Ukraine's Government Is Failing to Unite Ukrainians

President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Senate of Poland

The current course of denigrating those deemed insufficiently Ukrainian will only lead to a fracturing of the country.

As proof, they point out that these latest sanctions are just the tip of the iceberg. There are at least four legislative initiatives now under consideration in the Ukrainian parliament to amend the current language law, which is considered too liberal because it permits regions where at least 10 percent speak a second language to adopt that language for official use. After it was adopted in 2012, nearly half of Ukraine’s regions promptly adopted Russian. Each new proposal, to varying degrees, now seeks to restrict the public use of Russian.

In the same vein, the latest quotas mandating that 75 percent of national prime-time television must be in Ukrainian are clearly not aimed at reducing the presence of the Russian news media in Ukraine—that was banned in early 2014. Rather, they are aimed at stifling the public voice of Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

In a country where, as recently as 2012, over 60 percent of newspapers, 83 percent of journals, 87 percent of books and 72 percent of television programs were in Russian, and where over 60 percent say they speak Russian at home and with their friends, the government is sending a clear message of exclusion rather than inclusion. As the speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, Andriy Parubiy, stated before the vote: “Speech is a weapon, and weapons are not handed over to the enemy.”

On the positive side, at the insistence of Ukrainian security forces, the parliament took a step back from plunging the country into outright religious warfare by postponing a vote on a law that would have reinstated the Soviet-era practice of having the state supervise the appointment of all senior clerics in the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church. It is being targeted by the government because it refuses to disavow its fraternal ties with the Russian Orthodox Church and refers to the current conflict in eastern Ukraine as a “civil war.”

Why would the government, which is in the midst of a profound economic and political crisis (it has had no formal parliamentary majority for more than a year), aggravate domestic tensions in this way? Because stirring up hatred of Russia has short-term political benefits.

First, it creates a reservoir of international support and funding for Ukraine. Second, it shifts domestic attention away from unpopular economic reforms. It also allows Poroshenko—whose popular support has fallen to critical levels—to run as a wartime president. Finally, questioning the loyalty of those who live in the East and South (not to mention Donbass and Crimea, which are excluded entirely from the political discourse) preserves the dominance of the nationalist agenda, which is supported mostly in western Ukraine. And even though, back in 2015, Poroshenko remarked that these regions are “the basis of Ukrainian statehood,” in fact this truncated Ukrainian identity, built solely around the history, religion and culture of the westernmost regions of Ukraine, has never sufficed as a basis for national unity.

The current course of denigrating those deemed insufficiently Ukrainian will only lead to a fracturing of the country along ethno-religious lines. This can still be prevented—if the government embraces an inclusive civic culture that respects Ukraine’s bicultural identity.

Whether or not it chooses to do so will determine whether the 2014 Maidan will be remembered as the beginning of a new era of national unity, or the beginning of Ukraine’s disintegration.

Nicolai Petro is Silvia-Chandley Professor of Peace and Nonviolence at the University of Rhode Island. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Ukraine from 2013–14, and is the editor of Ukraine in Crisis (Routledge, 2017). He currently resides in Odessa. Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union. He contributes to a number of foreign-policy-focused media outlets and resides in Washington, DC.

Image: President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Senate of Poland