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Why are people protesting in Ukraine? Providing historical context

Yanukovych supporters wave flags during a rally. (Sergei Grits/AP)

The following is a guest post from political scientist Leonid Peisakhin (Fundacion Juan March) that provides some historical perspective on the current conflict in Ukraine.


Much of the recent news coverage of Ukrainian protests has painted a picture of a nation that almost universally aspires to closer links with Europe and is at loggerheads with a political leadership that is attempting to drag Ukraine back into the Soviet past by fostering closer relations with Russia. This picture is at best an inadequate caricature of political dynamics, and at worst a dangerous misconception that can only harm Ukraine in the long term by delaying a much-needed national dialogue about Ukraine’s political, economic and cultural aspirations.

Ukraine is one of the youngest countries in the world; in August 2013, it turned 22. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine never existed as an independent state within its current borders. Parts of the country did flirt with independence in the mid-17th century and then again in 1918-1920; such flirtations never lasted more than a few years and universally ended by being brutally suppressed by Ukraine’s neighbors to the east and west. The very name of the country — “on the border” in old Slavonic — historically refers to a geographical predicament and not a common ethnic or cultural tradition. Insofar as there is a common historical theme that defines the Ukrainian experience, it is one of division: between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Russia in 1569-1795, Austrian and Russian empires in 1795-1917, and Greek Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy from 1596 until the present. Ukraine can rightfully claim association with leading figures of Russian (e.g. Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Bulgakov were both born in Ukraine) as well as Western (e.g. the great political economist Joseph Schumpeter worked at Czernowitz University) culture. It has never been and is not yet a coherent national unit with a common narrative or a set of more or less commonly shared political aspirations.

Given Ukraine’s tortured and unhappy history and such a brief experience of independent statehood, it should hardly be surprising that the country is bitterly divided on almost every issue, from foreign policy preferences and perceptions of the recent past to the best way to manage the national economy. Nationally representative public opinion data from one of the leading domestic survey firms, the Razumkov Center, demonstrates that ordinary Ukrainians are ambiguously divided in their opinion on whether Ukraine should move toward European integration or return to Russian influence (see the chart above). Whereas 42 percent favor closer relations with Europe, 31 percent think that Ukraine would be better off as part of the Russia-led Customs Union that includes the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Belarus. This pattern of public preferences has been consistent over time and can hardly be interpreted as evidence of overwhelming support for European integration. On average, the pro-European direction is a little more popular. What is especially striking is that there are very large regional differences in pro-European and pro-Russian support. Below are some data on perceived economic benefits from association with the European Union versus membership in the Russia-led Customs Union broken down by region (source: Razumkov Center poll, April 2013, 2010 respondents). While the EU leads Russia by 10 percentage-points nationally, in southern and eastern Ukraine where the country’s industrial base is concentrated, the Customs Union is perceived to be considerably more beneficial than the EU.

History weighs heavy on Ukraine. In a book manuscript that I am currently completing, titled “The Long Shadow of the Past: Persistence of Political Identities in Ukraine,” I show how political identities created under Austrian and Russian imperial tutelage in the 19th and early 20th centuries continue to define Ukraine’s political landscape in the present. In a representative survey of identical settlements that are  within 15 miles (25km) of the long-defunct Austrian-Russian imperial border in western Ukraine, I demonstrate that support for closer relations with Russia increases by 28 percentage points as one moves from the Austrian to the Russian side of the historical frontier (see below). That border disappeared almost a century ago, yet its political legacy is still very much alive today.

None of the above in any way excuses the fact that president Yanukovych’s government exhibits worrying authoritarian tendencies, or that, in a deplorable act, state authorities used excessive force to suppress peaceful protests. Yet it is crucial to separate justified public dissatisfaction and anger with the current regime from a much more complex and delicate problem of Ukraine’s geopolitical future. A forceful solution to this problem — whether it is engineered by domestic protesters, Western or Russian politicians  or pro-regime elites — is doomed to failure. What Ukraine needs is a national conversation that will engage all regions of the country in a debate concerning Ukraine’s past, present and future. Let us not forget that the United States fought a civil war over differences of opinion on economic and moral issues that threatened to tear the country asunder. Historical divisions in Ukraine go deeper into the past and are no less serious than those that perturbed the United States some 90 years after the Union had been formed.