On Wednesday, February 19, following the worst violence so far of the Ukrainian protests, BBC Radio 4’s Today program, probably the leading radio news show in the UK, reported on Ukraine. The program’s correspondent Daniel Sandford warned of the danger of a bloody civil war and of the splitting of the country. On February 20, the program spoke of half of Ukraine that ‘feels more Russian’ and half that ‘feels more European’. On Wednesday, Today presenter Mishal Husain asked Robert Brinkley, former UK ambassador to Ukraine and Russia, about the prospect of war and a split, saying that after all, ‘half the country speaks Russian’. Recognizing the risk of further unrest, Brinkley nevertheless cautioned that talk of a split was exaggerated. The country’s supposed East-West split is not clean cut, he said, neither are its ethnic or linguistic divisions. Sadly, Brinkley’s differentiated understanding of Ukraine is sorely lacking in wider Western commentary on Ukraine.
Talk of sharp divisions is not limited to journalists, but is also frequently heard from specialized commentators, for whom identifying Ukraine’s ‘deep divide’ seems to the first marker of expertise on the country. Stephen Cohen, emeritus professor at Princeton and New York universities, commented thus in The Nation:
But every informed observer knows—from Ukraine’s history, geography, languages, religions, culture, recent politics and opinion surveys—that the country is deeply divided as to whether it should join Europe or remain close politically and economically to Russia. There is not one Ukraine or one “Ukrainian people” but at least two, generally situated in its Western and Eastern regions.
A similar message came from two other North American academics, Lucan Way and Keith Darden, in their blog for the Washington Post (albeit presenting a far more nuanced view than Cohen):
We should be particularly wary when “the people” referred to are the people of Ukraine. If 20 years of scholarship and surveys teach us one thing, it is that Ukraine is a country that is deeply divided on virtually every issue pertaining to relations with Russia or the West, with very deep historic divisions that continue to bear on contemporary politics.
This idea of a fatally divided state that can barely hold itself together because of political, linguistic, cultural and other differences is repeated so often that it has become a commonplace, and is widely reproduced in less specialized media coverage, as on the BBC.
Yet the BBC’s ‘received wisdom’ about Ukraine, and the statements made by Way, Darden and Cohen demand some scrutiny. Why should we be extra-careful when talking about the ‘Ukrainian people’? Why the quotation marks? Politicians and commentators the world over talk about the people of their countries and what it wants. No-one corrects them by pointing out that in fact the peoples they refer to are internally differentiated. Why is it necessary to establish overwhelming consensus in Ukraine in order to justify talking about the Ukrainian people?
Regional diversity is seen as the geographical basis for warnings of divisions, splits and wars. Certainly, strong regional political differences, based in historical, ethnic and/or cultural differences, can create fault lines within states: Northern Ireland is a case in point, separated from the Republic of Ireland and having autonomous status within the UK. Scotland is about to vote to separate from the rest of the UK. If one wants to talk about deep regional differences, the UK is a much more dramatic case than Ukraine. Ukraine has no strong separatist movements. There are no political parties who include cession of any part of the country in their programmes. There are no problems with separatist terrorist organizations.
Crimea, Ukraine’s most ethnically Russian region and an important site of Russian strategic interest, is the only place where some degree of separatism is really noticeable. The region, a small part of Ukraine with a population of around 2 million, has an identity powerfully distinct from the rest of the country, and enjoys a high level of autonomy. Rumblings are often heard about the prospect of ceding to Russia, but this has never really been seriously entertained, and voters overwhelmingly support Yanukovych’s party, which wants Crimea as part of Ukraine. Any potential conflict in Crimea is likely to be caused by Russian-Ukrainian geopolitical relations, potentially similar to the conflict between Georgia and Russia in South Ossetia in 2008, but neither side is likely to risk this scenario. Ethnic tensions or separatism on the ground are not strong enough to spark major unrest.
Compared to the UK, then, with Scotland and Northern Ireland, or Spain, with the Basques and Catalans, where threats of separatism are very real, Ukraine’s territorial integrity seems to be fairly safe. Nevertheless, Western observers see supposed regional splits as deeply threatening to Ukraine’s future as a state. At the same time, even the immanent prospect of the separation of Scotland from the UK and the continued terrorist activity in Northern Ireland, while of course causes for concern for many, inspire neither domestic or foreign observers to create a doom-laden discourse of political impossibility around the future of the UK.
Division is often drawn along linguistic lines – as the question posed by the BBC’s news presenter demonstrates. ‘After all, half the country speaks Russian, doesn’t it?’ Well, not exactly. In the country as a whole, the Ukrainian language dominates as the stated native language, though research suggests that actual language use brings Ukrainian and Russian closer. There are certainly regional differences – the East is generally more Russophone – but the geographical spread of the two languages is actually quite complex. Many people speak both, or mixtures of the two. It is often hard for an individual, even in the east, to define whether they are a Russian speaker or a Ukrainian speaker, never mind for an entire region. Anyone following the protests online will have noticed a robust mixture of Ukrainian and Russian voices in the Maidan camp.
But accepting that different languages are used across the country, with regional variation, is there any link between this and potential civil war and state collapse? One thing that is important to remember here is that in Ukraine (as in many other countries) language doesn’t mark ethnicity. Only about one-sixth of the population is ethnically Russian (and here it’s important to note that making any conclusions about Russians’ political views based on ethnicity would be hasty). There are more ethnically Ukrainian Russian speakers than there are Russian ones. Ukraine is not Yugoslavia (an analogy that is often cited) – over 80 percent of its inhabitants share the same national identity, and there is no history of ethnic conflict between the inhabitants of present day Ukraine.
The Russian language is a mainstay of life in Ukraine, and can be heard in any region. Most Ukrainians consume Russian media, watch Russian movies, read Russian literature or listen to Russian music to some degree, and in this the west of the country is actually no exception. But there is little difference between this language-based affinity and that found among Irish people for British culture, or among Brits for American culture. These affinities may speak to certain overlaps in identity, attitudes, historical experience, but they are not omens of any future political union.
Linguistic diversity in Ukraine is much less of a ‘problem’ than some outsiders seem to think: in everyday life, one might meet some resistance for speaking Ukrainian in Odessa or Russian in L’viv, but most people pay little attention. Ukrainians often hold conversations across two languages without really noticing. Surveys from the early days of Yanukovych’s rule have suggested that the ‘language question’, so inflated by politicians around election time, is actually of little concern to ordinary people, worrying only around 5 percent of the population.
And yet again, Western observers often pick up on these differences as evidence of a flawed society that is heading for catastrophe, despite the fact that linguistic diversity is in fact the norm in many countries, and is something that is openly promoted by the EU as desirable and important.
In both articles mentioned above, and in numerous others, observers point out that support for the EU is another point that splits Ukraine. It is true that support is not uniform across the country, and there is no clear majority support for the EU: Way and Darden cite a survey that shows that 43 percent supports EU membership, and 32 percent membership of the Customs Union (the survey doesn’t ask about the actual proposition of the EU trade agreement that was rejected by Yanukovych; it also suggests that of those willing to actually vote in potential referenda, 58 percent would favour the EU and 42 the Customs Union). But should the reluctance of a significant proportion of the country’s population to commit to supporting EU integration be seen as yet another fatal divide in the country? The situation in fact makes Ukraine typically European: Euroscepticism has become very strong in many European states. The UK may well hold a referendum on its membership. Polls suggest that support for EU membership in the UK is significantly lower than it is in Ukraine (only around 30 percent support for membership according to 2012 polls). Yet while this is fairly standard for some actual EU members, in Ukraine, where disapproval of the EU is lower and enthusiasm certainly more visible, division on the issue is seen as an insurmountable problem for closer ties with Europe.
All of this smacks of the most condescending kind of Western double standards. While political, linguistic, and cultural diversity seem to be desirable traits, signs of ‘normal’, tolerant, democratic European societies, in the Ukrainian case these traits are seen as signs of deeply threatening divisions in society. What’s okay for the rich nations of the West – regional, cultural, linguistic diversity that is reflected in a varied political landscape – is not okay for poor, chaotic Ukraine. The present unrest is seen as proof of this.
Yet it should be obvious to any observer that the unrest in Ukraine is not a result of any kind of ethnic, regional, linguistic or other split, nor does it foresee any territorial split or civil war: it is the result of the disastrous rule of a corrupt and brutal government that represents the interests of small elite that is determined to hang on to its wealth and power at any cost. Any future violence will not be between different ethnic, regional or linguistic groups: it will be between the state and its opponents. That opposition may be stronger in some parts of the country than in others, but those who are less willing to protest are unlikely to take arms against Maidan supporters. No-one is willing to fight for Yanukovych, other than the thugs he pays to do so.
One wonders what the ideal scenario would be for Ukraine, according to those who lament its lack of unity. Putin managed to achieve an impressive level of political unity and stability in the country for much of his time in power (with some notable exceptions to the rule, such as the bloody secessionist war in Chechnia). Is this kind of unity a desirable scenario for Ukraine? Perhaps it’s time to recognize that Ukraine’s perceived divisions are in fact simply typical signs of diversity; they are not a liability, but a sign of cultural richness, and can, if harnessed and embraced, provide the foundations for the emergence of a vibrant and differentiated democracy.
The author is Postdoctoral Fellow, St Antony’s College, Oxford