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The Ukrainian Fault-Line: Citizens versus Subjects

Mykola Rjabčuk / Ed. 22. 2. 2016

A few days ago, in a suburban train, I happened to listen to a fierce debate between two middle-age ladies. They talked, like most people around, about politics. One of them argued that Viktor Yushchenko should be a president since he's an honest person while his rival, Mr.Yanukovych, is «just a crook». Her opponent retorted that «all politicians are crooks» but Yanukovych is «ours» while Yushchenko is «American».

Neither discussion nor arguments were unusual for today’s Ukraine. The tense rivalry betweeen the two Viktors – former prime-minister Yushchenko and incumbent prime-minister Yanukovych – during the election campaign resulted in a deadlock since the three-percent victory of the latter over the former was reasonably questioned by observers, pollsters, and the population in large. What might seem rather unusual in the discussion mentioned above, was the language. The pro-Yushchenko lady spoke in Russian, the pro-Yanukovych lady employed Ukrainian.

The pro-government propaganda, within the last three years, did its best to persuade both Ukrainians and foreigners that Yushchenko is just a «regional» candidate representing the allegedly «nationalist» West of the country and hostile therefore to the «pro-Russian» East. The tactics was smart albeit constituted a smear: to pack the popular candidate in a marginal niche and to misrepresent the whole democratic movement as merely «regional» and «nationalist». In a country with a short and disrupted tradition of statehood, with a significant Russian minority of 17% and a nearly twice as large group of Russophone Ukrainians, such a propaganda had traditionally had some appeal. Yushchenko was assigned «for Ukrainians only», or more precisely, for Ukrainophones, i.e., in old Soviet terms, «nationalists».

Within this propagandistic project, the presidential rivalry between the two Viktors had to become just another illustration of the ethnic, linguistic, and regional divisions. The Ukrainian reality, however, is not that black and white. The recent opinion polls proved, for instance, that 20% of Ukrainian Russians supported «nationalist» Yushchenko while 30% of ethnic Ukrainians supported «pro-Russian» Yanukovych. They suggest also that there are many more, perhaps even more important, fault lines in Ukrainian society than ethnicity or language. In terms of age, for example, the only group where Mr.Yanukovych has higher support than Mr.Yushchenko are pensioners, i.e., people above their 60s. In terms of education, the only group where Yanukovych takes the lead over Yushchenko are people with primary or incomplete secondary education.

Should we conclude therefore that the rivalry is between young and old, between well-educated and half-literate?

In all these cases, we can speak only about some tendencies, some correlations, but certainly not about a rigid determinism. Neither Russians, nor elders, nor the less educated are necessarily pro-Yanukovych. And, in a similar way, not necessarily all ethnic Ukrainians, youngsters, and graduates with certificates are on Yushchenko’s side.

There is, however, a clear and cogent division that makes both sides of Ukrainian conflict irreconciliable. The Yushchenko camp represents a society that strives for civility, for the rule of law, for a radical break with the Soviet past and a gradual move towards the European future. The Yanukovych camp represents the Soviet-style patrimonial state that adopted some democratic rhetoric, some procedures and institutions, but remained profoundly authoritarian and hostile towards any political and economic transparency, rule of law and civility. It has no support from civil society, from self-conscious citizens, but fully rely on obedient subjects, brainwashed by the monopolized mass media and intimidated by the police. There is little surprise that one camp strives for the West as the embodiment of democratic values while the other camp looks towards authoritarian crypto-Soviet Russia.

It is the conflict of the same sort that shook Central-East Europe in 1989 but stopped short at the Soviet border. In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Ukrainian anti-Soviet, anti-communist revolution remained unfinished. At the time, Ukrainian civil society was too weak and immature to take over the Leninist state and transform it into a liberal democracy – as the Poles, or Estonians, or Lithuanians did. The Soviet nomenklatura („inner party“, as Orwell put it) rejected the obsolete ideology but retained the power and property. It failed, however, to subjugate and marginalize society, which proved to be stronger, more resilient and resistant in Ukraine than in Russia, or Belarus, or elsewhere in the former USSR. In 2002, post-Soviet authoritarianism was strongly challenged by society during the parliamentary elections. And now, it seems to be completely defeated in the presidential election.

The way out however is not so easy. The Ukrainian rulers, as Javier Solana remarked, are very skilfull in playing with rules instead of playing along according to the rules. They still try to manipulate society and international opinion, to drag out time, and to look for a loophole that might extend their authoritarian dominance. Time and again, they try to expoit the country’s divisions inherited from the past, to play off the regions, the ethnic and cultural groups against each other, and to misrepresent the profound value-based conflict between democracy and authoritarianism as mere a partisan clash between «east» and «west», the US and Russia, «nationalists» and «russophiles», «centrists» and «radicals», and so on.

The task is clear: to change the agenda, to draw the attention – both internal and international – from real problems toward a virtual simulacre. In this context, the recent „secessionist“ campaign in South-Eastern Ukraine means little more than a bluff, a sort of blackmail on the side of local nomenklatura scared by the possible change of power in Kyiv and looming charges of corruption and electoral fraud. Yet, there is no grass-root „secessionist“ movement in the region, and even less economic feasibility for the project since the regional heavy industry is outdated, inefficient, and in many way subsidized by the whole state.

Ukrainians may be very different in their culture or political views but basically they agree they should live in the same unified state. Opinion polls reveal that only 2 to 5% of Ukrainians may support any kind of border changes. The real danger can be only the intervention of Russian military – as it happened in Abkhazia or Transnistria, but not in Eastern Estonia, even though the Russians there are much more numerous (in percentage vis-à-vis natives) and more alienated (culturally and linguistically) than in Ukraine.

The two ladies in a suburban train had not reconciled but their dispute had an interesting end. The supporter of Yanukovych put forward all the arguments she had learnt from the anti-Yushchenko propaganda, spread unscrupulously by the progovernment media. «He’s a nationalist», she ended with a burning conviction. «He will make you to learn Ukrainian!»

«I vyuchu, esli nado!» – her interlocutress rebuffed. («So, I’ll learn it if needed!»)

She did not mean what she said. Virtually all Russians in Ukraine know Ukrainian, like virtually all Ukrainians know Russian. They can communicate pretty well using his/her own language in the bi-lingual conversation – as it often happens in parliament, on TV, and elsewhere. She meant something else. As I understood, she merely wanted to tell that language is not the issue. Neither ethnicity is. Nor religion.But honesty is. And this is primarily what the whole conflict in Ukraine is about.


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