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Separatism and Regional Differences in Ukraine: One and the Same?

Nicholas Griffin began a Wales DTC scholarship in 2012. Over the past few months, the topic of his PhD has become inextricably linked with the international news story that has been dominating the headlines. Here, he gives us an insight into the regional differences in Ukraine and looks beyond the media coverage.


Over the past few weeks, images of pro-Russian protesters storming local government buildings in major eastern Ukrainian cities have shot onto television screens across the world. Both the western and Russian medias have been quick to offer a plethora of sensationalised stories on Ukraine’s irreconcilable civilisational split between the “pro-Russian east” and “pro-European Union west”. But how much of this is actually true? The truth as I will begin to explain, is far more complicated than this simplistic account, and despite the ongoing violence in the east and south, separatism is very much the goal of only a minority.

It is first important to note that threats of secession and calls for federalisation are not new in Ukraine. In all three of Ukraine’s major critical junctures; independence, the Orange Revolution, and the current revolution, secession and calls for federalisation have been used as a political tool by south/eastern elites. Once in power, these elites have tended to centralise further as they realised that the quickest way to becoming rich was use their access to central funds to plunder state accounts. The fact that these calls have not been successful is in large part due to the lack of support from eastern and southern Ukrainians for the federalisation or breakup of their country. That Ukraine has regional differences is undeniable, though their effect on support for separatism or federalisation is extremely questionable.

The primary dividing line in the ‘two Ukraines’ narrative is the status of the Russian language. It is true that this has to some extent been a bone of contention in the east and south. According to a poll conducted by RATING in 2012, support for Russian as a second official state-language was largest in the Donbas (75%), south (72%) and east (53%), whereas 70% of northern-central Ukraine, and 90% of western Ukraine were not in favour. These figures seem to point to stark polarisation, but although increasing the status of the Russian language is a popular emotive issue, the vast majority of Russian-speaking Ukrainians do not believe that forced Ukrainianisation or suppression of the Russian language are primary matters of concern. In reality, the majority of Ukrainians are bilingual and code-switching is extremely common. Indeed, the language issue pales into insignificance when compared to fears about the country’s economic recovery.

Rather than Ukrainian, it is still the Russian language that dominates the media in Ukraine. A 2012 study by Prostir Svobody found that on average nationwide, only 3.4% of songs on the radio are in Ukrainian, whereas 60% are in Russian; more than 60% of newspapers, 83% of journals and 87% of books on sale in are in Russian, while only 28% of TV programmes are in Ukrainian. It is in fact the Ukrainian language that is still at a disadvantage. Nevertheless, the recent attempt by the interim government to repeal the law on regional languages, though vetoed, has caused genuine anger, not only in Russian-speaking areas, but across the whole of Ukraine. Indeed, the resulting reaction may serve to strengthen the solidarity between eastern and western regions.

Regional differences within states are entirely normal. Though it is true that ethnic-Ukrainians in eastern and southern regions primarily speak Russian, the vast majority do not dispute Ukrainian statehood and overwhelmingly identify as Ukrainians. Their Ukrainian identity is therefore not dependent on the Ukrainian language. The Crimean secession is arguably a different case as Crimea was the only region of Ukraine with an ethnic-Russian majority, even if the result of the referendum was dubious.

This is not to say that linguistic and cultural differences do not affect political views. Due to their close proximity to Russia, cross-border family ties are more common in eastern and southern regions. It is therefore entirely understandable that these Ukrainians favour closer ties with Russia than with the EU. Nevertheless, this does not mean that Ukrainians in these regions favour federalisation or separatism.

The situation is further complicated by differences within the regions themselves. Historically the rural-urban divide within regions has been greater than that between different regions. Traditionally the villages spoke Ukrainian, whereas the cities spoke Russian. This process is still being reversed in Kyiv and remains the case in many areas of eastern and southern Ukraine today. The characterisation of Ukraine’s linguistic differences between east and west are therefore more nuanced than they first seem. 

The generational divide in the east and south is the biggest contemporary political cleavage. The younger generation raised in an independent Ukraine strongly defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Life in an independent Ukraine is all they know. It is thus mainly the older generations that support an exclusively pro-Russian foreign policy or unification of the two states based on shared Russian-Ukrainian culture and Soviet nostalgia. This view carries less weight amongst the younger generations with many seeing the EU as a vector for Ukraine’s social and economic modernisation, especially those in higher education.

The fact that many in the east and south have a different vision for Ukraine does not make them seek to secede their regions to Russia or federalise their country. A recent poll conducted by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Fund in March 2014 found that support for the separation of their region and joining another state was as low as 2% in the western-central regions and highest in the Donbas at 24%. Only 8% of the rest of the east supported separatism and 7% in the south. Interestingly, only 13% of people under 30 in the Donbas support separatism. According to a survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, across Ukraine only 14% support federalisation, the highest in the east at 26%. Even in the Donetsk region, only 15% support federalisation, whereas 50% support continuing the existing unitary state model. In fact in the Donetsk region alone, only 18% support joining their region to Russia.

The current anti-terrorist operation launched by the Ukrainian army to rid regional administrations of pro-Russian separatists in eastern and southern cities has broad support from across the country. Though there are of course locals in the Donbas that are active in the takeovers, there is growing evidence that a large number of the occupiers and coordinators are in fact Russian security agents. 

One expects that Russian provocations will increase in south/eastern Ukraine until the Ukrainian Presidential elections on May 25th. Putin realises that it will be difficult to continue painting the Ukrainian government and Maidan activists as fascists after the election. It would be extremely difficult to portray the clear favourite Petro Poroshenko as a rabid neo-Nazi, when Poroshenko is well known to Russians as the owner of the chocolate firm, Roshen. Likewise, it will be difficult for the Kremlin to sell the idea that far-right Ukrainian nationalism has considerable support when Right Sektor leader Dmytro Yarosh is only projected to win around 2% of the vote. Putin has therefore realised he has to act now. Provoking further crisis is key to keeping Ukraine unstable.

Instead of dividing Ukraine, evidence shows that Russian aggression has united Ukrainians and pushed regional differences aside. Current Russian actions are compelling greater numbers of eastern/southern Ukrainians, who did not approve of the revolution, to rally around the Ukrainian flag at a time of external threat. Support for European integration has risen by 10% to 52% over the past month. Support for the Russian-led Custom’s Union has fallen from 72% in February to 55% in March in the east, and from 56% to 32% in the south (Kyiv Institute of Sociology).

Despite the majority supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the current government needs to begin frequent dialogue with the disgruntled minority and assure them that the Russian language will not be under threat. The government must make a firm commitment to upholding the law on regional languages. Yatsenyuk’s recent pledge to grant regional and local authorities more power needs to be quickly acted upon. Whilst the separatists do not enjoy wide support in their regions, there are those who sympathise with them and too feel that they have been mislead by Kyiv. Decentralisation is therefore key in the long term stability of Ukraine and has long been overdue. I am confident, that if Ukraine survives from this current existential threat intact, Ukraine’s future will be bright. Numerous sociologists have predicted that cross-regional differences will decrease over the next couple of decades with the death of the older generations. European integration too will be a force for good in integrating different parts of Ukraine within a European context. In the short term, the Ukrainian government has to face the enormous task of rebuilding Ukraine’s economy. If Ukraine can sort out its current economic mess and begin to start attaining European standards of living through European integration in the long-term, separatist support will plummet further. Fiscal and territorial reforms are absolutely crucial and if these reforms are combined with a much-needed anti-corruption drive, Ukraine can start to build stronger institutions that will improve the capacity of the state and increase the long term contentment of its citizens.

Nicholas Griffin,