Ukraine's Culture War

A land pulled east and west.

Anyone watching Ukraine over the past few months must surely have been struck by the odd behavior of its political leaders. Both sides, and this goes for the government as well as the opposition, seem quite willing to undermine the authority of the state, at times with almost reckless abandon.

One thinks of how cavalierly the government discarded the EU accession agreement and then, just as unexpectedly, signed an economic deal with Russia. It was this breathtaking contempt for public opinion, which had been led to believe one thing and was then presented with quite another, that inspired the first rallies in Kiev’s Independence Square on November 21, 2013.

Yet, by the end of December the issue of EU accession was already all but irrelevant. The rallying cry of the opposition was now “national revolution,” spearheaded by radical nationalists who had always opposed European integration because it would dilute their idea of nationhood and force Ukraine into what they call “the global concentration camp.”

And even when, at the end of January 2014, all the political opposition's demands were realized, and it was offered the opportunity to form a new government, rather than rebuild the political institutions he was poised to inherit, would-be prime minister Arseny Yatseniuk dismissed the president’s offer with the following Tweet: “No deal @ua_yanukovych, we're finishing what we started. The people decide our leaders, not you.”

Such behavior would be political suicide in the West, but in the context of Ukrainian political culture, it actually makes sense. That is because the key actors in Ukrainian politics are not invested in the political system. It is merely a stage upon which to play out the deeper conflict in Ukraine, which is cultural. Whatever the crisis of the day happens to be—language policy, European or Eurasian association, NATO membership, or the latest governmental appointment or presidential election—it is merely a convenient rallying point around which two fundamentally divergent visions of Ukrainian cultural identity and history periodically coalesce to continue, in proxy fashion, the war they've been fighting since the nineteenth century.

One vision of Ukrainian identity predominates in the western part of the country, the regions historically known as Volyn, Galicia, and Podolya. These regions share a long and tumultuous relationship with Poland, under whose impact a distinct religious and cultural identity has been forged. One aspect of this legacy is that today these regions seek to establish a cultural identity for Ukraine that not only sees itself as distinct from Russia, but is openly hostile to it.

A completely different version of Ukrainian identity predominates in the Eastern and Southern parts of the country, historically known as Slobozhanshchina, Donbas, and Novorossiya. People there are quite comfortable with a Ukrainian cultural identity that retains warm and friendly ties with Russia.

For both sides this singular focus on Russia and Russian culture has become a stumbling block to civic cooperation and national unity. And the language issue, while not the sole difference (religion and historical memories play an important role as well), serves as lightning rod for their respective fears.

Ukrainians in the West fear for their cultural identity if their version of Ukrainian culture is not dominant, and they have reason for concern. The population in the core Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine outnumbers the population in the core Ukrainian-speaking regions by almost two to one. Of the country’s ten largest cities, only one, Lviv, is predominantly Ukrainian-speaking. Russian is, by a wide margin, the language of choice in education, commerce, and entertainment. A 2012 study found that over 60% of newspapers, 83% of journals and 87% of books, and 72% of television programs in Ukraine are still in Russian. Even more troubling, from the western Ukrainian perspective, is that the internet has only reinforced this cultural dominance. Russian is by far the preferred language on web sites in Ukraine (80.1%), followed by English (10.1%), then Ukrainian (9.5%), while the Russian version of Wikipedia remains five times more popular in Ukraine than the Ukrainian one.

Government efforts to promote the Ukrainian language, however, often come with Russophobic historical and political baggage that stokes fears in the East and the South. This led to the backlash against the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the rise of Victor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, which ran on the platform that every Ukrainian should have the right to use his or her “mother tongue.” Since then each side has had more reason to undermine than to support the the political system, reasoning that an ineffective government, while not optimal, is at least limited in the amount of harm it can do to cultural values.

Of course, cultural identity is not the only thing driving popular discontent. The tacit support of middle class Kievans, fed up with nepotism and corruption, has clearly been a key factor in the longevity of the protests in Kiev. But this does not diminish the role that cultural identity plays as a filter through which discontent is distilled. The final result is a focused rage that can be channeled by the antidemocratic, nationalist forces that, albeit small in number, now effectively control the streets.

Such forces are now acting under the banner of “The Right Sector.” Its leaders condemn socialism, liberal democracy, atheism, and cosmopolitanism for fostering a “slave mentality.” They prefer a Conciliar Sovereign Ukrainian Nation run not by political parties, but by a National Order committed to the realization of “the Ukrainian national idea.” In the current standoff they demand “a national revolution” and threaten a “prolonged guerrilla warfare” if they don’t get it.

How then should the West navigate this minefield of political and cultural passions? For now it seems to be taking the side of the political opposition or, more precisely, its most moderate representative, Vitaly Klitschko. The hope seems to be that he can convince moderate street protesters not to support the nationalists in their efforts to topple the parliamentary system, even though he has been unsuccessful at this in the past.

The most generous interpretation of Western aims is that, by clearly backing one side in this conflict, it hopes to undermine the radicals and give Klitschko the political momentum he needs to forge a government of national unity. Once such a government is in place, the EU and United States have hinted that a “new Marshall Plan” might be made available for Ukraine.

The problem with this approach is that the message of national unity, as the outcome the West would like to see, is not having much impact on the political opposition. They still see the government as their main enemy, rather than as a partner they need to reign in the nationalists and restore law and order. Moreover, Klitschko is on record as saying that “under no circumstances” will he consider working alongside the current president. Along with the other leaders of the parliamentary political opposition, he continues to regard the nationalists as an undesirable, but necessary, instrument for gaining political power.

Rather than trying to pick a “winner” out of the murky waters of Ukrainian politics, a better strategy would be to support the conciliation process itself, and to make any financial and political support contingent on that process being underway.

Under normal circumstances, parliament itself would be the body to initiate such a process, guided by the constitution. But since the work of parliament is often sabotaged by the opposition, which also questions the legitimacy of the current constitution, it might be appropriate to consider holding an extraordinary constitutional convention to work out a new public compact, and establish a timetable for its implementation. Something akin to a zemsky sobor (Council of the Whole Land), a familiar concept in both Ukrainian and Russian history. The delegates would have to be respected public figures, representative of every region of the country, every walk of life and confession, delegated by their respective communities.

Such a conciliation process could be further helped by unconditional, a priori international support for whatever it agrees to. This point is vital to convince average Ukrainians that the decisions resulting from such a gathering are indeed the independent choice of the entire Ukrainian people, and not just the victory of one faction, inevitably “backed by outside forces,” over another. Only support offered jointly by the E.U. and Russia (or CIS) cannot be so easily dismissed, and it is noteworthy that such an approach, also including the United States, was recently suggested by the board of the influential Yalta European Strategy.

But even after the current political crisis is resolved, the deep seated fears undermining the quest for a common Ukrainian identity will linger. They too must be addressed. Until the fear that Western Ukrainians have of losing their language and culture subsides, many people there will regard tolerance of Russian cultural influence not as a compromise, but as surrender. By the same token, Western Ukrainians need to recognize that attempts to eradicate Russian cultural influence stoke similar fears in the East and South. A solution that has worked well for countries as diverse as Spain, Belgium, and Canada, is to embrace the concept of multiple cultural identities coexisting within one national identity.

In practical terms this would mean giving up on twenty years of imposing the use of Ukrainian in schools and in the media, which contributes directly to the political gridlock by translating the defense of “our culture” in the East and South into political support for any politician, no matter how unsavory, who promises the people that they will be allowed to use the language of their choice.

The next logical step would be to move bilingualism from the regional level, where it only serves to foster localism, to the national level, where it can actually promote national unity. Mandating equality for both languages at the national level would affirm the rights of Eastern and Southern Ukrainians to their cultural identity, while retaining strong regional language laws would allow Western Ukrainians to promote their own culture and language.

A good model for Ukraine to ponder is Canada, where regional language laws are applied asymmetrically—most provinces are officially English speaking but provide some services in French, the province of Quebec is officially French speaking, but provides some services in English, and just two provinces are officially bilingual. Nevertheless, official bilingualism at the national level affords people a guarantee of equality of access and recognition to key federal services wherever they live, and is widely credited for having preserved national unity.

None of these proposals will instantly resolve the current political crisis. It is important to realize, however, that there are no institutional or political quick fixes to a problem that is, at its heart, cultural. Until the issue of national identity is resolved in a manner acceptable to both major Ukrainian cultural identities, similar political crises are bound to recur.

Due to historical circumstances, modern Ukraine is neither fully East nor fully West. Potentially, however, it contains the best of both. At this critical juncture it can either let the cultural divide between Europe and Russia go right through its heart, or, it can help bring an end to this division by healing its own cultural wounds.

Nicolai N. Petro, professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island, is currently a Fulbright Research Scholar in Ukraine. These remarks were prepared for a forum in Kiev sponsored by the American Institute in Ukraine. The views expressed do not reflect the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Amakuha. CC BY-SA 2.0.