Ethnic Conflict in Ukraine?

Ukraine is engulfed in political turmoil. Protests have continued for well over a month now, but only in the last week or two have things started to seriously intensify. Opposition protestors have started taking over government buildings across wide swaths of the country and violence is escalating rapidly.

So, what’s going on?

Back in 2004, Viktor Yanukovych was declared the winner of the presidential election in Ukraine against challenger Viktor Yushchenko. Voting irregularities gave rise to massive protests that turned into what has come to be called the “Orange Revolution”. Eventually, Ukraine’s Supreme Court nullified the election results and called a re-vote, leading to Yushchenko’s victory.

Over his years in power, disputes between Yushchenko and his former ally Yulia Tymoshenko led to cracks in the Orange Coalition. Yushchenko failed to pass the first round of voting in the 2010 presidential election and Tymoshenko narrowly lost the second round vote against Viktor Yanukovych – the same Viktor Yanukovych whose rigged election in 2004 led to the “Orange Revolution” in the first place.

Yanukovych’s government wasted no time settling scores. Hardly three months after the run-off, a long-closed criminal case against Tymoshenko was reopened by state prosecutors and by October of 2011, she was sentenced to seven years in prison for abuse of power. Yanukovych’s party, the Party of Regions, further solidified its power in the 2012 parliamentary elections.

The current political crisis, dubbed the “Euromaidan” protests, was set-off by the Yanukovych government’s decision to suspend preparations for the signing of an association agreement with the European Union and to instead seek closer relations with Russia. The decision ran contrary to public opinion that favored signing an association agreement and heavily favored eventual integration into the European Union. While Yanukovych has offered significant concessions to the opposition, those concessions have been rejected and there is no clear path to forging a peaceful resolution.

While most media sources have focused exclusively on the political aspect of the current crisis, Max Fisher of the Washington Post does a great job of highlighting the ethno-linguistic connection to recent events. More specifically, he juxtaposes two fantastic maps. Here’s the first:

And here’s the second:

Notice anything interesting? Opposition strongholds align with where the Ukrainian language predominates! Indeed, the use of the Russian language is a major driver in Ukrainian politics and even has its own Wikipedia page. The current government is highly defensive of the use of Russian and protects Russian speakers, whether they be ethnically Russian or ethnically Ukrainian. In essence, Ukraine consists of what could be considered multiple ethnic political parties split along Ukrainian and Russian lines, with the Party of Regions being pro-Russian and the opposition being pro-Ukrainian.

Fisher puts it best with his concluding observations:

The current political conflict, which at its most basic level is over whether the country will lean toward Europe or toward Russia, is part of a long-running and unresolved national identity crisis. Yes, it’s also about Yanukovych’s failures to fix the economy and his draconian restrictions against basic freedoms. But there’s so much more to it than that, which helps make the crisis so intractable.

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One comment

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