New poll shows eastern Ukraine’s separatists are wrong


Pro-Russian activists gather on the steps of the Regional Interior Ministry building in Luhansk, Ukraine, 7 May 2014. (Igor Kovalenko/EPA)

Separatists in eastern Ukraine are pressing ahead with their plan to hold a referendum on secession from Kiev, despite even the stated wishes of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The move may signal a dangerous escalation of an already deadly conflict. On Thursday, Denis Pushilin, the self-proclaimed chairman of the Donetsk People's Republic, insisted at a news conference that there was a popular will for the vote.

"People want the referendum," he said. "And it’s not just a few people; it's millions of people who want the referendum, who need to give this vote for their ideals."

But according to a new poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, a vast majority of those living in Ukraine -- both in the restive east and more nationalist west -- want the country's borders to remain the same, despite the many political and social tensions that have come to the surface in recent months.

Only 18 percent of those surveyed in eastern Ukraine think the country's regions should be allowed to secede -- a statistic that serves as something of a rebuke to Pushilin and his fellow separatists. The entire Pew study is worth exploring. (You can read about its methodology here.) It's important to note one caveat: the field work was done in early to mid-April, before the recent violent clashes in Slovyansk and Odessa that left dozens dead -- and could have deepened the country's polarization. What follows is a selection of Pew's findings, beginning with evidence that Ukrainians want to stick together:

Still, the issue of language -- which has been blurred by politicians and media into one of political identity -- remains a dilemma for the Ukrainian state. Nationalists want to assert a unique Ukrainian identity after many years of Russian-Soviet dominance. But Russia justified its de facto annexation of Crimea in March on the grounds that a nationalist government in Kiev endangered ethnic Russians. As WorldViews discussed here, ultimately, most Ukrainians are bilingual, no matter their political concerns.

Even if many in eastern Ukraine want to remain within Ukraine's borders, they are still deeply unhappy with the interim government in Kiev, which came to power  after protests forced the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in February and has struggled to cope with the upheavals that followed in Crimea and elsewhere. Yanukovych, incidentally, drew much of his support from the country's east. Enthusiasm for the referendum may be more a sign of dissatisfaction with Kiev than a desire to secede.

A majority of Ukrainians are unhappy with Moscow's meddling.

But clear regional divisions emerge when confronted with questions about the country's geopolitical future.

A thin majority of Ukrainians want Crimea back, but that ship may have sailed. The peninsula's population is far more historically bound to Russia than are other parts of Ukraine.

In the space of seven years, though, Russia's leader has gone from being a figure who enthused a majority of Ukrainians to a divisive demagogue less popular than German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Obama.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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