Staunton, October 14 – Just as Soviet wits said the USSR was ruled alternatively by the hairy and the smooth, a pattern that allowed them to predict who would come next and what his policy would be, so Ukrainians see that their country’s rulers have alternated between those who speak Ukrainian and those who speak Russian, a reflection of the deep east-west divide there.
Thus, Yaroslav Hrytsak of Kyiv’s Ukrainian Catholic University observes, “Kravchuk was Ukrainian speaking; Kuchma, Russian speaking; Yushchenko, Ukrainian speaking; Yanukovich, Russian speaking; Porohenko, Ukrainian speaking; and Zelensky, Russian speaking (nv.ua/opinion/chto-pomoglo-zelenskomu-pobedit-novosti-ukrainy-50041372.html).
This dramatic struggle over language and memory has so dominated public discourse in Ukraine that it has distracted attention “from a more important battle, that over property,” the historian says. And there something important has emerged, a third force, central Ukraine, reflecting the outcome of “the struggle for property.”
“Undbooutedly,” Hrytsak says, “the struggle over language and historical memory distracts from more important issues like how to reform the country. This is infuriating, often alienating, and almost always divides society. But if this struggle didn’t exist, Ukraine would not have become a democracy.”
He continues: “Democracy is born out of the battle of two equally important forces as a result of which a third receives the benefit. That is how it was in old Europe where at various times and places a struggle took place between the king on the one hand and the church, the nobility or parliament on the other.”
“The third force which made use of this struggle consisted of the institutions with independent resources and independent power: self-administered cities, autonomous universities, craftsmen’s leagues, and church brotherhoods – all that in contemporary language we call ‘civil society.’”
According to Hrytsak, “in our country the struggle which has been carried out between the two Ukrainians has been used by a third, the Ukraine of the center. Politically and geographically it is equidistant from the far west and the far east, socially from the poor and the oligarchs, and economically from agriculture and heavy industry.”
“Its sphere is the service economy, its locus is in the major cities, and its nucleus consists of young people aged 18 to 35,” the historian argues. This “third Ukraine” appeared at the start of this century. “The first and especially the second Maidan became its revolutions. And Zelensky’s victory can be laid at its door.”
Hrytsak says that “this victory, like the struggle for language or memory, is alarming. We still do not know what to expect from it, a continuation of reforms or a soft counter-revolution.” But one thing is clear: it has pushed from the center of politics “’the children of Kuchma,’” the Ukrainians who divided up the spoils economically and politically in the 1990s.
It is of course possible, the historian concludes, that Zelensky’s victory is “only a glitch of Ukrainian democracy as was Yanukovich’s brief return to power between the two Maidans.” But even if that is the case, “the demands for change” continue to animate Ukrainians, and consequently, “the chances for a reset of Ukraine haven’t gone away.”