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Could partition solve Ukraine’s problems?

In the light of Ukraine’s election result, Ethan S. Burger offers a proposal for the creation of a new Ukrainian state. Partition would do more than better reflect the country’s national/ethnic composition, he suggests. It could also make the country economically viable, while enhancing European stability.

What of Ukraine's future now? The country's Central Election Commission has announced that the leader of the Party of the Regions Viktor Yanukovich has been elected president in the second round of voting.  Despite Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko's claims to the contrary, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has announced the elections to be fair. However, the election outcome will not be confirmed until Ukraine's Administrative Court concludes its examination of Ms. Yulia Tymoshenko claim that the Election Commission's official "results" are invalid.  The Court's determination should be issued prior to February 25th, when the new Ukrainian President is to be inaugurated.

The Ukrainian economy is in terrible shape. Loans and technical assistance from the European Union, international organizations and the United States have had a very limited economic impact on a country plagued by corruption. Much of the  Ukrainian population is suffering financially.

Ukrainian election results - map

The last two Ukrainian presidential elections suggest how strong a role national identity appears to play in determining voting behaviour. Last Sunday, as in 2004, Viktor Yanukovich received a majority of votes in Eastern Ukraine, where most of the population has a closer affinity to Russia than to Western Europe. 

Western Ukraine used to be referred to as "New Russia," in recognition of the fact that these lands were only added to the Russian Empire through conquest in the 17th and 18th centuries. With respect to political attitudes, the majority here seem to hold views which are closer to those of Poles than Russians. Still, the Russian/Ukrainian linguistic/national distribution in the country is not uniform.

The issue of  self-identity is complex. But it is no accident that Mr. Yanukovich has more appeal to Ukrainian citizens of Russian national origin than does Ms. Timoshenko, the catalyst behind the so-called Orange Revolution, which has disappointed popular expectations. 

Collective nouns and generalizations can be misleading.  It is indisputable that Ukraine has a complex ethnology. No less than 17% of Ukraine's population are of Russian national origin and are primarily Russian-speaking. A fair segment of the population is either bilingual, or ethnically mixed (usually with one parent who considers themselves "Russian" and the other "Ukrainian"). These people tend not to see the choice of language as a political issue so much as a means of communication. 

In Western Ukraine, the majority are Ukrainian speaking. While they may understand Russian and speak it when necessary , they tend to see the preservation of Ukrainian culture, history and language as a priority. In addition, Ukraine has other nationalities such as Crimean Tatars, Greeks and others.

Still, it would be a mistake to assume that nationality was a decisive factor in the recent electoral outcome. Ms. Timoshenko was viewed negatively by many of the country's population -- including Mr. Viktor Yushchenko, the country's ineffective president, who finished fourth in the first round of voting and cast his vote in the second round for "none of the above".

Mr. Yushchenko hoped that closer ties to the West would produce a vibrant Ukrainian economy. He was wrong. For a start, Ukraine is substantially dependent on Russia for its energy. Yushchenko was also unable significantly to reduce government corruption. Russia did not hide its hostility to his remaining in office. But in the recent election, unlike 2004, the Russian leadership did not blatantly express its preference for Mr. Yanukovich. Instead it made it clear that Ms. Timoshenko and Mr. Yanukovich were both individuals with whom Moscow could work. This reduced Ms.Timoshenko's ability to play the nationalist card in the second round of voting. Indeed, the fact that a share of the Ukrainian electorate considered her to be ethically-challenged hurt her as a candidate.

So what of Ukraine's future?  Clearly, the election result must be viewed
as a foreign policy success for the Kremlin.  It looks as if Russia will have a satellite on its southern frontier -- it is doubtful whether either the Russian leadership or Mr. Yanukovich would risk Russian absorption of Ukraine.

The argument for partition

On the other hand, Ukrainians who are apprehensive over the country's future might consider division of the country.  This would be difficult to
accomplish, and it might provoke a good deal of instability. It would be particularly hard to decide exactly where precisely to partition the country. But the alternatives might be worse.

On the positive side, for those Ukrainians who regard the prospect of renewed subordination to Moscow with repugnance,  it would provide an opportunity to create a new state more consistent with their desires. The Russian government might even favour the idea. It could be accomplished through a referendum overseen by the OSCE.

International borders are often arbitrary and, over time, never permanent.  While they may reflect the topography of the land, more often than not they are a product of political whim or of military force. Most countries have regional differences within their borders. But borders have real consequences for history, for language, nationality, politics and religion. This may be the reason why Ukrainian law prohibits dual citizenship -- to prevent ethnic Russians from undermining Ukrainian independence and effecting reunification with Russia.

It has been approximately 18 years since the Soviet Union's break-up
and the re-emergence of the Ukrainian state.  Despite the claims of many official
statements, polls and sociological surveys, Ukraine has not completely solved its nationality problem. The present situation has certain parallels with Yugoslavia during the 1970-80s. Then, to the chagrin of the federal government, more people thought of themselves as Bosniaks, Croats, Montenegrins, Serbs and Slovenes, than Yugoslavs. While the preservation of Yugoslavia proved untenable, the failure to reach a political solution led to incomprehensible death and destruction.

Nor is successful partition without precedent in recent history. In 1993, Czechoslovakia split peaceably into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Both countries now pursue their separate courses, while moving in the same general direction politically. The Czech Republic has a small Slovak minority, while Slovakia has a small Hungarian minority. All three, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, are members of both the EU and NATO.

Last, but by no means least, it might prove possible for the West to prop up a smaller Ukraine whose government were committed to the goal of Western development.

Ethan S. Burger has been following events in the Soviet Union and its successor states for over 20 years. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.


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