Ukraine as a nation is young. But as a landscape under the heavy shadows of the mighty Russian bear and the critical European eye, it is very old. Its current troubles don’t exist simply in the context that most in the West imagine—that of balancing the legacy of the Soviet period with post-socialist Western integration and globalization. Ukraine’s issues now are the long-suspended result of its tumultuous history.
For those a little fuzzy on the details of the last couple months, here’s a run-down.
Ukraine’s economy is shaky. In November, President Viktor Yanukovych was supposed to sign an association deal, aimed at longer-term gains for Ukraine, with the European Union. He backed out at the last minute on Nov. 21. Cue the angry, yet peaceful, droves of protesters flooding into the streets of Kyiv.
After this deal that didn’t happen, Yanukovych got an offer for a bail out package from everyone’s favourite ex-KGB man and aspiring puppet-master of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin. The people stuck to the streets, angry that Europe was father away and Russia was closer. Still, the demonstrations remained relatively peaceful—until January.
On Jan. 16, Ukrainian parliament passed harsh anti-protest laws that took effect several days later. Violence ensued. Kyiv became a battleground and several protesters died and the protests spread, largely to cities in Western Ukraine. On Jan. 28, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet resigned, and the violence-spurring laws were repealed. Although Yanukovych signed the repeal, there is no sign of an understanding between the government and the people. Additionally, people arrested based on those laws are being offered full amnesty on the condition that their fellow demonstrators abandon government buildings.
Neither the prospect of a new Prime Minister and Cabinet nor conditional amnesty, are enough for the opposition, so the demonstrations continue. Their ultimate goal is to force Yanukovych to resign, have snap elections, and possibly even to alter the constitution to revoke some of the President’s broader powers.
However, Ukrainians are split down the middle. Much of the country supports the president, condemns the protesters, and favours closer ties with Russia. These people seek a different national identity than those camped-out in the streets and government buildings.
Most Westerners are aware of an intense divide in Ukraine. Many, however, think it’s as simple as nostalgia for versus resentment of the Moscow-controlled Ukraine of the Soviet-era. This mistake is understandable given that powerful Western bodies such as the United Sates have cultivated the notion that anything from before the Cold War in Eastern Europe has lost any relevance. Newspaper reporting reinforces this historically narrow-minded view that the various divisions in Ukraine have popped up in the post-Soviet years.
So, what’s the problem? Ukrainians know about the time before the Cold War, and they feel it, too.
The East-West divide existed long before the Soviet Union did. A common, media-perpetuated misconception is that, prior to being integrated into the Soviet Union, all of what is today Ukraine was part of the Russian empire. This is about two-thirds true.
The lands inhabited by what became Ukrainians were scattered. Back when Poland existed for the first time, it held some key Ukrainian territory. After it was removed from the map in the 1790s, Ukrainian territory was divided between two main bodies: the Russian and Habsburg (Austrian, then Austro-Hungarian) empires.
The Habsburgs provided a space in which nationalism could develop; the Russian tsars didn’t. Austria-Hungary was modern and European, and Russia was not. Austro-Hungarian-Ukrainians moved towards right-wing nationalism while Russian-Ukrainians went left-wing internationalist or socialist.
The East-West split existed at least as far back as the 19th century. Then the First World War saw Ukrainians fight Ukrainians. They didn’t defy their governments and unite.
The Russians swiftly occupied Galicia and Bukovyna, two Western Ukrainian territories where nationalist, anti-Russian tendencies were high. Russia quickly transferred the measures it used to crush nationalism in the Russian empire to these territories, embittering the local Ukrainians.
After Russia’s revolutions in 1917, there was a brief attempt at Ukrainian independence. The years following were confusing. Ukrainian nationalists from the West tried to unite Ukrainian territories and forge an independent Ukrainian state, but the Bolsheviks’ new Red Army, the Western democracies negotiating at Versailles, and the Eastern Ukrainians, dashed these hopes.
By 1920, Eastern Ukrainian territories became the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic—“independent” but under Moscow’s watch—and the Western lands were divided among Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. Ukrainian nationalism remained strong in the Western territories and virtually nonexistent in Soviet Ukraine. Western nationalists despised that the Soviets possessed any Ukrainian territory.
During World War II, Stalin claimed the Western territories for Soviet Ukraine. The nationalists witnessed the actualization of their goal of a unified Ukraine. It still wasn’t independent, though. The nationalists were still deprived of any Ukrainian identity, first split up in the interwar period, and forced to adopt, wholesale, a Soviet identity for over 40 years. The Ukrainian national project was definitively stalled.
While Western European nations were able to undergo liberal democratization—what the West wants for Ukraine now—in earlier times, Ukraine was afforded no such opportunity. It was in a state of arrested development because of its historical context, the civil unrest now being the consequence. Centuries of tension and confused identity were suddenly given the opportunity to manifest when Ukraine seceded from the Soviet Union and declared full independence at the end of 1991.
Given that Ukraine is really only 22 years old, then, its current condition is unsurprising. The identity negotiation process was stifled for centuries and is conflicted now by its precarious physical and geopolitical position.
These negotiations of identity are turbulent. However, they need to happen. Many have been insisting lately that the West assertively step in to guide Ukraine to democracy to counteract Putin’s attempts at controlling it. This, I believe, would foster resentment, which would be unproductive if Ukraine hopes to progress as a nation.
Many seem to think it’s the West’s job to fix Ukraine’s problems. I say let them play out. If foreign bodies intervene too heavily in Ukrainian affairs, its historically-based struggles won’t be remedied but will fester, and the cycle of unrest will continue for longer than it otherwise would. Besides, because it’s the younger generations that tend to be pro-European, Ukraine will likely lean towards Western-style democracy given the chance to sort out these issues on its own terms and in its own time.
If the goal is to have Ukraine move forward and establish its own identity, it can’t skip these crucial steps of the negotiation process. To do so would be to continue to deny Ukraine what had already been denied to it for so long and prolong the historical tensions that forged and perpetuated these problems in the first place.