Eastern Ukraine is following in the footsteps of Western Ukraine, but with a considerable delay, natural and historical complications
This East vs West problem has persisted throughout Ukraine’s independence. Both pro-government and opposition politicians either exploit it or avoid even touching upon it, pretending it does not exist or is, at the most, highly marginal. There are countless myths, legends and biases with regard to Eastern Ukraine, portraying it as completely pro-Russian and fearing all things Ukrainian. It is thought that nothing Ukrainian should be promoted there, because millions of eastern Ukrainians only dream of subjecting themselves to the mighty Vladimir Putin and are willing to die for his protégés in Ukraine. Those who spawn such fables view South-Eastern Ukraine, including the Crimea, as something monolithic, disregarding its diversity, internal contradictions and the dynamics of ongoing processes there. Unfortunately, both political camps in Kyiv remember about these lands only when major crises hit. Meanwhile, Eastern Ukraine is, in fact, following in the footsteps of Western Ukraine but with a considerable delay. It is also forced to battle natural and historical complications which the revanchist Russia is actively fuelling. The trick is to avoid both pushing this process unreasonably hard and hampering it. Instead, the government should boost healthy Ukrainian forces there, even if spreading Ukrainian ideas there requires huge efforts.
Sometimes the implacable logic of political struggle forces politicians to open their eyes and think about this other half and even admit that without solving this problem Ukraine will forever be a one-winged bird, which does not bode well for the country. And then, as if waking up from sleep, they appeal to people to go to Eastern Ukraine, form Maidans there and engage those regions in a nationwide anti-criminal revolution. But these are just streams of countless empty words.
Ukraine has wasted more than 20 years crucial to the nation. Curiously, politicians started voicing their calls only when the people in South-Eastern Ukraine rose on their own. People took to the streets and set up their own Maidans in Zaporizhzhia, Sumy, Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, Odesa, Kerch, Simferopol, Poltava and even Luhansk and Donetsk in order to support the central Maidan in Kyiv. No-one should be fooled by the relatively small numbers of protesters. One protester in Dnipropetrovsk or Zaporizhzhia is equivalent to 5-10 demonstrators in Lviv or Kyiv. Being a patriot of Ukraine in these regions is much harder. Those who picketed the buildings of regional administrations in Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhzhia were beaten with special brutality. And beatings happen there on a regular basis, not only at a time of major political upheavals. For example, few local supporters of Ukraine in Sevastopol have not had their cars burned, windows in their homes and summer cottages trashed and doors smeared with human excrements. Insulting notes such as “Blossom, Ukraine!” were left at the scene. Coming to a Maidan there is, without exaggeration, a heroic act and a show of civil courage. It is hard for these people to live in the oppressive atmosphere of constant Ukrainophobia artificially fuelled by the local nomenklatura. The local TV channels, newspapers and radio stations produce a never-ending stream of Ukrainophobic fables, inciting the local population against Galicians, Kyiv and all things Ukrainian. This nearly round-the-clock propaganda coupled with the mind-boggling indifference of all national governments throughout Ukraine’s independence has produced its results. There are virtually no resources in these reasons that could be used to counteract the anti-Ukrainian hysteria, because the efforts of enthusiasts and NGOs are clearly insufficient.
What Ukraine needs is not a raid on its eastern regions. A reasonable eastern policy, rather than a quick raid, can bring about change. Separatists should not be granted the concessions. Instead, systemic support should be provided to all sprouts of Ukrainian life there. They do exist; there are many people in these regions whom the national government and the opposition have turned into the Ukrainian diaspora in their own country. Despite its commitment to one undivided Ukraine, the opposition has for years ignored South-Eastern Ukraine, writing it off as electorally hopeless. I have even seen party calculations showing that one vote in the east costs an opposition party several times more than in the west. Indeed, tremendous effort is needed in Eastern Ukraine today, while electoral results will not be known for a long time. Therefore, there is always the temptation of abandoning the difficult east in favour of the promising Galician electoral districts where the task of party functionaries is not half as difficult as in Kharkiv, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and the Crimea. However, work in South-Eastern Ukraine must be done for the sake of the nation’s future.
In the early 20th century, one French marshal decided to plant trees around his residence in Northern Africa. His aide-de-camp explained that in the local climate the trees will take 50 years to mature. The marshal replied: “In this case, they should be planted immediately.” The situation in South-Eastern Ukraine is such that work must be started immediately. Otherwise, the Ukrainian leaders, who were the opposition only yesterday, will have to publicly admit that they do not need a united Ukraine and are prepared to build Ukraine in the remaining territory. In this case, vows and commitments to have an undivided Ukraine will no longer be necessary.
Over the years, the official government has done very little to draw the east and the west of the country closer together and has often fostered hostility between regions, exploiting it as its electoral resource and reserve. Leonid Kuchma ran for president in 1994 with slogans aimed against half of Ukraine. Viktor Yanukovych followed suit in 2004 and 2010. Leonid Kravchuk and Viktor Yushchenko simply preserved differences between regions without ever trying to overcome them. No-one has tried to eliminate Russia-financed organizations specializing in stirring up hatred between western and Eastern Ukraine. In the fight between pro-Ukrainian and anti-Ukrainian forces in Eastern Ukraine, Kyiv often adopted a neutral, indifferent stance. For example, official Kyiv supported pro-Russian chauvinists, rather than the pro-Ukrainian Crimean Tatars or their Mejlis, or nonchalantly looked on as the Crimean authorities systematically violated the rights of the Crimean Tatars.
A powerful cultural programme for Eastern Ukraine is a must now and in the future. It should be aimed primarily at young people, who, unlike the older generation, largely support the European choice across the country, including the southeastern regions. These regions need to have elite Ukrainian-language gymnasia, universities, newspapers, radio stations, TV channels and so on. Each such institution will be a vehicle of Ukrainian presence and influence. If the opposition had been busy doing this since the country’s independence, the political landscape would be quite different now. The Ukrainian military should be reinforced, particularly in the Crimea, to keep the leadership of certain neighbouring countries from entertaining stupid and dangerous ideas. The mass media should not be denationalized in these regions, as some people demand, because the local businesses are still hesitant to sponsor Ukrainian media outlets under the conditions of everyday anti-Ukrainian propaganda. A friend of mine wanted to launch a Ukrainian-language newspaper in Sevastopol and even found wealthy donors, but they told him: “We could give you money for this kind of newspaper, but we’re afraid.” That is why the state media should simply be forced to truly work for, not against, the Ukrainian state. Leonid Pilunsky, member of the Kurultai-Rukh faction in the Crimea’s Supreme Council, has told Channel 5 that even the Crimean State Radio and Television Broadcasting Company does not always support Ukraine.
Is the current government in Kyiv capable of grasping all this and taking the right steps? I have my doubts but also a measure of cautious optimism. Nevertheless, I cannot forget one situation. Several years ago, under President Yushchenko, the administration of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and the present author wanted to open a branch of the academy in Sevastopol. A lot of work was done. The Ukrainian Navy came to help and its commander, Admiral Ihor Teniukh, provided the necessary buildings. However, the initiative was killed by First Vice Prime Minister Oleksandr Turchynov. And the project which was so much needed in Sevastopol and the Crimea foundered. For 22 years now, the Ukrainian community in Sevastopol has been urging for a Ukrainian-language school and college. There were many promises and assurances but with little to show – just the cement foundation of a future building. Yushchenko, passionate Yulia Tymoshenko and their “patriotic” team havenot done a thing to help overcome sabotage and resistance on the part of the Sevastopol City Administration, which fully supported all Moscow-inspired projects.
Now the geopolitical time bomb is starting to explode on orders from the Kremlin. All these years, the Ukrainian government and opposition have not exerted enough efforts to defuse it. The information war, the fight over people’s ears and minds, was lost primarily because Ukraine did not engage in it without even trying to put up a real fight. But not everything is lost. The situation is not hopeless. It all depends on the understanding and resoluteness of Ukrainian government officials, politicians and journalists. One thing is clear: Ukraine’s unity must be fought for – both in word and deed.
At a campaign rally in Iowa, President Donald Trump cited an unsubstantiated news report to revive a widely debunked false narrative about Joe Biden’s work in Ukraine on behalf of the Obama administration