portnikov says, that the future of the Ukrainian state depends in particular “on the courage of the residents of the eastern oblasts of Ukraine and on their readiness to free themselves from slavery and to oppose the creeping occupation of their motherland” even more perhaps than on the enthusiasm of Ukrainian citizens in other parts of the country.

                There have been many flags of eastern Ukrainian cities in the Maidan, he continues, and there are “many in the East who do not want to ‘be cattle’ according to the Belarusian scenario.”  They too suffered from the Terror Famine of Stalin’s time, the destruction of industry at the end of the 20th century, and corruption and official thievery since.

                Portnikov says that he “believes in these people” and thus has confidence in the future.

                His argument is important because many in Moscow and some in the West who had no confidence in the power and importance of ethnic identity now once again insist that ethnicity is more important than citizenship in Ukraine, an assumption that is problematic for at least three reasons.

                First, it plays into the hands of those, mostly in Moscow, who want to destabilize the post-Soviet region as a whole in order to recover the former Soviet center’s dominance of what are now 15 internationally recognized independent countries.  Such attitudes are the cause of instability in these countries, not the attitudes and actions of the citizens of these countries.

                Second, ethnic Russian identity is weaker than many imagine, especially in Ukraine, where the overall decline in the number of ethnic Russians over the last two decades reflects the re-identification of many of them as Ukrainians. In Soviet times, being a Russian conferred preferences. Now, it no longer does, and these people have been re-identifying.

                And third, and certainly most important, those who continue to stress what are ever less important ethnic divides not only ignore the formation of a civic nation in Ukraine where that kind of identity has progressed far more than in the Russian Federation but also makes the future development of a democratic and open society and polity there far more difficult.

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