Ukrainians Are Neither Clearly Pro-Western Nor Pro-Russian

By Mykola Riabchuk

The wise man who distinguished the truth, the lie, and statistics, might well have included among the latter opinion surveys — at least as they function in Ukraine. David Marples’s article in the “Edmonton Journal” (Monday, July 30: “Ukraine’s ties with Russia run deep, and that’s not about to change”) is highly dependent on recent opinion polls. They seem to support firmly not only the first part of the title, which is rather obvious, but the second part as well, which is rather debatable.

David Marples perfectly captures the essence of Ukraine’s East-West dilemma in his conclusions. “Ukrainians,” he contends, “are not pro-Western today partly because the example set by Western democracies in recent times has hardly provided a model to emulate: beginning with NATO’s attack on Serbia in 1999 and culminating with the invasion of Iraq. Many also have been alienated by the EU’s negative response to Ukrainian desires for membership. And Ukrainians are for the most part pro-Russian because they see Russia as a strong counterforce to the United States and a nation with which they have more in common than with either the new democracies of Eastern Europe or the long-established democracies that no longer seem capable of providing fitting examples to follow.”

The only big “but” in this case, however, is that virtually all notions and terms in Ukraine are quite vague and fluid. For example, the concepts “pro-Western” and “pro-Russian” do not have the same meaning in the positivistic West and the highly ambivalent and ambiguous post-Soviet Ukraine. True, if being “pro-Russian” or “pro-American” means a sort of Realpolitik, a pragmatic approach to the inherited geopolitical, cultural-linguistic, and economic reality, then Ukrainians (for the most part) are certainly more “pro-Russian” than “pro-Western.” They simply prefer one bird in hand to two in the bush. They prefer the status quo because they feel that — in a country with feeble institutions and no rule of law, weak mechanisms for conflict resolution, low Western support and strong Russian pressure — any instability is dangerous. They opt for a bad peace over a good war just because they do not believe that a good peace is possible.

This does not mean, however, that they absolutely oppose a good peace, i.e., the EU or even membership in NATO, as the opinion surveys purportedly reveal. The surveys point out only that a good peace is not on the agenda (to paraphrase the standard response of Eurocrats to Ukrainians’ claims for EU membership prospects). Ukrainians, therefore, merely choose between the lesser of two evils. Yet again, these “evils” are not the West and Russia per se, but the most likely results people expect in their own cost-benefit analysis. Obviously, the benefits from Ukraine’s western integration would be much higher — but they appear largely unachievable; the costs, i.e., punishment for such attempts by Russia, are rather real and palpable.

To clarify this psychological mechanism, one must refer to the two referendums Ukrainians held in 1991. In March of that year, 70 per cent supported Gorbachev’s idea of a “renewed federation,” in other words, the preservation of the USSR. A few months later, in December, 90 per cent of Ukrainian voters endorsed national independence. This was not some mystical insight or miraculous breakthrough. In March they were quite supportive of independence — but not to the point of rocking the boat and putting their relative well-being and stability at risk. The cost-benefit balance sheet in March was unfavorable for independence. Yet by December, when the Soviet Union de facto collapsed and national independence — declared by the Ukrainian parliament — was a fait accompli, people felt that to oppose independence was more risky, i.e., more destabilizing, than supporting it.

Another graphic example comes from 2002 when president Kuchma, cornered by internal and international scandals, declared Ukraine’s resolve to join NATO. This was a clear attempt to reduce tensions with the US and to counter Ukraine’s growing international ostracism. (Today, few people remember that it was not Yushchenko, the “pro-Western” President, who made NATO membership a national strategic goal, but rather his allegedly “pro-Russian” predecessor). This strategic decision, and the equally strategic choice of sending Ukrainian troops to Iraq — again, made by the “pro-Russian” Kuchma, while the “pro-American” Yushchenko eventually withdrew them — did not evoke any serious protests in Ukraine or even lead to substantial public debate. Ukrainians simply do not much care about such things. Other opinion surveys reveal that such issues as membership in NATO or strengthening/weakening of the status of the Russian language are not among the top ten (and even top twenty) issues of importance to Ukrainians. Moreover, up to 90 per cent of Ukrainians surveyed confess they know nothing or very little about NATO. A few years ago, Ukrainian journalists contrived a nice hoax: they asked the same people about their attitude towards both “NATO” and the “North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” Apparently, in most cases the latter was evaluated much more positively.

This reveals two more problems with opinion surveys in countries like Ukraine: the low political awareness of the people being surveyed and the widespread misunderstanding (and misuse) of terms. The Russian language question serves as a good example of such ambiguity. Thus far there has been no real public debate setting out clearly for everyone what official bilingualism might mean, how it might work in practice, and what legal and other mechanism would be needed to facilitate it. Some people have a Soviet understanding of “two state languages”; they view this as a right of the dominant Russophone group not to learn, and never to use, Ukrainian — an idea that is graphically made real in today’s Belarus. Other people understand the idea in a Western, liberal manner: as a legally prescribed duty of all post-Soviet bureaucrats (predominantly Russian-speaking) to communicate with all citizens — understood as “clients” and as taxpayers — in the language of their choice — and not vice versa, as was the case with Soviet “bilingualism.”

In short, opinion polls in a society such as Ukraine primarily reveal confusion and a secret desire to maintain the status quo — because change is precarious, with easily predictable high costs but mostly indeterminate benefits. Ukrainian society, however, can be considered not only a glass that is half empty — namely, lacking civic maturity, national unity and strong commitment to Western values — but also half full. Forty four per cent of Ukrainians believe that democracy is the best state system, while only 17 per cent opt for authoritarianism; this is actually a good result for a nation that has had very limited experience with a functioning democracy, and even less experience with national independence and self-rule. Neither in Russia nor Belarus can one find anything approaching this.

And the fact that 93 per cent of surveyed Ukrainians opted for “order” as the most needed commodity, while only 25 per cent opted for “liberalism,” does not prove an “authoritarian” preference. It only proves the lack of “order” in the country, and the need to fix a feckless democracy rather than dismantling it in the Russian or Belarusian manner. In this sense, the Orange Revolution, indeed, was not about “pro-Western” or “pro-Russian” orientations, as David Marples rightly suggests, but about the way the country should be run. In other words, it was about values. But if one examines the values of the Kuchma regime, which were opposed by the Revolution, one will see that exactly those values still dominate Russia and other post-Soviet states. Conversely, if one looks at the values defended by the Revolution, we will see that they are the very principles upon which the West is built.

Consequently, the Orange Revolution was clearly pro-Western in its spirit, if not necessarily in political rhetoric and in actual geopolitical programs. So far, it has brought mixed results but, in most terms, post-revolutionary Ukraine is much closer to the fledgling democracies of Eastern Europe than to the consolidated authoritarianisms of post-Soviet “Eurasia.” Thus, the title of Marples’s article might be usefully paraphrased to read: “Ukraine’s ties with Soviet attitudes run deep, but they are changing.”

[Mykola Riabchuk is a Ukrainian writer and political and cultural analyst. He is the author of seven books available in English, French, German, Polish, and other languages. This academic year, he will be teaching at the University of Alberta (in the departments of Modern Languages & Cultural Studies and History & Classics) as the Stuart Ramsay Tompkins Visiting Professor.]



Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta


  1. Pingback: Thursday 13: Google Politics Blog Search : Domestic Divapalooza

  2. “Dividing Ukraine into `pro-Western` and `pro-Russian` is an offence to the wisdom of the people of Ukraine” – Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly President René van Der Linden.

    western media continue to misuse the pro-west pro Russian stereotype which is also used by some Ukrainian politicians. The fact is that all the major political parties are supportive of Ukraine establishing closer ties and integration with Europe.

    This is particularly misused when referring to Ukraine’s president as being pro west. It implies that his opposition are not pro west which is false.

    It is equally arguable that the policies of Yushchenko and his party Our Ukraine — Peoples Self Defence Party are “anti-European”. When the president referred to himself as being pro-west is he is really saying that he is pro-USA and anti-Russia? It could rightly be argued that the Socialist Party, Party of Regions and the Communists are all pro-Europe, pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine. The three are not exclusive of each other.

    Being pro-USA is not the same as being pro-West

    The policies of Our Ukraine -Peoples Self Defence department are seeking to establish a US style system of government with a return to a presidential dictatorship, where as the governing coalition favours a parliamentary democracy in line with other European states. there was even a suggestion that Ukraine should adopt the USA style of electing judges and establishing the right to bear arms. These opoliceis are most certainly not pro-European values.

    If Ukraine seriously is looking toward integration with Western European countries then it should look to Europe and not to the USA for its political guidance and development, It should adopt European values and structures of government.

    With the exception of Cyprus all European Member States are parliamentary democracies. The Parliamentary Assembly of teh Council of Europe in its report on Ukraine sated in emphasis

    Although Ukraine understandably has its own historic reasons to avoid the accumulation of power into the hands of one political force, it should nevertheless consider in the course of future constitutional amendments whether it would not be better for the country to switch to a full parliamentary system with proper checks and balances and guarantees of parliamentary opposition and competition.

    One need to ask the question what exactly is the definition of pro-west and how does that differ from pro-USA or pro-Europe and what does it really mean. Does it mean that being pro-Russia means anti-west?

    The ongoing misuse and misrepresentation of the term pro-west most certainly does not reflect reality or divisions in Ukraine. Mayab pro-Russian and pro USA has has distinction but even then the two are not mutually exclusive from each other. Unless you subscribe to the Cold War stereotypes.

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