Why ethnopolitics doesn’t work in Ukraine

Petro Poroshenko’s electoral failure shows the limits of using ethnonationalism as a political strategy in Ukraine.

Ukraine''s President Poroshenko visits a firing ground to oversee tests of missile systems in Odessa
Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko gives two thumbs up as he visits a firing ground to oversee tests of Ukrainian missile systems near Odessa, Ukraine on April 5, 2019 [Mikhail Palinchak/Reuters]

The political divide between the Russian-speaking east and Ukrainian-speaking west is one of the most frequently used cliches about Ukraine

Following the Russian occupation of Crimea and military intervention in the east of the country, there was a widely shared perception that the Ukrainian political system has tilted towards the Ukrainian-speaking west. That was certainly the thinking behind President Petro Poroshenko‘s decision to emphasise nationalist politics in his re-election campaign and try to win over the votes of the Ukrainian-speaking (and supposedly more nationalistic) part of the population in the country’s centre and west. 

But a cursory look at the voting map of Ukraine after the first round of the presidential elections reveals that the incumbent’s calculations were wrong. Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky – seen as a Russian-speaking moderate who rejects ethnonationalism – dominated the west, centre and parts of the Russian-speaking east.

There are a number of reasons for the Ukrainian nation choosing overwhelmingly to vote for Zelensky – a major one being the Ukrainian political elite’s utter failure to deliver on their promises and the demands raised by the Maidan revolution over the past five years.

But another, equally important reason is Ukrainians’ seeming rejection of ethnopolitics and polarising “us vs them” rhetoric.

The failure of ethnonationalism as an electoral strategy

Even though after the Maidan Revolution in 2014, Poroshenko was elected on a moderate platform, ahead of the 2019 vote, he chose to run under the banner of divisive ethno-nationalism. His campaign slogan – Army, Language, Faith – was meant to whip up support in the presumably nationalist-leaning Ukrainian-speaking part of the population.

Poroshenko reasonably assumed that former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko would be his main rival, so the emphasis was made on winning over her core electorate in the country’s centre and west. The incumbent clearly did not see Zelensky as much of a factor.

There was also a more sinister reason for Poroshenko’s decision to play the nationalist card. Politicians all around the world have long used nationalism as a smokescreen to conceal corruption and authoritarian inclinations. As a Russian saying goes: When someone shouts about patriotism, be sure that something has been stolen somewhere.


Likewise, Poroshenko, being deeply unpopular and embroiled in a number of corruption scandals, saw nationalism as a convenient tool to cover up the many failures of his presidency.

He also hoped that escalating his anti-Russia rhetoric would appeal to the West. In Eastern Europe, nationalism spiced with Russophobia (or anti-Russian sentiment) has been the surest way to dupe Western backers into believing that the country in question is firmly on the “right” side of the geopolitical barricade. The best example is Moldova, where billions of Kremlin-linked dollars where laundered through the local banking system on the watch of an ostensibly pro-Western and vehemently anti-Russian government.

As an aspiring nationalist, Poroshenko made all the right moves. He pushed for radical education and language laws aimed at squeezing the Russian language out of the public sphere. He secured the recognition of a newly-unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church, thus undermining Moscow’s ecclesiastical influence in Ukraine.

He strove to prove himself as a potent wartime leader when he pushed through a month-long martial law in the wake of the Kerch Strait crisis, in which Russia attacked and seized three Ukrainian navy vessels. He introduced severe restrictions on Russian citizens visiting Ukraine. All of these measures were designed and presented as symbolic victories over Russia, which back in 2014 occupied Crimea and triggered the simmering conflict in the eastern region of Donbas.

When it comes to the armed conflict, Ukraine appears to be reasonably united around the cause of repelling Russian aggression, so Poroshenko’s political consultants felt it was safe to assume that anti-Russian rhetoric can only help rally more supporters.

But the outcome of the elections has clearly demonstrated the limitations of any effort to build a monolingual Ukrainian nation-state modelled on Ukraine’s western neighbours, Poland and Hungary.

Just like the Kremlin’s concept of the “Russian world”, which many chauvinists in Russia believe should include Ukraine, this ethno-nationalist project is way too radical in the way it strives to change the deep texture of Ukrainian society. This is why it has encountered a very similar backlash.

Ukraine cannot be a homogenous ethnic nation-state

It is hard to find two countries more intertwined, down to the family level, than Russia and Ukraine – perhaps Britain and Ireland can serve as the closest example. A poll conducted in 2011 showed that 49 percent of Ukrainians had relatives living in Russia.

Take the Ukrainian foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, for example, who was born and educated in Russia: His father-in-law is a Russian general awarded for seizing Crimea. President Poroshenko’s own daughter-in-law Yulia Poroshenko (nee Alikhanova) is also from Russia and her family to this day still lives there.

Similarly, many in the top Russian leadership hail from Ukraine. These include Russia’s third most important official, Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko, as well as the rabidly imperialist culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky. Three million Ukrainian nationals (roughly seven percent of the total population) currently live in Russia on a permanent basis. 

There is no real cultural frontier between Ukraine and Russia. The former blends into the latter – linguistically, religiously and in lifestyle terms – and as you move east, clear traces of Ukrainianness linger across the border hundreds of kilometres into Russian territory.

Although the war has certainly altered popular attitudes, a recent poll conducted by the independent Russian research centre “Levada” shows that 77 percent of Ukrainians and 82 percent of Russians think positively of each other as people.

The number of Ukrainians who feel positive about Russia as a country has risen to 57 percent from 30 percent at the height of the war in 2015. Almost half of Ukrainians (48 percent) are now supportive of open borders and visa-free travel between the two countries. Unsurprisingly, the attitudes towards Russian political leadership remain extremely negative.

Ukraine defies the simplistic and inherently racist dichotomy of the “civilised world vs Russia”, which debilitates post-Soviet discourse in the West and prevents this country from serving as a beacon of hope and role model for Russia itself.

Given its radicalism and close association with fascist ideology, Ukrainian nationalism has indeed been a godsend to the Kremlin, whose only goal in Ukraine is to show Russians what could happen to them if they rise up against the Russian authoritarian mafia state and embrace democracy.

Clearly inexperienced, not always honest (especially when it comes to his foreign assets) and with apparent oligarchic links, Zelensky may not be the answer to Ukraine’s political woes, but his electoral victory shows the right way to go.

It is futile to try building a united nation on the basis of a polarising ideology that strives to upend the organic texture of society. Ukraine can clearly be a successful and truly independent nation without embracing the ethno-nationalist value system that, at the end of the day, pushes it in the direction of Russia, not towards the liberal democracies of the West.

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