Power and money in Ukraine

Maidan Bandura.jpg

Protest in Ukraine initially seemed to reveal a country sharply divided into the pro-European west and pro-Russian east. But there are signs that shared issues of civil rights and democracy are gaining ground on traditional differences.

Oleksander Andreyev
12 February 2014

Certainly, western Ukraine is keener on European and North Atlantic integration, whilst there is more anti-NATO feeling and support for the Russian-led Customs Union in the east. And the early Euromaidan protests, focused as they were on the EU association agreement, gained support predominantly from the Ukrainophone western regions and Kyiv in the centre, and opposition political parties that derive their support largely from these regions. So Ukrainian has been the main language of the Euromaidan – but with qualifications.

Certainly, western Ukraine is keener on European and North Atlantic integration, whilst there is more anti-NATO feeling and support for the Russian-led Customs Union in the east. And the early Euromaidan protests, focused as they were on the EU association agreement, gained support predominantly from the Ukrainophone western regions and Kyiv in the centre, and opposition political parties that derive their support largely from these regions. So Ukrainian has been the main language of the Euromaidan – but with qualifications. A British Academy funded survey found that although 82% of the protestors communicated in Ukrainian on the Maidan, only 67% used Ukrainian at work and 68% at home.

According to a recent poll, 80% of those polled in the west supported the Euromaidan protests, as opposed to only 30% in the east and 20% in the south.

On the opposite side, the ruling party, the Party of Regions (PoR), originated in Donetsk in the east, and has its heartland in the predominantly Russian-speaking east and south. Accordingly, at the outset of the protests, the government was quick to set up a pro-government support protest, the ‘Anti-Maidan’, composed mainly of protestors from these regions. Government officials appeared frequently on the stage of the Anti-Maidan, portraying the Euromaidan as a right wing nationalist movement interested in war. A poll in late December by Kyiv’s Democratic Initiatives Foundation and Razumkov Centre provided further evidence of the difference in support for the protests in east and west: 80% of those polled in the west supported the Euromaidan protests, as opposed to only 30% in the east and 20% in the south.

The spread of protest: titushki, ultras and oligarchs

The recent spread of the protests to the east is a sign that what started as a confrontation over Europe is turning into something that is also about democracy. A domino effect running eastwards was sparked by fatalities during confrontations between protestors and riot police on 19 January, after several laws had been passed three days earlier curtailing freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the freedom of assembly and demonstration in Ukraine. The seizure by protesters of many Regional State Administrations (RSAs) in the centre and west was followed by attempts to take over RSAs in Zaporizhzhya and Dnipropetrovsk in the east, resulting in confrontation with the police and numerous casualties. Mass protests have also taken place in other strong PoR areas such as Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson and Mykolaiv.

'Anti-Maidan' protest in December in Kyiv. Protesters carry Orthodox icons, Russian nationalist banners and signs claiming 'The revolution is of diabolical provenance!' Photo CC Pohorynsky.

So far, the PoR-controlled authorities in these regions have maintained their power by intensifying the police presence and mobilising so-called titushki - so-called ‘voluntary’ vigilante groups, mainly sportsmen and martial arts experts, who in the name of upholding public order have effectively been given a green light to suppress anti-government protest movements. There has even been an attempt to legalise the titushki as a quasi-political party, the ‘All-Ukrainian Front’, launched in Kharkiv on 1 February 2014. This new organisation, largely composed of criminal gangs, fight clubs and biker clubs such as ‘Night Wolves’ (Putin’s favourite biker gang) is backed by the ruling party and local police, who provide them with legal ‘protection’.

Another recent development suggesting a widening of the protest movement was Ultras (hardcore fans) from major football clubs across Ukraine speaking out in support of the protestors. These groups are usually best known for beating up their rivals’ supporters, but Ultras from clubs such as ‘Dynamo-Kyiv’, ‘Shakhtar-Donetsk, ‘Metalist-Kharkiv, ‘Chornomorets-Odesa’, ‘Krystal-Kherson’ and ‘Tavriya-Simferopol’, all owned by oligarchs close to the PoR, put their differences aside and declared that they would defend protestors against titushki and the police. This is significant because football clubs in Ukraine are often used by politicians to sway the opinions of the electorate, but in this case the Ultras emphasised that they were not acting in support of any political leader; rather, their concern was with defending the basic rights of peaceful citizens. However, they have since faced aggressive police harassment, threats and arrests, which have restricted their potential for further support.


Russian language anti-Yanukovych graffiti in the PoR stronghold of Kharkiv reads 'Ukraine has risen. Yanukovych will go to prison.' Photo CC VeArtemis 

‘Ultras’, football fans best known for beating up their rivals’ supporters, buried their differences and declared that they would defend protesters against titushki thugs and the police.

What about the key oligarchic groups linked with the PoR? They could have been expected to be more explicit by now in their support for the government, given that they emerged in, and have historically represented the interests of, the east and south. Yet, despite President Yanukovych sealing a ‘good’ deal with Russia in December, these oligarchs have continued hedging their bets. Indeed, Mykola Azarov’s resignation as Prime Minister and the swift repeal of the draconian anti-protest laws in late January are reported to have been influenced by a discussion between the President and Rinat Akhmetov, Dmytro Firtash and representatives of other influential oligarchic groups within the PoR. Moreover, an attempt by a pro-Russian wing of the PoR to push for a state of emergency has so far failed, largely thanks to intervention by Akhmetov and Serhiy Tihipko. 

The historical background

In sum, the portrayal of the protests as a manifestation of tensions between east and west now appears more blurred than during the early stages of the Euromaidan. A look at how this ‘division’ has played out since independence can shed light on this perplexing shift. What is the basis for a history of tension between the Russophone east and the Ukrainophone west? How rigid is this divide? And how has this influenced recent events? 

To begin with, there is no straightforward answer to the question of what it means to be Ukrainian. Ukraine as an independent state is very young, existing in its current form only since the breakup of the USSR in 1991. The Habsburg, Ottoman, Russian and Soviet empires, which historically ruled over different parts of modern Ukraine, have left the country with a legacy of distinctive regional characteristics. Former Habsburg regions in the west of the country were never part of the Russian Empire, and were incorporated into the Soviet Union only after the Second World War. These regions, such as Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil, are ethnically Ukrainian, with a distinctive Ukrainian cultural, religious and linguistic identity. In contrast, a large part of the east came under Russian rule centuries ago and was incorporated into the Soviet Union from the outset. Despite mixed ethnic backgrounds, Russian remains the main language here and people identify more closely with their neighbour to the east. Alongside variations in identity, east and west differ socio-economically: the west is more agricultural, whilst the east is regarded as the industrial hub of Ukraine, with a relatively higher per capita GDP.

There is no straightforward answer to the question of what it means to be Ukrainian.

Past election results have also confirmed this regional division, in particular the presidential elections of 1994, 2004 and to a lesser extent 2010. The west leans towards Ukrainian nationalist parties and the east tends to support parties that advocate closer links with Russia. The issue of separatism is not new either. Even in the early 1990s there was a separatist movement in the Crimea and calls for autonomy in the Donbas, both regions seeking closer links with Russia. A more recent example was the failed attempt in late 2004 by elites from the south and east to break away from Kyiv and establish the South-Eastern Autonomous Ukrainian Republic - in effect, a challenge to the legitimacy of then President Viktor Yushchenko, who was portrayed as a staunch Ukrainian nationalist.

This picture does lend support to the notion of an east-west divide. However, there is reason to question how rigid this divide really has been since independence. At times the country has presented a united front. For example, during a referendum on national independence in 1991, Ukraine returned an overwhelming ‘Yes’ across the country, even in the Crimea, the most Russified part of Ukraine. Many western and central regions’ voting patterns have also fluctuated from one election to the next, indicating that the divide between east and west is not as rigid as is sometimes suggested. The Kyiv, Chernivtsi and Vinnitsya regions, for instance, voted nationalist in the 1994 presidential elections; swayed to the Communist party in the 1998 parliamentary elections; and the first two returned to the pro-nationalist camp in the 1999 presidential elections. Indeed the only areas to have usually voted together and been consistently pro-nationalist are the three western regions of Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil.

Power and money mean more than geography

Although regional ethno-linguistic and cultural characteristics are undoubtedly important, the key point is that election results are determined more by political and financial expediency than by the east-west question. A good example is the 1999 presidential election. Leonid Kuchma won the 1994 presidential election on a pro-Russian platform, securing most of his votes in the east and south. Five years later he won again, but this time on the basis of votes both in key industrial regions of the east and in western regions. His rival was the Communist Party leader, Petro Symonenko, whose party had a strong presence in the east and south, so Kuchma adopted a more pro-nationalist platform to secure votes in the west.


Though Ukraine is often viewed as having a 'Russophone East' and 'Ukrainophone West', in much of the country, a plurality report speaking 'surzhyk', a non standard mix of the two languages. Image via Kyiv National Linguistic University. Click to enlarge. 

Similarly, Yulia Tymoshenko, now a staunch representative of the west and centre, began her political career in her home town of Dnipropetrovsk in the east. Her shift can be traced to a fall out in the late 1990s with Kuchma, who by that time had established close links with the eastern Donetsk oligarchic clan. This led her to ally herself with the anti-Kuchma forces, predominantly representing the west and centre of Ukraine. 

‘Puppet master’ Kuchma held the strings, which effectively consolidated strong regional boundaries.

Oligarchic ‘clans’ emerged and became dominant political players under Kuchma’s presidency from 1994-2005. The most powerful regional clans originated in Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk - Kuchma’s home town - in the industrial east, and became bitter rivals in the mid-1990s. Clans also emerged in Kyiv and other large cities, but could not compete with the dominance of the eastern powerhouses. These regional clans gradually replaced the Communists, still prominent before 2002, taking control over state-run enterprises, local businesses, the media, police and regional governments. This allowed them not only to accumulate significant wealth, but also to establish complete control over election outcomes in their regions. This period also witnessed the development of patron-client relationships, with Kuchma as ‘patron’ at the top of the pyramid, adeptly manipulating regional interests, and the clans as essentially ‘clients’ whose bargaining power derived from influence in their respective regions and beyond. As long as votes were delivered, the President provided legal protection and rewards such as governmental appointments, favours in the privatisation process, cheap credit and tax exemptions. In this configuration, the oligarchic clans were region-based and focused on the protection of their regional interests against rival local clans. But ‘puppet master’ Kuchma held the strings, controlling the clans’ expansive ambitions - which effectively consolidated strong regional boundaries.   

However, the Orange Revolution of 2004-05 reshaped the pattern. This period produced a new, pro-western, president, along with revised constitutional rules shifting the balance of power from president to parliament. In effect, this broke the puppet strings and established a freer playing field for the oligarchs. Previously, the boundaries of regional oligarchic groups had been drawn along the pro/anti-Kuchma axis, which largely corresponded to the traditional east-west divide. However, as the Orange Revolution unfolded, a re-configuration of national and subnational regional elites blurred these lines. Oligarchs’ allegiances became more fluid, and they began to join opposing political groups. For example, the once powerful Donetsk based Industrial Union of Donbas clan originally came under Kuchma’s patronage and supported the PoR, also Donetsk-based. Yet after the 2004 presidential elections it switched sides to support Yushchenko.

Similarly, the Privat group, another eastern oligarchic powerhouse from Dnipropetrovsk, owed its rise to prominence to Kuchma, but shifted its support to the ‘Orange’ allies after 2004. Since Yanukovych’s win in the 2010 presidential elections, however, the pre-2004 constitutional system has been restored, with power re-centralised on the president. And in contrast to Kuchma’s ‘puppet master’ system, which allowed some de facto regional political autonomy, Yanukovych’s style is more aggressive. Oligarchs have had little choice but to cooperate with the PoR or face the consequences of political or business ruin. 

Public disillusionment

Disappointingly, what did become clear following the Orange Revolution was that corruption and cronyism would continue unabated, whoever was at the helm. The ‘rules of the game’ had changed very little under the ‘Orange’ allies. This left the electorate on both sides of the supposed east-west divide disillusioned and dissatisfied, which affected voting behaviour during subsequent parliamentary and presidential elections. Notably, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko’s pro-western parties, both ‘Orange’ allies, lost votes in large numbers in their traditional strongholds in the west and centre. And at the same time the pro-Yanukovych PoR became less popular, even in its home region of Donetsk. In some regions, support for the party fell by almost 20 percentage points. 


Despite her 'Orange' allegiances and traditional Ukrainian hairstyle, Tymoshenko cut her political teeth in the eastern town of Dnipropetrovsk. Photo CC Minny Robot.

Voters in both east and west also expressed their growing dissatisfaction with parties and candidates across the board by increasingly selecting the ‘vote against all’ option on the ballot paper (which rose from 2.7% of the vote in the 2007 parliamentary elections to 4.4% in the 2010 presidential elections). Polls estimated that it might have reached around 17% in the 2012 parliamentary elections, had the government not removed this option from ballot papers. In sum, this analysis suggests growing dissatisfaction with all the political options currently available. The post-Orange period can in effect be characterised as a passive revolution, in which the electorate in both east and west have little expectation from, or trust in, their leaders. And this has led to a shift in tensions, from east versus west to people versus political elites. 

Since Yanukovych became president, corruption, coercion and elites’ self-interest have intensified at all levels.

If one looks at recent events in light of this analysis, the reasons for the protests’ spread eastwards become clearer. As they reached boiling point and the nature of the protestors’ grievances and demands swelled, the broader concerns regarding endemic corruption, elites’ conspicuous self-interest and general disregard towards the public began to cut across any regional divide. Since Yanukovych became president in 2010, corruption, coercion and elites’ self-interest have intensified nationally and at all levels. Yet the lack of real change following the Orange Revolution’, when the ‘Orange’ allies - supposedly representing the anti-corruption agenda and the rule of law - came into power, led to apathy in the ‘western camp’ too. Perhaps there is little surprise, then, that the opposition leaders have also failed to strike a chord with protestors this time. Along with the opposition leaders’ inability to establish a single effective leader for the protest movement, this has raised the important question of 'who is leading whom?' With the negotiations between Yanukovych and the opposition leaders on-going, and the presidential elections due at the latest by 2015, it is still difficult to predict the outcome. Will it be driven by the east-west issue or people against the authorities, or will Ukraine once again fall back to the status quo?

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