Ukrainians in the south and east oppose pro-Western leadership

While the regions remain reliably pro-Russian, fears of separatism may be overblown considering complex narratives

People wave Russian flags as they protest in the southern Ukrainian city of Sevastopol, the base of the Russian Black Sea fleet.
Vasiliy BATANOV/AFP/Getty Images

With the appointment of a new prime minister, Ukraine’s interim government on Thursday began taking tenuous steps out of chaotic instability. However, much of the country’s focus remained on bedlam in the country’s pro-Russian east and south, where supporters of ousted President Viktor Yanukovich voiced opposition and took public action to make their dissatisfaction with the country’s new pro-Western leadership known.

Still, analysts say anger over Yanukovich's departure does not translate to imminent separatism. Because of Ukraine’s many national identities, broad generalizations about the country — even its pro-Russian regions — cannot be easily drawn.

Ukraine's pro-Russia regions have complicated roots, but their division from the rest of the country is delineated most obviously by a linguistic separation. The western and central, Ukrainian-speaking regions of the country, whose majorities voted for Yanukovich’s rival Yulia Tymoshenko in the 2010 presidential election, are met in the eastern and southern, Russian-speaking regions with majorities that voted for Yanukovich.

The predominantly Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine are influenced by long-standing “cultural and traditional” affiliations with Russia, explained Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at the New School in New York.

“They’re all going to want to speak Russian and have close ties to Russia,” and they keep up their attachment, just as in the country’s west there is a stronger shared identity with European countries, she said.

While ethnic Russians in Ukraine make up about 17 percent of the population, Russian-speaking ethnic Ukrainians dominate in the East.

This pro-Russian sentiment manifests itself politically partly through fears of a strident Ukrainian nationalist sentiment that many in the east and south see as an animating factor in the protests, typified by recent parliamentary moves to question the status of Russian as a minority language.

“They just don’t want to not be associated with Russia,” said Khrushcheva of the majority of Ukrainians in the east who want to keep their Russian ethnic allegiances and who are skeptical of rigid conceptions of Ukrainian nationalism.

Remaining unified

Alongside ethnic and linguistic divisions, there are also entrenched political and economic ties that have bound eastern Ukraine closely with Russia since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Heavy industry in the country’s east, including in the energy and mining sectors, has meant a lot of business with Russian interests and a dependable patronage base for regional elites. These businessmen are skeptical of changes to the status quo and protective of traditional economic and political arrangements.

Some of Ukraine’s richest men hail from this area, and many of them supported Yanukovich and his Russian-aligned Party of Regions.

The most influential among this group is Rinat Akhmetov, the country’s richest man, previously a major supporter of Yanukovich and a lightning rod of criticism from anti-Yanukovich protesters. Yet Akhmetov this week came out against moves that would further destabilize the country, and he is content to stake his own political influence and fortune elsewhere.

His preference for Ukrainian unity mirrors that of eastern governors who met last weekend to determine their next steps. Though decrying parliament’s actions against Yanukovich, regional Gov. Mikhaylo Dobkin minced no words about the importance of remaining a unified country.

“We're not preparing to break up the country. We want to preserve it,” he said.

Since Yanukovich’s departure from Kiev, the Crimea region in the south, and especially the autonomous city of Sevastopol, has witnessed overtly pro-Russian protests against political developments, culminating in Thursday’s seizure of government buildings.

Most experts agree that Crimea remains the outlier in its level of pro-Russian sentiment. Nonetheless, it poses one of the thorniest political questions of Ukraine’s political future after Yanukovich.

“It’s always been more a part of Russia than the Ukraine,” said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

Crimea was part of the Russian territory of the Soviet Union until 1954, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian, put its territorial status under Ukraine’s auspices.

Since then, Crimea has been an autonomous region, albeit with strong ties to Russia. And in Sevastopol, Russia leases the large naval base for its Black Sea fleet.

Despite the unrest and ongoing protests in Crimea, it's too soon to believe that its separatist ambitions amount to anything more than a way to retain influence in a post-Yanukovich government.

“It’s one of its levers to exercise influence in negotiations,” said Rojansky, of Russia’s interest in keeping up chatter about separatism, bolstered by Russia's military exercises on Wednesday in its territory close to the Crimean peninsula.

Still, the cleavage with the rest of Ukraine is clear.

“The argument of the people that live there is that we’re Russian, we’ve always been Russian,” said Rojansky.

A more complicated picture

Despite clear regional differences, analysts warn of reading too much into these divisions, as Ukraine has a complicated political scene with many nuances.

Russia, for example, is likely to remain an inevitable actor for all parties to engage with because of economic realities and its own strategic interests.

And while Yanukovich’s fall was principally a function of opposition from protests in the country’s west, his popularity was also questioned in his traditional bastions of support in the east, which saw a number of anti-government demonstrations since protests began in November.

Even some of Yanukovich's supporters “were astounded by the corruption” and felt that “he wasn’t keeping his campaign promises,” said Alexander Motyl, a Ukrainian expert at Rutgers University. As evidence, he pointed to polls conducted weeks ahead of Yanukovich’s fall that reflected his waning support.

While some very clear gulfs exist in Ukraine, reducing the regions to a simple binary between pro- and anti-Yanukovich forces or pro- and anti-Russian sentiment risks missing perspective.

“It’s like saying, look, Maine and Southern California are totally different, but then arguing from that difference that the entire region east of the Mississippi is like Maine, and the entire region west of the Mississippi is California,” Motyl said.

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