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Opinion

Ukraine: Across the dividing lines

Cornered by persisting protests, the Ukrainian government tries to push the image of a divided nation.

Last updated: 16 Dec 2013 13:18
Mykola Riabchuk

Mykola Riabchuk is a political and cultural analyst in Kyiv. His last book "Glechschaltung. Authoritarian Consolidation in Ukraine, 2010-2012" was published in both Ukrainian and English.
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"The fight for the new Ukraine will not be easy since the regime is consolidated, resourceful, and extremely perfidious," writes the author [Getty Images]

After a couple of failed attempts to push out protesters from the centre of Kyiv, Ukrainian authorities changed their tactics. They declared the goodwill for roundtable talks with the opposition, released most of the detained protesters from custody, and fired four top officials arguably responsible for the bloody beating of students on November 30.

Neither of their "conciliatory" gestures, however, should be accepted at a face value. The opposition complains that a number of civic activists are still in prison, that the main government culprits - the prime minister and minister of interior - still retain their positions, and that the roundtable without a clear agenda and international mediators makes little sense.

At the same time, to uphold their legitimacy and demonstrate strength, the ruling party brought last weekend thousands of people from the provinces to the capital city for an alternative demonstration. They are now playing the "nation-is-divided" card, trying to demonstrate that they have a considerable number of supporters.

Dividing Ukraine

Numerous facts about the alternative demonstration dubbed "anti-Maidan" have appeared in local media revealing its fake nature. The majority of the participants were either hired for 300 hryvnia ($36) or forced to come, being fully dependent on the government's goodwill (teachers, librarians, and others state-employed personnel).

Thousands turn out for Ukraine opposition rally

In either case, the tendency of the regime to pretend to engage in national dialogue persists, raising serious doubts on its credibility in any negotiations. Whereas appeasing the opposition with some minor concessions may mitigate the international pressure and give more time for authorities to exhaust protesters, the anti-Maidan can be used against the protesters directly, with both soft and hard tactics.

The soft tactics are purely propagandistic - not only to demonstrate the alleged "popular support" for the regime and denounce the "radicals, extremists, and lazy-bones" at the Maidan, but also to intimidate the opponents and the international community with the prospect of Ukraine's split along regional lines.

The hard tactics are the extension to the soft ones: to use counter-rallies to provoke clashes with the neighbouring Maidan, and then to assume the role of a peacekeeper who prevents the alleged civil war and split of the country, resembling a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So far, the hard tactics look rather unlikely since the people brought to the counter-rally by money or force are not very eager to fight or even to stay at the site, and try to defect from the rally at the nearest opportunity. They may have little sympathy for the EU and for everything it symbolises, but they have even less sympathy for the regime and the personalised and predatory system it created during the past three years.

Commenting on this, James Sherr, a Chatham House analyst, aptly notes [Ua], "Ukraine might be a divided country, but on this point [the regime's predatory character], there is a national consensus.  And if the Euromaidan has few echoes in eastern and southern Ukraine, it is this consensus that explains the absence there of the counter-revolutionary impulse that existed in 2004 [during the Orange revolution]."

The notion of Ukraine as a deeply divided country has a broad currency in the international media and is often used by the Kremlin-led propaganda, either to imply the "artificial character" of the country (and of Ukrainian independence in general), or to justify the Russian interference in neighbour's internal affairs. This is done under the pretext of taking care of ill-defined "Russian-speaking population" or even more obscure "compatriots".

The widespread description of Ukraine as consisting of the "nationalist West and Russian-speaking East" is misleading not only because it simplifies a complex picture where neither the "West" is essentially "nationalist" (whatever it means) nor the "East" is utterly "Russian-speaking" (in actuality, all the citizens of Ukraine are bilingual, to various degrees). The cliche is misleading in a deeper sense, as it establishes a wrong dichotomy between the words that represent in fact incompatible descriptive categories. It implies that whoever is "Russophone" cannot be "nationalistic" by definition, whereas all the "nationalists" in Ukraine are presumably Ukrainophones, by the same token.

Evolving identities

The real dividing line in Ukraine is neither linguistic nor ethnic but ideological. It largely determines the type of identity - either Ukrainian Soviet (a.k.a. "East Slavonic") that correlates, but does not coincide with the proverbial "Russian-speaking", or Ukrainian anti-Soviet (a.k.a. anti-colonial) that, again, only loosely correlates with the proverbial "nationalism".

In other words, young Ukrainians of different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds think and speak about the EU in an increasingly similar way.

This means that however sharp the ideological split might be, it is mitigated by two additional factors. First, there is a huge middle group with mixed, undefined, or fluid identities that does not care much about ideological tenets. And secondly, even though there is some correlation between the language, ethnicity and identity type, the hybrid and cross-groups loyalties are quite widespread, making, thereby, ambiguity a characteristic feature of Ukrainian ideological setting.

Historically, Ukrainian anti-Soviet/anti-colonial identity has been always predominantly pro-Western. In October this year 53 percent of respondents in a nationwide survey [Ua] supported Ukraine's EU membership - roughly the same number as those who voted in 2004 for the "orange" presidential candidate and last year for the "orange" parties in the parliamentary elections.

The same survey reveal that 35 percent of respondents oppose Ukraine's European integration, and 12 percent remain undecided. The margin is noticeable, but if the data is broken down to the age groups, it looks even more staggering: The youngest respondents [Ua] (18-29 years old) are twice more supportive for the EU than the oldest (60+).

This also means that the younger the people, the less significant the correlation is between their language, ethnicity, and pro-European orientation. In other words, young Ukrainians of different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds think and speak about the EU in an increasingly similar way. And the mass anti-government protests overwhelming Kyiv's downtown for the fourth week in a row are just another proof of it. They were not staged by the politicians, as was the case back in 2004, but rather erupted spontaneously, from below, crossing over ethnic divides and political partisanship, and defending Ukraine's European choice primarily as a choice of values.

The fight for the new Ukraine will not be easy since the regime is consolidated, resourceful, and extremely perfidious. If nothing else, it may always rely on a brutal force and the Russian assistance as the last resort. Together they may delay Ukraine's drift westward but hardly derail it.

Mykola Riabchuk is a political and cultural analyst in Kyiv, his last book Glechschaltung. Authoritarian Consolidation in Ukraine, 2010-2012 was published in both Ukrainian and English.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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