The mass protests in Ukraine that began last Sunday brought back memories of the Orange Revolution of 2004. But to what extent do they reflect sentiment throughout Ukraine?
Many media accounts have reduced the impasse to a simplistic equation: the people of Ukraine wish to remove the country from the dominion of the Russian bully (Putin) and commit to the free society of the European Union. President Viktor Yanukovych appeared to have taken the correct path, but halted on the brink of the summit in Vilnius where he was to have signed an Association Agreement with the EU for two reasons: pressure from Russia and refusal to release former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Some reporters have cited a recent press release from the company GfK Ukraine, which conducted an opinion poll in October, suggesting that support for the EU agreement has risen sharply among Ukrainian residents (to 45%) while that for the Russian-led Customs Union has fallen dramatically to (14%). Earlier the tallies were more or less even. Ottawa-based analyst Ivan Katchanovski, however, points out that the GfK polls have been unreliable in the past and have tended to exaggerate support for affiliation with Europe and ask questions that were not very clear to the respondents.
The complexity of the situation in Ukraine today is exemplified in a new poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology between November 9 and 20, 2013, i.e. on the eve of the protests in many Ukrainian cities. The first question was framed as follows: If there were to be a referendum on the question should Ukraine join the Customs Union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, would you vote for it, against it, or decline to vote? The results showed 40.8% in favor and 33.1% opposed.
Broken down by region, support for joining the Customs Union was very high in the East (64.5%), high in the South (54%), moderate in the Center (29.6), and lowest in the West (16.4%). Looking at the age demographics, it is the older generation that is mainly in favor, including almost half of those over 70, and decreasing with each age group to 32.1% among those aged 18-29.
Turning to the results for a referendum on Ukraine joining the European Union, 39.7% were in favor and 35.1% opposed. Support came chiefly from West (66.4%) and Center (43.4%), while only 18.4% of those living in the East were supportive. Over 50% of those aged 18-29 backed the idea, but only 28% of those aged over 70.
Thus it is fair to say that Ukraine is divided not only regionally, which has been evident since independence in 1991, but also demographically by age group.
One cannot take these results as definitive because the question of Ukraine joining the European Union is purely speculative. The GfK poll had asked only about support for signing an Association Agreement with the EU. But if one accepts that those who support the AA would also be likely to favor full EU membership for Ukraine at a future time, then one can make several conclusions from these polls.
First, it is the younger generation that is most committed to the EU and in turn comprises the vast majority of demonstrators in Kyiv’s Independence Square, as well as in other cities. But they do not necessarily reflect the sentiments of the older generation (over 40), and are contrary to the views of those over the age of 55, a group that comprised over 28% of Ukraine’s population last year.
Second, it is Western Ukraine that is the main supporter of the EU, as one might expect given its geographical location and history, especially the strongly anti-Soviet sentiments in the past, and anti-Russian perspective today.
Third, those who would prefer Ukraine to join the Customs Union live in the key industrial centers, comprising such cities as Donetsk, Odesa, Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, and Luhansk, though not the capital Kyiv. These regions are facing an economic crisis with faltering industries, as well as negative birth rates and declining living standards.
The East, however, is the heartland of the ruling Regions Party and President Yanukovych. By signing the Association Agreement in Vilnius, Yanukovch would have incurred a rupture within his own party and lost the support of others, such as the Communists, who have long favored closer integration with Russia.
Given such a dangerous divide in society, the best option for the government might have been to do nothing, the policy of longtime president Leonid Kuchma (1994-2004) and of Yanukovych until the Europeans raised the stakes by offering the Association Agreement. That option disappeared when Russia made it clear that the possibility of a parallel 3+1 membership of the Customs Union was not on the table and that Ukraine must make its choice.
As analyst Oles Oleksiyenko put it in an article of November 22, “Yanukovych has outwitted himself.” He believed to the last minute that he could gamble on the stakes being raised and getting a better deal from either the EU or Russia. Unfortunately, despite the mass protests that appear so vividly on our TV screens, there is no overwhelming support in Ukraine for either option.