As the Ukrainian crisis acquired an international dimension this week, the focus of the international community’s attention understandably turned to questions of inter-state relations and international law. Journalists I had been talking to over the last few weeks no longer want to hear much about domestic Ukrainian politics. Instead, primary interest is now in kinds of responses from Europe and the U.S. could constrain Russia, the strength of the resolve of President Vladimir Putin, President Obama, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and what kinds of geopolitical goals Russia is pursuing in Crimea. These are all enormously important questions. However, the domestic political process in Ukraine is still very relevant to how, when, or whether this crisis will be resolved.
The reaction of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Crimea and in the other regions in Eastern and Southern Ukraine can affect whether Russia widens or narrows its incursion into Ukrainian territory. If Russia encounters sustained and significant resistance from the population it is purportedly protecting, Putin’s perception of the feasibility of this operation may change. Russian interference may exacerbate inter-communal relationships in the South and East, hasten destabilization, and eventually trigger communal violence. Similarly, the behavior of the new Ukrainian government in Kiev can affect the situation in the South and East, either by alienating or reassuring Russian speakers there. By extension, the next steps of the Kiev government can impact the strength of the West’s commitment to supporting it. The West would be more likely to throw its support behind Kiev if it perceives that the radical nationalists, active during the Maidan protests, do not dictate the government’s agenda.
Three questions therefore seem particularly important:
1) Do the South and East want to join Russia?
We know already that the Crimean Tatar minority strongly opposes Russia’s interference in its home region. But what about Crimea’s Russian majority and the publics in other Eastern and Southern Ukrainian regions? Recent polls, conducted on Feb 8-18, by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) and the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, indicate that 41 percent of Crimean residents would support the unification of Russia and Ukraine. The number seems to have increased slightly in comparison to an earlier poll conducted in 2013, which estimated put that figure at 36 percent, but we do not know whether the difference is statistically meaningful or just an artifact of the different samples used. No other region contains more than a third of respondents who would support unification with Russia (Donetsk 30-33 percent; Luhansk 24-29 percent, Odessa, 23-24 percent, Zaporizhhya and Kharkiv at 9-17 percent). A comparison of polling trends on the question from 2008 to 2014 suggests that the proportion of Ukrainian citizens who favor unification of Russia and Ukraine has declined slowly from about 20 percent to about 10 percent. Some may argue that although the February 2014 figure is consistent with the general trend, it may hide increased polarization between the West/Center and the East/South on the issue. However, the regional figures from Donetsk, Luhansk, Crimea and Odessa do not suggest such a trend—the numbers may have slightly increased in Crimea, Donetsk and Zaporizhya, but they have remained unchanged in Odessa and Kharkiv, and have declined in Luhansk. And in the Western regions, support for unification with Russia is very close to zero, so there is no room for it to go down further.
2) Do the South and East want protection from Russia?
Maybe minorities in Eastern and Southern regions support unification with Russia, but do majorities support Russian protection from the nationalist government in Kiev? Data from mid-February by KIIS suggest that only minorities in both the South and the East think that the Maidan protests were mainly motivated by nationalist ideology—35 percent in the South and 45 percent in the East. At the same time, sizable minorities think that the Maidan protestors were motivated by a resentment towards the corrupt Yanukovych regime—27 percent in the South and 20 percent in the East. An additional 19 percent in the South agree with the statement that police brutality drove protesters to the Maidan. This is not direct evidence that Russian speakers in the East and South do not welcome the Russian intervention, but the fact that only minorities think that Maidan was mostly made up of nationalists from Western Ukraine suggests that only minorities would be gravely concerned and threatened by the new government in Kiev. Also, for the few days after President Viktor Yanukovych left Kiev and before Russian troops started entering Crimea, the Eastern and Southern elites expressed readiness to work with the central government in Kiev. It is hard to extrapolate from the intensity and size of the competing protests that have taken place in major cities in the South and East whether bigger proportions of the local population are afraid of the central government in Kiev or of Russian intervention. The picture is further complicated by reports of Russian citizens bussed from neighboring Belgorod and Rostov to take part in pro-Russian protests in Kharkiv and Odessa.
3) Is the new Ukrainian government dominated by nationalists who are hostile to the East and South?
The new Ukrainian government includes ministers from the far right nationalist party Svoboda. It also includes Maidan activists, some from the radical right-wing Pravyi Sector, in key government positions. Both have raised fears that the new Ukrainian government is beholden to extreme nationalists. The new Rada majority passed amendments that antagonized Russian speakers in the East. The first amendment envisioned the scrapping of the status of Russian as an official language alongside Ukrainian in some regions. In addition, the chair of the Rada Committee on Freedom of Speech introduced, apparently unaware of the irony, a ban on three Russian TV channels in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. He justified the measure with the large volumes of purported disinformation on the situation in Ukraine on these channels. However, the proposal might inflame the Eastern public more than any amount of Russian state propaganda. Some have criticized the new government for continuing to rely on the extremist elements from Maidan, for attempting to dole out victors’ justice, and for failing to cooperate with political representatives of the Russian-speaking East and South.
It is worth keeping in mind that the current government in Kiev had all of one week between taking office in an unprecedented extra-constitutional situation and the beginning of the Russian intervention in Crimea. Extra-constitutional, because the Ukrainian constitution (just like many other constitutions I checked) does not provide a pathway out of a situation in which the incumbent president flees the capital, hides out, and effectively leaves no one in charge. In other words, anything that the Rada would have done besides sitting on its hands, while Kiev effectively had no president or government, was not be explicitly allowed under either the 2004 or the 2010 Constitution. I say either Constitution, because Yanukovych left town without signing the most important element of the agreement that he had negotiated with the opposition, thus further muddling the constitutional situation. Passing a parliamentary resolution (provided for by Art. 91 in both Ukrainian Constitutions) that legislated that Yanukovych has removed himself from office by relieving himself of his constitutional duties, and then appointing an acting president, in accordance with Art. 112, which stipulates the constitutional steps after early termination of the president’s term, appears to have been as close to a constitutional solution to the power vacuum as the Ukrainian constitution provides.
In addition, finding political actors from the East and South to cooperate with and incorporate into the political process, even invite into a grand coalition, seems easier said than done. The Party of Regions was in freefall after Yanukovych’s departure and due to its dominance of the political space in the East and South, there were no other viable alternatives. It would clearly take some time to identify and negotiate with these actors. In that one short week, the new government did attempt to constrain some of the nationalist actors’ demands. Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov vetoed the language law amendment and none of Svoboda’s most divisive figures made it into the government.
Finally, after Russia’s incursion, the government has also been very careful not to contribute to escalating the situation in Crimea by tolerating the takeovers of administrative buildings by pro-Russian (or even Russian?) activists. Neither the Ukrainian military, nor right-wing extremist elements from Western or Central Ukraine have put up any violent resistance to the foreign military on Ukraine’s territory. The new Ukrainian government’s restraint in this difficult situation is cause for some optimism.
Previous posts on the recent events in Ukraine at The Monkey Cage:
Additional commentary from the NYU Social Media and Political Participation(SMaPP) lab not at The Monkey Cage: Tweeting the Revolution: Social Media Use and the #Euromaidan Protests