Breaking up Ukraine?

As I suggested last week, the passage by the Ukrainian government of new anti-protest laws has done nothing to deter its opponents from protesting. Quite the contrary: the anti-government movement has been reinvigorated, with violent clashes between police and protesters earlier this week leading to the first fatalities since the protests began two months ago. Hundreds of injuries are reported on both sides.

Since then, talks have taken place between government and opposition, and president Viktor Yanukovych has promised concessions, including modifications to the anti-protest laws. But the protesters seem unimpressed, and opposition leaders have indicated that nothing less than Yanukovych’s resignation will satisfy them.

The protests began with Yanukovych’s mishandling of the competing pull of his two powerful neighbors, Russia and the European Union, and both of them are concerned about things getting out of control. EU foreign minister Catherine Ashton will be going to Kiev again next week; the government has accused her in the past of siding with the protesters, but it is still keen not to burn its European bridges.

Prime minister Mykola Azarov, interviewed by Le Monde, said that “the EU can rapidly contribute to a solution if it is impartial.”

On the other side, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov criticised the EU: “We would prefer some of our European colleagues not to behave so unceremoniously in connection with Ukraine’s crisis.” But he also offered mediation, saying that “Russia will do its utmost to help prevent (the breakup of Ukraine) and to stabilise the situation.”

To see what he means by breakup, have a look at the map accompanying the latest BBC report, showing the cities where unrest has been reported. They are scattered across the north and west of Ukraine. The rest of the country is quiet.

Now compare with the map of language and ethnicity published last month in the Washington Post – or with the more detailed demographic data available at Wikipedia. They all tell the same story, of a deeply divided country. The location of protests mirrors opposition strength at recent elections, and both in turn reflect the underlying ethnic split.

In the north and west of the country, people speak Ukrainian, sentiment is pro-European and Russia is the hereditary enemy. In the east and south, Europe is further away, people are more likely to speak Russian, and significant minorities (in Crimea it’s a majority) identify as Russian, not Ukrainian.

In Azarov’s words, “Three-quarters of our GDP is produced in [the east] of Ukraine, which makes the country live. People don’t understand what’s happening in Kiev. … In the west of the country, administrative buildings have been stormed, social and economic life is paralysed.”

Each side in the current contest, of course, wants control of a whole nation. Neither is attracted by the idea of partition. The north and west (which include the capital, Kiev) are the Ukrainian cultural heartland; no government would willingly give them up. The east and south, on the other hand, are richer, more urbanised and more industrialised. Without them, Ukraine would be a much poorer country.

Yet on the face of it, partition makes a lot of sense. As with the case of northern Kosovo, but on a hugely bigger scale, nationalist enthusiasm and loyalty to established borders prevent people from even examining an option that might leave both sides better off.

In the years before the unravelling of the Soviet empire, there was a lot of discussion about whether or not Ukraine would really want independence. Many people regarded the ethnic difference between Russians and Ukrainians as minor – comparable, for example, to the English and the Scots – and assumed that the independence movement would peter out once the grievance of communism was removed. (This was, of course, also the predominant Russian view.)

Things didn’t work out that way. Yet perhaps the debate was really postponed rather than settled. There may still come a time when the competing halves of Ukraine have a chance to go their separate ways.

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