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A pro-Russia protester shouts slogans at a barricade outside a regional government building in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, April 15, 2014. (MARKO DJURICA/REUTERS)
A pro-Russia protester shouts slogans at a barricade outside a regional government building in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, April 15, 2014. (MARKO DJURICA/REUTERS)

Light and Popova

The Kremlin, not language, is driving Ukraine apart Add to ...

Matthew Light is an assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Toronto; Maria Popova is an assistant professor in the department of political science at McGill University

After losing Crimea to Russia in a swift invasion, Ukraine is facing new political turmoil in its majority Russian-speaking east. Last week, small crowds of pro-Russian activists stormed regional administration buildings in Luhansk, Donetsk, and Kharkiv. Russian-speaking protestors in Donetsk even briefly declared an independent state and asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to support them. Over the weekend, armed men took over government offices in several smaller towns in Donetsk region. Mr. Putin has admonished the Ukrainian government to respect the linguistic rights of the Russian-speaking minority, and has demanded that Ukraine adopt a federal system to protect those rights. Many people assume that we are witnessing the escalation of a deep-seeded ethnic separatist problem that is undermining Ukrainian unity. Why should Canada and others protect Ukraine if its own ethnic conflicts make it unviable as a state?

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The short answer is that Ukraine’s national identity is more solid than the recent turmoil implies, and the country’s linguistic divisions did not generate the crisis, as the Kremlin claims. Rather, a civic Ukrainian identity has been developing over the two decades since Ukraine gained independence, and today the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians, whether they speak Ukrainian or Russian at home, feel that they belong to a Ukrainian nation. They should be allowed to develop their nationhood without hostile interference from their powerful neighbor, Russia.

Russian official statements greatly exaggerate the distinction between Ukraine’s “Russian-speakers” and “Ukrainian-speakers.” True, Russia, Ukraine, and every other post-Soviet republic emerged out of the Soviet Union, whose official national language was Russian. Most people all over the post-Soviet region still speak some Russian, usually along with another national language. Many enjoy Russian-language books, music, and movies. But this does not mean that Russian-speaking people in Ukraine want to be Russian.

First, the overwhelming majority of Ukrainian citizens speak and understand both languages. Ukrainian- and Russian-speakers have lived in proximity for centuries. Many people slip back and forth easily between the two languages, and tell jokes and sing songs in both of them. Ukraine is the bilingual country Canada aspires to be.

Second, Ukraine’s civic identity does not depend primarily on language. Even among Ukrainians who prefer to speak Russian, only a minority consider themselves ethnic Russians. Many Russian-speakers proudly identify as Ukrainians. Indeed, while most Russian-speaking Ukrainians want cordial ties with Russia, most envision those ties as good neighborly relations, trade, cultural exchange, and free movement between two independent countries. Only minorities in the south (10 to 20 per cent of the population) and east (15 to 33 per cent) support either the unification of Russia and Ukraine or the annexation of their home region by Russia. Thus, support for separatism is actually lower in eastern and southern Ukraine than in Quebec. Surveys conducted in March show that only 15 per cent in the south and east support Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Even former president Viktor Yanukovych, a Moscow ally and a Donetsk native, has called on Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine.

Third, Ukraine’s current national unity problems are not the product of prior separatist conflict. Contrary to Russian claims, before the current protests in eastern Ukraine, the region was not showing signs of separatism. Eastern and southern Ukrainians accepted the legitimacy of Viktor Yushchenko, a president with a strong base in western Ukraine. Secessionist parties were marginal. The electorate participated eagerly in national elections. Politicians from the south and east vied for national power and made their careers on the national stage – former Presidents Leonid Kuchma and Mr. Yanukovych, and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko all hail from the east.

Given that the violent protests in eastern Ukraine are highly co-ordinated, feature small numbers of well-armed activists, and resemble similar moves in Crimea a few weeks ago, it seems likely that Russia is involved. While a slight majority in eastern and southern Ukraine were unhappy with the February government change in Kiev, anti-government protests have not attracted large numbers of supporters. Eastern and southern political and business elites have also repeatedly expressed support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and have spoken out against the takeovers of government buildings.

The Kremlin must not be allowed to cloak this aggression in the rhetoric of minority rights. Russia’s ongoing attempts to dismember Ukraine violate repeated treaty commitments to respect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Although Ukraine is a young nation, it is a properly constituted state, whose citizens of all backgrounds enjoy far more political freedom than Russian citizens.

Indeed, Canada and Ukraine have much in common. Like Ukrainians, Canadians have a national civic identity that transcends our linguistic diversity. While Anglophone Canadians share a language with other Commonwealth nations and the United States, and Francophones take pride in the language of Moliere and Balzac, we have all chosen to be citizens of one country, to make a life for ourselves in it, and to work out our differences peacefully among ourselves. The people of Ukraine, too, are trying to forge their own political destiny and to create civic unity out of ethnic and linguistic diversity. They deserve our support.

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