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Ukraine: Why Culture Matters

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First published in the National Interest as "Ukraine's Culture War" on February 7, 2014.  The views expressed here do not reflect those of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.


The author at Independence Square in Kiev.
(image by Nicolai Petro)



Anyone watching Ukraine over the past few months must surely have been struck by the odd behavior of its political leaders. Both sides, and this goes for the government as well as the opposition, seem quite willing to undermine the authority of the state, at times with almost reckless abandon.

One thinks of how cavalierly the government discarded the EU-accession agreement and then, just as unexpectedly, signed an economic deal with Russia. It was this breathtaking contempt for public opinion, which had been led to believe one thing and was then presented with quite another, that inspired the first rallies in Kiev's Independence Square on November 21, 2013.

Yet, by the end of December the issue of EU accession was already all but irrelevant. The rallying cry of the opposition was now "national revolution," spearheaded by radical nationalists who had always opposed European integration because it would dilute their idea of nationhood and force Ukraine into what they call "the global concentration camp."

And even when, at the end of January 2014, all the political opposition's demands were realized, and it was offered the opportunity to form a new government, rather than rebuild the political institutions he was poised to inherit, would-be prime minister Arseny Yatseniuk dismissed the president's offer with the following Tweet: "No deal  @ua_yanukovych, we're finishing what we started. The people decide our leaders, not you."

Such behavior would be political suicide in the West, but in the context of Ukrainian political culture, it actually makes sense. That is because the key actors in Ukrainian politics are not invested in the political system. It is merely a stage upon which to play out the deeper conflict in Ukraine, which is cultural. Whatever the crisis of the day happens to be--language policy, European or Eurasian association, NATO membership, or the latest governmental appointment or presidential election--it is merely a convenient rallying point around which two fundamentally divergent visions of Ukrainian cultural identity and history periodically coalesce to continue, in proxy fashion, the war they've been fighting since the nineteenth century.

One vision of Ukrainian identity predominates in the western part of the country, the regions historically known as Volyn, Galicia, and Podolya. These regions share a long and tumultuous relationship with Poland, under whose impact a distinct religious and cultural identity has been forged. One aspect of this legacy is that today these regions seek to establish a cultural identity for Ukraine that not only sees itself as distinct from Russia, but is openly hostile to it.

A completely different version of Ukrainian identity predominates in the Eastern and Southern parts of the country, historically known as Slobozhanshchina, Donbas, and Novorossiya. People there are quite comfortable with a Ukrainian cultural identity that retains warm and friendly ties with Russia.

For both sides this singular focus on Russia and Russian culture has become a stumbling block to civic cooperation and national unity. And the language issue, while not the sole difference (religion and historical memories play an important role as well), serves as lightning rod for their respective fears.

Ukrainians in the West fear for their cultural identity if their version of Ukrainian culture is not dominant, and they have reason for concern. The population in the core Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine outnumbers the population in the core Ukrainian-speaking regions by almost two to one. Of the country's ten largest cities, only one, Lviv, is predominantly Ukrainian-speaking. Russian is, by a wide margin, the language of choice in education, commerce, and entertainment. A 2012 study found that over 60% of newspapers, 83% of journals and 87% of books, and 72% of television programs in Ukraine are still in Russian. Even more troubling, from the western Ukrainian perspective, is that the internet has only reinforced this cultural dominance. Russian is by far the preferred language on web sites in Ukraine (80.1%), followed by English (10.1%), then Ukrainian (9.5%), while the Russian version of Wikipedia remains five times more popular in Ukraine than the Ukrainian one.

Government efforts to promote the Ukrainian language, however, often come with Russophobic historical and political baggage that stokes fears in the East and the South. This led to the backlash against the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the rise of Victor Yanukovych's Party of Regions, which ran on the platform that every Ukrainian should have the right to use his or her "mother tongue." Since then each side has had more reason to undermine than to support the the political system, reasoning that an ineffective government, while not optimal, is at least limited in the amount of harm it can do to cultural values.

Of course, cultural identity is not the only thing driving popular discontent. The tacit support of middle-class Kievans, fed up with nepotism and corruption, has clearly been a key factor in the longevity of the protests in Kiev. But this does not diminish the role that cultural identity plays as a filter through which discontent is distilled. The final result is a focused rage that can be channeled by the antidemocratic, nationalist forces that, albeit small in number, now effectively control the streets.

Such forces are now acting under the banner of "The Right Sector." Its leaders condemn socialism, liberal democracy, atheism, and cosmopolitanism for fostering a "slave mentality." They prefer a Conciliar Sovereign Ukrainian Nation run not by political parties, but by a National Order committed to the realization of "the Ukrainian national idea." In the current standoff they demand "a national revolution" and threaten a "prolonged guerrilla warfare" if they don't get it.

How then should the West navigate this minefield of political and cultural passions? For now it seems to be taking the side of the political opposition or, more precisely, its most moderate representative, Vitaly Klitschko. The hope seems to be that he can convince moderate street protesters not to support the nationalists in their efforts to topple the parliamentary system, even though he has been unsuccessful at this in the past.

The most generous interpretation of Western aims is that, by clearly backing one side in this conflict, it hopes to undermine the radicals and give Klitschko the political momentum he needs to forge a government of national unity. Once such a government is in place, the EU and United States have hinted that a "new Marshall Plan" might be made available for Ukraine.

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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)
 

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he Ukrainian uprising is not a war between the tw... by Ed Lytwak on Monday, Feb 10, 2014 at 2:37:48 PM
Interesting article___ The EU offer rejected by ac... by jean labrek on Monday, Feb 10, 2014 at 9:32:45 PM
I wrote on the subject click here , so d... by Guglielmo Tell on Tuesday, Feb 11, 2014 at 10:47:04 AM
Your history of Ukraine while interesting is rath... by Ed Lytwak on Tuesday, Feb 11, 2014 at 2:47:58 PM
     But, I should add that a... by Ed Lytwak on Tuesday, Feb 11, 2014 at 2:48:29 PM
The name of Ukrainian nationalism is linked to St... by Guglielmo Tell on Tuesday, Feb 11, 2014 at 8:12:44 PM
Who is Guglielmo Tell really?   It is ea... by Ed Lytwak on Wednesday, Feb 12, 2014 at 9:41:56 AM
 Mr. Lytwak,  Where can we (I) read you... by Ad Du on Wednesday, Feb 12, 2014 at 3:52:27 PM
You can read the Western propaganda in almost any... by Ed Lytwak on Wednesday, Feb 12, 2014 at 6:03:07 PM
His armed unit, the UPA, which was run together ... by Guglielmo Tell on Tuesday, Feb 11, 2014 at 8:14:26 PM
"Completely financed by Hitler" is just a bold fac... by Ed Lytwak on Wednesday, Feb 12, 2014 at 10:04:16 AM
Amazing cacophony of lies.Western Ukraine was Aus... by Mark Sashine on Tuesday, Feb 11, 2014 at 4:36:51 PM
One more thing : it is true  that there is n... by Mark Sashine on Tuesday, Feb 11, 2014 at 5:03:27 PM
I cannot change your hatred of the so-called Ukrai... by Ed Lytwak on Tuesday, Feb 11, 2014 at 5:40:30 PM
if this criminal story  is the one you base ... by Mark Sashine on Tuesday, Feb 11, 2014 at 5:47:50 PM
One more thing: I don't hate ukrainian nationalis... by Mark Sashine on Tuesday, Feb 11, 2014 at 6:24:11 PM
Mark, I have tried to give you the benefit of the... by Ed Lytwak on Wednesday, Feb 12, 2014 at 10:27:55 AM
Is it not the case that a 'Ukrainian' speaking per... by Charles Roll on Tuesday, Feb 11, 2014 at 4:04:16 PM
CharlieSomeone should ask the idiot Englishman wh... by Mark Sashine on Tuesday, Feb 11, 2014 at 5:11:42 PM
"taking not ashes but fire," you have much the adv... by Charles Roll on Wednesday, Feb 12, 2014 at 7:43:10 AM
For those of you who would like information on th... by Ed Lytwak on Wednesday, Feb 12, 2014 at 11:05:16 AM
Explain why exactly the information form larouche... by Guglielmo Tell on Wednesday, Feb 12, 2014 at 4:41:15 PM
You are living in Cuba,so I can understand how you... by Ed Lytwak on Wednesday, Feb 12, 2014 at 6:18:43 PM
I don't know about the trajectory of Lyndon Larou... by Guglielmo Tell on Thursday, Feb 13, 2014 at 8:04:03 PM
Also check this click here ... by Guglielmo Tell on Wednesday, Feb 12, 2014 at 4:48:15 PM
Just because the U.S. is trying to manipulate the ... by Ed Lytwak on Wednesday, Feb 12, 2014 at 6:26:40 PM