After two months of rallies in the capital city of Kiev against President Viktor Yanukovych's decision to reject a deal for closer integration with the European Union, Ukraine's protests are spreading to other major cities throughout the country's west. Protesters have even seized government administrative buildings in several regional capitals, heightening concerns about where Ukraine's crisis will go.
What's happening in Ukraine is about much more than the anger over Yanukovych rejecting the European Union deal and drawing the country closer to Russia. To help explain what's going on, I've put this map together up top. The red stripes show regions where mass protests are surrounding the regional capital buildings. The black stripes show regions where protesters have actually seized the government administrative buildings. The blue regions are where Yanukovych won a majority in the last presidential election, in 2010; dark blue means he won at least 70 percent. Orange regions show where Yulia Tymoshenko, then prime minister and candidate for a pro-European party, won the majority; she won at least 70 percent in dark orange regions.
Here's why this map is important: There is a big dividing line in Ukrainian politics -- an actual, physical line that separates the north and west from the south and east. You can see it in this map and in just about every electoral map since the country's independence. That divide goes beyond the question of whether Ukraine faces toward Europe or toward Russia, but that question is a major factor. And it's polarizing.
This map drives two things home: First is that the protests are practically endemic in the half of the country that voted against Yanukovych, which includes Kiev. Second, the protests are not really a factor in the half who voted for Yanukovych. That doesn't mean that people in the blue areas adore Yanukovych, but they're certainly not pouring out into the streets to oppose him. It also doesn't mean that the protesters lack legitimate gripes or that it's just about their candidate losing. The economy is in terrible shape, and the government recently imposed severe restrictions against free speech, media and assembly rights, which is part of why the protests kicked back up again.
In other words, in the European-facing half of Ukraine, the orange half, the protests are even more widespread and severe than you might have gathered from watching the media coverage. But it's important to keep in mind that the other half of the country, the blue half, is much quieter.
You may be wondering, then, why there is such a consistent and deep divide between these two halves of Ukraine. Here's the really crucial thing to understand about Ukraine: A whole lot of the country speaks Russian, rather than Ukrainian. This map shows the country's linguistic divide, which you may notice lines up just about perfectly with its political divide.
Ukrainian is the majority and official language of Ukraine. But, as a legacy of of the country's subjugation by Russia, many Ukrainians speak Russian, which is the native language for about one-third of the population. The Russian speakers are clustered in the south and east. A significant chunk of them are ethnic Russian, as well. In some regions, more than three-quarters of the population speaks Russian as their primary language.
Heavily Russian-speaking regions can tend to be more sympathetic (or at least less hostile) to policies that bring their country closer to Russia, as Yanukovych has been doing. But the Ukrainian-speaking regions have historically sought a Ukrainian national identity that is less Russia-facing and more European. So this is about politics, yes, but it's also about identity, about the question of what it means to be Ukrainian.
Ukraine's ethno-lingistic political division is sort of like the United States' "red America" and "blue America" divide, but in many ways much deeper -- imagine if red and blue America literally spoke different languages. The current political conflict, which at its most basic level is over whether the country will lean toward Europe or toward Russia, is part of a long-running and unresolved national identity crisis. Yes, it's also about Yanukovych's failures to fix the economy and his draconian restrictions against basic freedoms. But there's so much more to it than that, which helps make the crisis so intractable.