Sunday, May 25, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Ukraine’s Fate Rests with ‘Denationalized Russian-Speaking Slavs,’ Moscow Expert Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 25 – “There is no inter-national or inter-ethnic conflict in Ukraine” today, according to a Ukrainian specialist at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Instead, he argues, that country is “divided between those who have acquired a national self-consciousness and those who have not yet done so.”

            In an article prepared for an upcoming issue of “Voprosy natsionalizma,” Oleg Nemensky, a researcher at the Moscow Institute of Slavic Studies, argues that the fate of Ukraine rests with how the identities of what he calls “de-nationalized Russian-speaking Slavs” in the southeast will develop (

            Many of these people to this day had identified as Ukrainians even though they speak Russian and may not even know Ukrainian, but their identities are shifting both as a result of Kyiv’s policies and those of the European Union and of the Russian Federation. And how they define themselves in the future will determine a great deal.

            “Almost no one believes that a federal Ukraine can preserve its unity. The pre-condition for the existence of the state is seen as a unitary model which is in a position to block the political manifestation of regional differences.  And these concerns are not baseless,” Nemensky says. There really are “two parts of the country.”

            Ukraine’s unity as a state is possible “only under two conditions, one internal and the other external.”  Internally, the government in Kyiv, whether its electoral base is in the west or the east must act “not as a representative of its ‘half’ but as an expression of the interests of the entire population” and seek to satisfy both groups.

            And externally, Ukraine as a unified state is possible only under conditions of “geopolitical indeterminacy, when the state can occupy a middle position between the basic centers of power and balance the contradictions between them by conducting a multi-vector policy.”

            Both of these conditions are inherently unstable, he writes, and this year, both collapsed. Domestically, a government came to power in Kyiv committed to the west rather than to a balance, and internationally, both Europe and Russia insisted that Ukraine make a clear choice between them.

            Ukraine’s unity in these circumstances could only be maintained by force, Nemensky insists. And Kyiv lacked the strength and even the interest in holding the southeast entirely because it could make a complete turn to the West “only via radical changes in the relative electoral weight of the two parts of the country.”

             There is no question that the detachment of Crimea was part of the plans of Kyiv or the West, Nemensky says. “But the falling away of the two eastern oblasts is an ideal variant for them under the terms of which the geopolitical choice will become guaranteed by reducing the southeastern population to the status of a minority and relations with Russia to hostility.”

            But such a loss carries with it “a great danger” for Ukraine which would then become “a comparatively small, economically weak and internationally insignificant state.”

            The precondition for “the success of a radically pro-Western Kyiv lies in the passivity of the population of the ‘incorrect’ half of the country,” and the Ukrainian authorities have every reason to “count on that.” On the one hand, Ukrainians who look West have made their choice already, have an electoral majority, and are quite prepared to push their agenda.

            But on the other hand, the southeastern portion of the country can be described as “not quite Ukraine” or not-yet Ukraine. In those regions, “there is no special self-consciousness, not national thinking or local patriotic elites.  This is simply a territory insufficiently involved in the task of building a single Ukrainian nation.”

            According to Nemensky, “the majority of the population [of this region] considers itself Ukrainians” out of habit nurtured by “Soviet nationality policy. However, they don’t know Ukrainian very well, they prefer to speak Russian, and they are openly hostile to people from the most Ukrainianized region of the country, Galichina.”

            The residents of this region “are not ‘another nationality’ and do not offer anything in exchange. These are oblasts populated by de-nationalized Russian-speaking Slavs,” as can be seen from the symbols they deploy as compared to the symbols Ukrainians from other parts of the country do.

            But the residents of this region, who “simply do not have any idea about their selfhood even at the regional level,” are being affected both by the way in which Kyiv is promoting Ukrainianess and Moscow is promoting Russianness.

             Because Kyiv, according to Nemensky, has promoted the Western Ukrainian as “the real Ukrainian,” many in the south east have begun to feel that “they are not entirely Ukrainians,” especially because they do not speak Ukrainian. And because Moscow is promoting an ethnic Russian identity, many in the south are considering that identity instead.

            “The proclamation of sovereignty” in Donetsk and Luhansk “was preceded by a mass rejection of Ukrainian identity, a spontaneous re-Russification, and following on this a demand for re-unification with Russia,” Nemensky says. But such a situation “can hardly become the model for all the rest of South-Eastern Ukraine.”

            “The Donbass is basically proletarian,” he points out, “and in this milieu changes of ethno-national self-consciousness will occur more easily than where society is more connected with traditional groups.”  Moreover, it is “a quite small region” and can hardly “aspire to the creation of a long-term state project.”

            What is needed, he argues, is “a special national project for the not-yet-Ukrainianized part of Ukraine,” one that combines two aspects: “the adoption of Russian self-consciousness as common for all eastern Slavs above political borders and recognition of the historical-cultural uniqueness of this region.”

            The Russian government is entirely supportive of the first, but it is much less so of the second. That is because, Nemensky writes, “in our time, Russian self-consciousness all the same is very Moscow-centric and little reflects regional variations,” particularly concerning Russian communities outside of the Russian Federation as in Ukraine.

             The Moscow scholar sees the solution in the articulation of  Novorossiya, a state formation broader than Donetsk or Luhansk but one that reflects the special features of the Slavs of southeastern Ukraine.  He devotes most of the rest of his article to what he calls “the Novorossiya model” and the “Little Russia model.”

            Both of these national projects have as “a common denominator Russian identity,” he says, but if in the case of the first, it is a “priority” issue; in the case of the second, it is more of a background one. Given the complexities of identity in southeastern Ukraine, one or the other of these projects could move forward, Nemensky suggests.

            But the most important implications of his argument are two that he doesn’t make: Russian identity is far more fragile and fluid than many assume, and Moscow has failed to take this diversity into account, not only in Ukraine but also and perhaps even more fatefully in the Russian Federation itself.


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