Four things that are wrong with the conventional wisdom about the country’s politics.
The dramatic developments in Ukraine left Western media scrambling to explain a distant and complex country to an audience that could barely locate the places on a map or pronounce the names.
Ukraine found itself in a tug of war between Moscow and Brussels, and this fed into a simplistic narrative of a bifurcated country, torn between East and West, that misrepresents the situation on the ground. The fact that Western policy is based on this misreading of Ukraine helps explain why it has gone so badly astray.
1. Binary thinking is lazy thinking
Western newspapers have been very proud to publish maps showing the Ukrainian electorate divided along into two neat halves: the west-center versus the south-east. Looking at that electoral map, it does indeed seem as if Ukraine has a serious identity crisis – and one that suggests a natural and insuperable territorial divide.
This apparent east-west split confirms our own preconceived notions and tendency toward binary thinking – dividing the world into “good” actors (people who share our values and are thus deserving of our support) and “bad” actors (enemies, not to be trusted). Since western Ukraine is geographically adjacent to Europe, it’s assumed that it must also be closer to European values than people living farther east.
One problem with this binary narrative of Ukrainian politics was that it could not account for the appearance of radical nationalist groups – who are primarily based in western (i.e. “good”) Ukraine. The presence of government ministers from the ranks of extremist parties such as Svoboda and Right Sector does not fit the standard account of Maidan as the triumph of Western, democratic values.
2. Language does not equal ethnicity
The people of Ukraine are not bifurcated into two distinct groups. Rather they have at least two overlapping identity divisions – language use and ethnic identity. You cannot take language use as an indicator of ethnic identity or political loyalty. In the census, some Ukrainians claimed Ukrainian as their “mother language” even though they may not actually speak it at home, as a way of expressing their identity. On the other hand, some Ukrainians who speak Russian at home express a desire for their children to learn Ukrainian.
Moreover, the language options do not fall into simply two categories – Ukrainian-speaking versus Russian-speaking. There is a third category, people who speak surzhuk. This is a dialect sometimes described as Ukrainian vocabulary with Russian grammatical structure. Surzhuk is not an option in the census, but it is spoken by about 30 percent of the population, mainly from villages and small towns.
3. The west-east split is a product of the political process
Without a doubt, the east-west split in Ukrainian political behavior has deep roots and many aspects. It is the product of a centuries-old history of shifting imperial and state boundaries, and rests on linguistic, ethnic, religious, and socio-economic cleavages.
However, it only emerged in such a stark binary form – and became a threat to the existence of Ukraine as a nation-state – as a result of a series of polarized elections, beginning with the Orange Revolution in 2004.
In reality, Ukrainian public opinion – like the electorate in any country – is split across multiple dimensions, and the east-west divide along the alleged ethno-linguistic gap is not the only possible variant of Ukrainian politics.
Back in the 1990s, economic policy was an important factor driving political competition, and on that issue voters were not always split along east-west lines. True, Leonid Kuchma, a factory director from eastern Ukraine, won election as president in 1994 as the “pro-Russian” candidate. However, he won re-election in 1999 against a Communist opponent by running on his pro-market economic policies (he boasted that he had brought inflation down from 10,000 percent to 25 percent). The electoral map in 1999 was not divided into two neat blocs. Rather, it was a mosaic, with many eastern and southern regions voting against Kuchma, and a couple of western provinces – now Svoboda‘s bulwark – supporting him strongly.
4. The triumph of patronage politics
The party system changed after the Orange Revolution in 2004 with the downfall of the Communist Party (whose support fell from 25 percent in 1998 to 4 percent in 2006). The demise of the Communists undermined the left-right dimension of the political debate, and the party system shifted from one between competing programs and ideologies to a clientilistic system built around personal leaders trading favors.
The new leaders – Viktor Yushchenko, Yulia Tymoshenko, and Viktor Yanukovych – used the west-east divide as a way to consolidate their electoral base. The politically divided Ukraine that we see today is as much the product of the evolution of the party system as of a “naturally” divided electorate.
This helps explain one of the many puzzles of the Ukrainian crisis – why support for Yanukovych collapsed overnight on 21 February. Lawmakers from his own Party of Regions deserted him en masse once they realized that he had agreed to leave office. Added to which they agreed to revert to the 2004 constitution, which weakened the powers of the president, which meant that there was nothing to be gained from backing Yanukovych even for the transitional period.
Implications for the future
Over the 23 years of an independent Ukraine no single group within the elite has been able to defeat and dominate the others – but nor was any one faction strong enough to set up rules that would survive the next elite battle. Instead, each round of the political struggle has led to a rewriting of the rules of the game, which means that distrust and deceit have become institutionalized.
The different historical experiences of different parts of Ukraine certainly affect the present political culture. But Ukrainian politicians need to learn the art of compromise, of stitching together coalitions across different groups of interests. It is an important part of the drama unfolding before our eyes that Ukrainian elites over the past decade played the most dangerous of all available cards – the ethno-linguistic card – in mobilizing supporters when competing for power. As history has demonstrated many times, this kind of political tactic runs the risk of blowing up any civilized rules of the political game, giving way to violence and civil war.