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.