Every scholar, writer, or intellectual takes on serious obligations toward the reader when he or she engages in speculation or hypothesis. Among the most important of these obligations is to assess the probability of his proposition and, if the probability is remote, to be cognizant the consequences and uses of his exercise in speculative analysis.
On both these counts, Ethan Burger’s openDemocracy article “Could partition solve Ukraine’s problem” fails to meet to meet the test of responsible speculation.
First, Mr. Burger’s main thesis is wrong. Ukraine is not a state riven by an ethno-linguistic divide between its West and Centre on one hand and the East and South on the other. Indeed, as a closer look at public opinion will show, Ukraine has something of a national consensus on the key questions of national unity and sovereignty.
Second, while Ukraine is a relatively stable democracy, its statehood is of very recent vintage, its institutions are immature, and its politics is raucous. The last thing it needs is discourse from the West that fans the flames of separatism, however remote.
As Serhiy Tyhypko, one of Ukraine’s new generation of politicians, has argued, many of the leaders of neighboring Russia have not come to terms with Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence. Moreover, as Tyhypko suggests, Russian intelligence services have a large presence in Ukraine and some leading Russian politicians have built strong relationships with marginal separatist forces in Ukraine. It is irresponsible to give any of these inimical actors the slightest encouragement.
As importantly, Ukraine is a country that has made great progress in consolidating its democracy, with frequent rotations of power based on competitive elections. Before the economic crisis of 2008-2009, Ukraine had seen one 10 years of uninterrupted growth averaging 7 percent per year. Its media are diverse, its civil society is strong. And when democratic procedure has been challenged its citizens have risen up to defend their rights.
All in all the country has been trending in the right direction. There is no reason for outside voices to suggest that these desirable gains be rewarded by destabilizing talk of partition.
At the same time, because of the legacies of the Soviet past and of Eastern and Western Ukraine’s divergent histories of foreign occupation, Ukraine was bequeathed linguistic and cultural cleavages. These will be overcome in time and must not be exaggerated by superficial analysis.
Above all, it is essential to look at how Ukraine’s citizens—Ukrainian and Russian, Ukrainian-speaking and Russophone alike – see their future. A series of public opinion samplings undertaken in the last two years offers a clear picture.
A poll conducted in mid-2008 by the Gorshenin Institute, a respected Kyiv think tank, shows that 87.5 % of the population identifies Ukraine as its homeland, while only 7.5 % considers Russia to be its real homeland (with much of that support concentrated among populations of retirees in Crimea). This identification with Ukraine transcends regions, ethnicities, and religious affiliations. Moreover, the consolidation trend has been on the rise: between 2006 and 2008, the proportion of Ukrainians expressing pride in their Ukrainian citizenship rose from 52. 5 percent to nearly seventy percent.
As significantly, when Ukraine’s inhabitants were recently asked how they would vote in a referendum on Ukraine’s statehood, nearly 60 percent supported a unitary state, 20 percent opted for a federative state and around 20 percent were uncertain.
And on the allegedly divisive language issue, the Gorshenin poll found that while 49.5 percent stated they primarily speak Ukrainian at home and 46 percent said they speak Russian at home some three-quarters said it was the obligation of every citizen to master the Ukrainian language.
More recent data reaffirms these trends. According to a poll conducted in February 2010, Eastern and Western Ukrainians alike want better relations with Russia. However, only 12.5 percent would like to adopt laws jointly with Russia and only 7.6 percent would like to see Ukraine and Russia as part of a single government. At the same a vast majority of Ukraine’s inhabitants is united in the view that the country’s weak economy is the main problem that needs to be confronted.
In short, Ukraine’s citizens across the east-west divide take pride in their state, do not wish to surrender their sovereignty, recognize the obligation to strengthen and speak Ukrainian, and wish to achieve economic prosperity.
On a recent nationwide TV program that brought together ordinary citizens from Western and Eastern Ukraine, one speaker from the Eastern city of Donetsk put it this way: “Why is it that when we Easterners and Westerners travel abroad to watch soccer we all cheer together and get along? And why is that here in Ukraine we always talk of our divisions. I’ll tell you why: here we are surrounded by politicians.”
In short, Ukraine’s East and West is not on the verge of sharp or violent disagreement. And politicians as well as analysts like Mr. Burger should not be suggesting that they are.
Mr. Burger is also far off the mark when he invokes the example of the “velvet divorce” between the Czech Republic and Slovakia as a model for Ukraine. Unlike Slovakia in the early 1990s, there is no sentiment among Ukraine’s major parties, leaders, or civic movements to partition Ukraine or to separate East from West.
In January 1994, the US government’s national intelligence estimate covered similar territory. It postulated, in the words of the Washington Post, that “Ukraine’s worsening economy will spark ethnic conflict that provokes the country’s partition into two states and creates a new dispute over the fate of the nuclear weapons on its territory, which the nation has just agreed to give up.”
This incompetent assessment received widespread attention and was given serious credence in the policy community. It evoked consternation and unease in Ukraine. And it was wrong then just as partition talk is wrong now.
In the last twenty years, Soviet identity and regionalism have withered in Ukraine’s East, Center, and West. But in the East and South they have not been supplanted by Russian nationalism nor by Russophone separatism. Instead, they have been replaced by the clear acceptance of Ukraine’s unified statehood.
What remains to be resolved is a common agreement about how to address the country’s past. Yet, these often sharp discussions of the past should not blind us to the reality that Ukrainian citizens of all ethnicities are in agreement about the present and the future of their young democratic state. Ukraine’s citizens, elites, and leaders are committed to unitary statehood, a civic nationhood, and linguistic tolerance. This is no time to fan the flames of a partition that no one in Ukraine seeks or wants.
Adrian Karatnycky is an Atlantic Council Senior Fellow. This essay was previously published at openDemocracy as “Partition Ukraine? I think not.”