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.

A significant 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.

Though the 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 Texas.

In reality, 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 line.

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 borders.

The 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.

Russia 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.

Gaither 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 He lives with his wife, Milena, in Rome, Italy. E-mail:

Copyright © 1998-2007 Online Journal
Email Online Journal Editor