Ukraine divided between East and West
By Gaither Stewart
Online Journal Contributing Writer
Oct 3, 2007, 01:00
The apparent political stalemate in Ukraine after the
September 30 elections reflects the historic divisions of this big country on
the borders between Russia to the east and Europe to the west. Both the
outgoing prime minister, the Russophile Viktor Yanukovich, and Western-oriented
Yulia Tymoshenko claim electoral victory in a country split down the middle
between its eastern and western components.
With 50 million inhabitants, Ukraine is the France of the
East. Therefore, where Europe ends in the east is not just a rhetorical
question: since 1991 Europe has steadily pushed its eastern borders right up to
the frontiers of Russia. A weakened post-Soviet Russia was unable to stop that
advance. Not only the ex-Soviet satellite countries in Eastern Europe, from
Bulgaria to Poland, changed sides, but also parts of the USSR itself --
Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus and Ukraine -- turned toward Western Europe.
Western emotions about the new-old country of Ukraine are no
less mixed than those of the Ukrainian people themselves, forever divided
between East and West. They are a big people with a natural desire to decide
their own fate, a fate that has led them down disastrous paths in their long
history. The major problem has been their two souls. Their Eastern soul has
traditionally held them close to their big brothers, the Great Russians; their
Western soul led desperate and rabid nationalists even to collaboration with
Nazi Germany against Soviet Russia. Ukraine�s Western soul aspires to become
part of Europe; its Eastern soul prefers a privileged relationship with Russia.
In 2004, the �Orange Revolution� swept pro-Western
reformists into power in Ukraine. A year later the Kremlin�s man, Viktor
Yanukovich, won out in the country�s first free parliamentary elections and
became prime minister. The elections were a fatal flop for the Western-looking
part of Ukraine and a confirmation of the traditional division of the country.
Lying in a
strategic position at the crossroads between Europe and Russia, the Ukraine
actually has three souls. Three currents have marked contemporary independent
Ukraine: the linguistic, historical, pro-Russian soul; the nostalgic, big nation,
central planning, pro-Soviet soul; and a vaguely democratic, free market,
pro-Western soul. For many Russians and
many Ukrainians, the two peoples are nearly one and Ukrainians are often
referred to as �Little Russians.�
Russia was alarmed about the rapid move westwards of big and
powerful Ukraine. In the 1990s, Ukraine contributed troops to peacekeeping in
Kosovo in the Balkans. More recently it sent troops to Iraq. The Ukrainian government announcement in May
2002 of its intention to seek membership in United Europe, NATO and WTO was the
last straw for Moscow.
Ukraine: West or East
One used to speak of geographic Europe extending to the Ural
Mountains in Russia, with part of Russia in Europe and part in Asia. However
the border between today�s United Europe (EU) and Russia is more a geopolitical
affair, a question of power and influence.
Western Ukraine has close historical ties with Europe,
particularly with Poland. Both Orthodoxy and the Uniate faith (Greek Catholic)
have many followers there. Ukrainian nationalist sentiment has always been
strongest in the westernmost parts of the country, which became part of Ukraine
only when the Soviet Union expanded after World War II.
It is a different story in Eastern Ukraine. The Ukraine was
the center of the first Slavic state, Kievan Rus, the cradle of Russia. During
the 10th and 11th centuries Kievan Russia was the largest state in Europe,
until it disappeared during the Mongol invasions. The cultural and religious
legacy of Kievan Rus laid the foundation for Ukrainian nationalism throughout
subsequent centuries. A Ukrainian state was established during the mid-17th
century that, despite Muscovite pressure, remained autonomous for over 100
years. During the latter part of the 18th century, Ukrainian ethnographic
territory was assimilated by the Russian Empire. Following the collapse of
czarist Russia in 1917, Ukraine had a short-lived period of independence
(1917-20), before it was re-conquered by Russia and absorbed into the Soviet
Union, as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
minority of the population of Ukraine are Russians or use Russian as their
first language. Russian influence is particularly strong in the industrialized
east of the country, where the Orthodox religion is predominant, as well as in
Crimea, an autonomous republic on the Black Sea, which was long part of Russia.
After Russia, the Ukrainian Republic was the most important
economic component of the former Soviet Union. Today Ukraine depends on imports
of natural gas from Russia for its energy requirements. After independence in
December 1991, the Ukrainian government initiated privatization, but widespread
resistance within the government blocked reform efforts and led to some
backtracking. By 1999, industrial output fell to less than 40 percent of the
1991 level. Ukraine's dependence on Russia for energy supplies and the lack of
structural reform make its economy vulnerable.
Although Ukraine became independent after the dissolution of
the USSR, democracy has remained elusive. Its ancient divisions have stalled
efforts at the formation of a unified nation. In the final months of 2004, the
massive pro-Western �Orange Revolution" overturned a presidential election
rigged by pro-Russia exponents. The peaceful revolution brought about a new
internationally monitored vote that swept into power a coalition of pro-Western
reformists. Yet, the run-off presidential vote of 52 percent for pro-Western
Viktor Yushchenko and 44 percent for outgoing pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich again
reflected the divisions in Ukraine between East and West.
post-Communist era seemed truly closed, the change was illusory. The coalition
government soon collapsed over disastrous economic policies, corruption and a
dramatic gas war with Russia. The coalition dissolved also because the East and
South of the nation prefer Russia and Ukraine�s past. Although the amount of
trade with EU countries exceeds commerce with Russia, Russia remains Ukraine�s
largest trading partner. Not only is Ukraine dependent on Russia for gas, it
also forms an important link on the pipeline transit route for Russian gas
exports to Europe.
Russia had retreated from Western Europe for 50 years. Now
with its gas as a weapon, its retreat has ended. Since much of Europe�s
economic future depends on Russia�s gas, European efforts at democratizing
Russia have stopped. Only friendly relations count. Europe can no longer push
hard for Ukrainian democracy.
Now, whoever emerges as the electoral victor, the tide in
Ukraine has again turned eastwards. The impulse toward the West of the last 15
years has stopped. President Yushchenko said in an interview a few months ago
that Ukraine�s choice is not between the West and Russia: Ukraine must have
good relations with both. But were Russia to raise gas prices to Ukraine or cut
supplies, the scene would change. In the contest between Russia on one hand and
Europe-USA on the other, Moscow in a fair battle will always win.
But most certainly also pushy, abrasive, arrogant US foreign
policy is a reason, too. For Russia, a Ukraine in the camp of the USA would be
like Canada suddenly taking control of New England, or Mexico taking over
the European Union
desires association with Ukraine. The European Parliament supports Ukraine's full membership in the WTO. The EU
Parliament calls on neighboring states to "fully respect the democratic
choice of the Ukrainian people and avoid any type of
economic or other pressures with the goal of changing the new political and economic status of Ukraine. The European
Parliament has also called upon any future coalition government in Kiev to consolidate Ukrainian commitment towards general European values, to
advance democracy, human
rights, civic society and the rule of law, continuation of market reforms and
overcome political divisions
in Ukraine. The European Parliament
hopes to have an active relationship with Ukraine�s Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) and promises aid and support to Ukraine.
This all rings friendly and cooperative to Western-oriented
Ukrainians. To Russia and eastward-looking Ukrainians, it sounds threatening,
with an underlying note of economic blackmail, as is the cutting of US and
European support to the Palestinian government of Hamas unless it toes the
And Russia, in reaction, has lent full support to its
candidate, Yanukovich, who hopes to head a government coalition. In case of
exclusion, he threatens revolt by the eastern and southern parts of the
Ukraine, while Russia can either cut off the gas supply or raise its price.
So again Ukraine, besides being divided internally between
East and West, is also crushed between pressures from its eastern and western
question of where the West ends and Russia begins is not unimportant for the
rest of the world. Russia is again a global actor. Alongside India and China,
Russia has assumed a protagonist role. Much of the empire is gone but Russia�s
aspirations remain. Today Russia is showing its muscles in a game of hazards
and risks. Moscow has tried at negotiation with Iran on the nuclear issue and
strengthened its ties with Tehran. It is mediating with Hamas in Palestine.
itself is an issue of global importance. A weak Russia is a danger for world
balance of power. A strong Russia worries Washington; less so Europe. A strong
Russia to counter uncontrollable American unilateralism appeals to much of the
world. For many, Cold War at low risk is better than hot war in Iraq. Or
nuclear threats launched at Iran. The disappearance of the USSR paved the way
for �preemptive war America,� its hands free to strike when and where it likes.
America is never friendlier with Russia than when it is divided, poor, its
economy in shambles, its empire dismantled. Washington cannot control China or
India. Nor in the end can it contain Russia.
Stewart, writer and journalist, is originally from Asheville, NC. After studies
at the University of California at Berkeley and other American universities, he
has lived his adult life abroad, first in Germany, then in Italy, alternated
with long residences in The Netherlands, France, Mexico and Russia. After a
career in journalism as the Italian correspondent for the Rotterdam daily
newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, and contributor to the press, radio and TV in various European
countries, he writes fiction full-time. His books of fiction, "Icy
Current Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger" and "Once
In Berlin" are published by Wind
River Press. His new novel, "Asheville," is published by www.Wastelandrunes.com He lives with
his wife, Milena, in Rome, Italy. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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