No Time to Wait: Why Reconciliation in Ukraine Must (And Can) Happen Now

"...because internal reconciliation is such a complex task, it need not wait until Ukraine is formally deemed a 'postconflict' society."

On a recent trip to Ukraine in May-June 2015, during the worst escalation of violence since the Minsk II agreement, I was glued to the TV, concerned about one thing: When would the fighting stop? Yet, at the same time, I had to wonder how any long-term reconciliation might work when the fighting actually did stop. Thus, while in Ukraine, I tried to get a sense of how people on both sides conceived of reconciliation, and its possibility.

My first encounter was a classic kitchen talk, over tea and pastries. As my brother, who currently lives in rebel-occupied territory, and my Kyiv friends argued over who had started the war and which side had killed more people, emotions flared, and it soon became clear that the two sides did not merely believe in different things—they operated with different facts. Finally, as she rose to leave, a Kyiv friend said, “The Donbas people brought this tragedy upon themselves and deserve their suffering.” Visibly hurt, my brother quietly surrendered the argument and offered to wrap some leftover pastry for her.

Little did I know at that time that it was going to be one of the more civilized conversations on my trip, as my next memorable exchange involved Ukraine’s regular army servicemen. I asked them to imagine that the Ukrainian army had defeated its enemy and quelled the separatist uprising. Could they see themselves working and living alongside people from Donbas when the war was over? After a long silence, two of them muttered that it would be really hard, as they could never trust people from Donbas again; a more vocal ukrop (slang for “Ukrainian patriot”) said that there could be no reconciliation with the Donbas “garbage. We have nothing in common with these beggars, loafers and crooks. We never have.”

Such kitchen talks, typically informal and seldom rigorous, are naturally vulnerable to bias and ad hominem attack; and the sentiment amongst Ukrainian soldiers is understandably hostile toward the separatist region. I expected to find more analytical and diplomatic conversation in professional settings. At a high-profile forum involving politicians and academics, I repeatedly heard variations of “we do not negotiate with terrorists”—the word “terrorists” being used to refer to all Donbas residents indiscriminately. In a less ceremonial setting, when I told one of my colleagues, a university professor from western Ukraine, that growing up in Donbas and speaking Russian made me no less Ukrainian than him, and that Ukraine needed to embrace her multiethnic and multilingual citizens, he quoted an old poem to suggest that, as in the past, only with “swords” could we “clean out the enemy”—the word “enemy” having suddenly appeared out of nowhere in the conversation.

These sentiments are consistent with the 2015 public-opinion poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), one of the most reputable private research companies in Ukraine. It showed that 92.6 percent of Ukrainians believe that the war does not merely usurp those involved in active military combat; the country as a whole is divided. Maybe it is too soon to start talking of reconciliation, then.

Indeed, only 40 percent of Ukrainians think that reconciliation is possible, but it is contingent on Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine’s affairs. In Donbas, only 17.5 percent believe in reconciliation, while in western Ukraine the respective number is 53.5 percent. However ready or unready Ukrainians are for reconciliation, the important condition of Russia’s withdrawal is not likely to be satisfied yet.

At the same time, despite obvious confrontation among Ukrainians in various parts of the country, they still relate to each other in fundamental ways and consider each other fellow citizens. Thus, only 12.7 percent of Ukrainians said, “we are too different to live in the same country” (among them 9.6 percent lost family members to war). Not surprisingly, the highest percentage of people who considered themselves “too different” was in Donetsk region (37.5 percent).

What these numbers suggest is that most Ukrainians do not disassociate themselves with their compatriots on the other side of the conflict, but they are still not ready for reconciliation.