Thursday, February 11, 2010

What You Need to Know About Ukraine's 2010 Presidential Election, the Ethnic/Cultural Geography Behind it, and Where Ukraine Goes from Here

The election map also reflects the ethnic/cultural divide in Ukraine. Blue is the ethnic/culturally Russian zone that voted for Yanukovych while pink is ethnically/culturally Ukrainian that in 2004 voted for Yushchenko and Tymoshenko in 2010.


The Orange Revolution of 2004 excited many in the West. A pro-West coalition comprised of a nearly assassinated man and a woman who played up her family's peasant background with an iconic hairstyle overturned a stolen election and won power together. The Orange Revolution was to permanently server Russia's control over Ukraine and align the country with Europe and the United States.

That, sadly, was not to be. The almost assassinated man, President Viktor Yushchenko, strongly supported the United States and stood up to Russia. Yet his popularity fell immensely as the economy collapsed, various political parties turned against him, Russia repeatedly cut off gas, and Russia ignored his protests of their using Ukraine as a base in the 2008 Russia-Georgia War. The woman, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, began to chart her own course attacking all sides, making deals with all sides, and naming her political party after herself. Meanwhile, the Russian-backed candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, has been most passive of the three yet more successful as he briefly became Prime Minister and managed to rebuild the pro-Russia alliance of parties.

The 2010 Presidential Elections

The breakdown of the Orange Revolution occurred with the recent 2010 presidential elections. The pro-Russian Yanukovych came in first by two percentage points over Tymoshenko who campaigned on a platform promising to balance relations with the West and Russia equally. President Yuschenko only earned five percent of the vote and came in fifth.

Tymoshenko and her supporters are trying to make a second Orange Revolution and overturn the vote by claiming Yanukovych's backers are trying to steal the election again. However, this time she is lacking in a pro-West platform mandate. Also, she can be described as the Sarah Palin of Ukraine as one either loves her or hates her. An Ukrainian pro-Russian television pundit described her as "the incarnation of evil" and a pro-West commentator said she was the "mother of all lies." Meanwhile a supporter of her's in parliament said she was a "regular Ukrainian thrusted onto greatness." Whether or not she is successful in overturning the election she will undoubtedly cripple the country even further if she goes through with her mass protest threats. Her supporters could either become marginalized jokes like those of would-be Mexican president Andres Lopez Obrador or a serious political force like the various opposition groups formerly and currently in Georgia.

The Ethnic and Cultural Background

Corruption and Byzantine-style politics have certainly helped in developing the current state of Ukrainian affairs but the primal rift lies deep in the ethnic and cultural makeup of Ukraine.

Russia and Ukraine's pasts are inseparable. Ukraine's capital is Kyiv (Kiev) and it was the medieval capital of the Kievan Rus. The Kievan Rus is the proto-state which both Ukraine and Russia claim mutual cultural and political heritage from. The Kievan Rus' Prince Vladimir the Great's conversion to Christianity was the founding event for what would become the Russian Orthodox Church. After the defeat of Crimean Tatars in the eighteenth century present-day eastern and southern Ukraine became known as Novorossiya (literally "New Russia") as Russian immigrant colonialist took over land from the fleeing Muslims. Ukraine, for the most part, stayed part of Imperial Russia with briefly independent republican governments crushed by the Soviet Union before 1920. The Crimean Peninsula, meanwhile, only became part of Ukraine as a gift in 1954 (then it was merely a transfer from the Soviet Union to the Soviet Union so it only mattered on paper).

The intertwined relationship between Russia and Ukraine has left its mark on the geography of Ukraine. The eastern and southern parts of Ukraine form an economically better-off Russian belt. Seventeen percent of all Ukrainians are ethnic Russians with ninety percent of Crimea being ethnic Russian. Meanwhile, about a third of all ethnic Ukrainians, mostly those who live in the Russian belt, speak Russian as their primary language, watch and read Russian media, and are at least nominal members of the Russian Orthodox Church or its satellite Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). Yulia Tymoshenko was one of these culturally Russian Ukrainians. She only learned a commanding knowledge of the Ukrainian language around the year 2000. The major pro-Russia party, Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions, caters to ethnic and cultural Russians. In fact the party's website is not in Ukrainian but instead only in Russian and English. Imagine if the Republican Party only campaigned in Spanish or the Conservative Party only operated in Hindi yet still could win national elections. That is how ethnically and culturally split Ukraine is.

Like in Moldova, the wealth and industry in concentrated in the ethnic/culturally Russian zone.

President Viktor Yushchenko failed in part because his initial base was limited to ethnic/cultural Ukrainians and he sought to impose Ukrainization in non-cultural Ukrainian parts of the country. Yushchenko tried yet failed to remove Russian-language government signs in eastern Ukraine. He also failed in banning Russian-language television. This not only offended the seventeen percent, ethnic Russians, but also the cultural Russians. Those two groups combine to create between forty and forty-five percent of the total population.

The effort to make Ukraine closer to the West at the expense of Russian-relations also cost Yushchenko. While Ukrainians are open to better relations with the West most actually believe good relations with Russia are a must. Recent polling by several agencies showed Ukrainians strongly reject NATO membership. There is some support for immediate efforts to join the European Union but an equal number are just as supportive for joining the Russia-Belarus Union State.

To the Future

The effort to have Ukraine join NATO was set back in Romania and died with the 2010 presidential election. The current geopolitical situation will have to change before a strong pro-West government takes Ukraine again. At the earliest this will take a decade. The Russian military bases in Crimea will probably be allowed to stay operating past the original 2017 deadline while NATO forces will only be allowed to dock at ports for short visits. Talk about Russian invading Ukraine for control of Crimea and the eastern half of the country were always week and should finally be laid to rest. There is no reason to invade Ukraine because a large minority of the country is solidly pro-Russia. Finally, Ukraine will probably no longer seriously consider joining the European Union.


trevorhuxham said...

So if this election signals the end of a possible Ukrainian succession to the EU, what does it mean for even more eastern European nations likes Georgia and Armenia, especially after the Russo-Georgian war of 2008?

Catholicgauze said...

Hi Trevor,
Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili and his moderate opposition still support NATO and to a lesser extent EU membership. The radical opposition, led by Nino Burjanadze is a bit more ambuguious as she has switched from pro-Saakashvili to rabidly anti-Saakashvili.
Armenia is much closer to Russia politically and I haven't seen any serious discussion of EU membership in a long time.
Azerbaijan meanwhile still is pondering NATO and EU membership in the future but democratic institutions still need to be developed.
Finally, Moldova's pro-West government is frozen by the sizable Communist opposition from discussing further EU/NATO membership.

cokaygne said...

Catholicgause, thank you so much for your overview of Ukraine. It is very enlightening to someone like me who has no ties to the area.

Are you saying in effect that Ukraine had no separate existence until the Bolsheviks, for whatever reasons, decided to make it a constituent "republic" of the USSR? Can the same be said for Belarus? It was certainly a help to Stalin to have two extra votes in the UN General Assembly. Will the world someday see Belarus and Ukraine absorbed into the Russian Federation?

The EU has encouraged the growth of small nations and recognized minority languages as seen by the breakup of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, former Yugoslavia, and then the former Serbian province of Kosovo. The EU has given economic assistance market access to these small countries, while absorbing some of their sovereignty through regulations.

Could this be a way forward for Russia and some of its neighbors? Of course the EU has been a liberalizing force and attractive for that reason. Today's Russia is not a liberal country and shows no signs of becoming one. For its neighbors Russia's attraction is its role as the only nearby source of energy.

Catholicgauze said...

Ukrainian identity is different from Russian identity, it is just that the two are very closely intertwined. Very western Ukraine has closer historical/cultural ties with Poland and Austria than Russia. (Where Europe Ends is a good documentary which talks about western Ukraine and other fringe areas).

Belarus joining Russia is much more likely than Ukraine. Belarus (White Russia) has even closer ties than Ukraine. Ukraine has a much more lively nationalistic movement going on than Belarus. However, before Belarus can join Russia it has to pay its gas bill, at least that is what Putin says.

I agree that Russia is not a liberal country. Pro-Russian movements in the former Soviet states are based off security, ties amongst former Communist Party members, energy, and ethnic Russians seeking Moscow's support.