Since the 21 November second round voting in the Ukrainian Presidential elections, I was struggling to just keep up with the events, reading A Fistful Of Euros
and other sources;I didn't come to blog about it - so here, some thoughts.
First a bit of history. People prefer to talk about an East/West, or Northwest/Southeast division, but I think a better description is to split the first in two and describe regional differences in three parts. (Of course there are even finer gradations, Alexei of The Russian Dilettante comments about a nine-way one at A Fistful Of Euros.)
Western Ukraine is the onetime Halych (Galicia) and Volodymyr (Vladimir, Ladomeria), Slavic kingdoms which were influeced by (and sometimes occupied by) not only Kyiv or Novgorod but Western neighbours Hungary and Poland, too
. They were ruined in the Mongol invasion around 1240, but in the next century briefly grew into one major kingdom in the vacuum, then collapsed under invasions from
newly growing Lithuania, and was divided between Lithuania (the Volhynia region)
and Poland, which later united. At the same time, after the Rus' church, which previously refused to take sides in the Great Schism, split in three stages (1299-1453-1596, more on this in the Comments), this area was catholicised under Polish rule.
When Poland was carved up by Prussia, Russia and Austria in the 18h century, the area mostly fell to Austria. Between the two world wars, this part again belonged to Poland, only after did Stalin add it to Ukraine. However, in the 19th century, the Ukrainian language-nationalist movement and culture was born there.
Northern-Central Ukraine was once the centre of Rus' - Kyiv was the capital of the main Rus' principality. But the Mongols utterly destroyed this region, and its remains were conquered by Lithuania, later to be under ever weaker (and receding towards the West) Polish control
. In the time of constant Tatar [remains of the Mongols] - Russian - Ottoman - Polish conflicts, in this area semi-independent Cossacks were settled, who later came under increased Russian central rule
- hence the dominant religion, and after later Russian 'orthodoxisation' almost exclusive religion
, was Eastern Orthodox, and people feel closer to Russia. However, the "bratstva" brotherhoods that formed to resist Polish catholisation efforts, and other movements that claimed the heritage of the Kyivian Rus' as cultural center, and thought there are too many Finno-Ugrian 'barbarian' traits of Muscovite Russia, stood for an identity separate from Russian - hence they merged with/absorbed Western Ukraine easily.
With the exception of Kyiv, this is a mostly agrarian region.
Finally, the Southern and Eastern regions: in this area countless nomadic tribes passed to the West in one thousand years until the Mongols, whose remains (the Golden Horde) established an empire here. Later called Tatars, they became Ottoman vassals. After a period of constant battles, Russia started to conquer and re-settle the area, a process not fully finished until the Crimean War (1853-56). Tough also agrarian, with the ascent of the Soviet Union especially the Eastern part became an industrial center. Dominant religion is Eastern Orthodox, and people obviously feel even closer to Russia.
Now, according to not just the official results: the first region voted overwhelmingly for opposition candidate Yushchenko, the second with a majority for Yushchenko, the third overwhelmingly for government candidate Yanukovych. Tough usually portrayed as the pro-Western democratic candidate vs. the oligarch-supported autocratic candidate in the West, and the mole-of-the-West divisive nationalist candidate vs. the for-the-people guarant of ethnic peace, all four portrayals are half-truths: Yushchenko was himself part of the establishment (led the Central Bank for 8 years, then PM for two), is supported by some oligarchs (blonde businesswoman-turned-politician Tymoshenko among them), he implemented late pay handouts for miners during his PM-ship, and made some cloudy remarks about withdrawing troops from Iraq; Yanukovych certainly has popular support too, while making Russian as second official language is something his party promised earlier but didn't deliver (as Yushchenko, who also promised it, rightly criticised).
I think whatever role foreigners played in organising the opposition and its post-election protests, the mass democratic participation and its peacefulness is a good thing - even more so that the opposing side responded with a similar peaceful mass mobilisation, rather than violence, so far. A less good sign is the wavered separatism in the Southeastern oblasts - and Yushchenko's threats in response.
But the facts that (1) whoever won the elections, the opposing minority is sizeable, (2) these sides are organised and passionate, (3) there is a strong regional pattern, together mean that whoever comes out as victor (even if unfairly or violently), he must give big concessions to (the supporters
of) the other side. For example, if Yushchenko wins, and wants economic reforms, he must reassure people in the East that there won't be mass closures and/or sellout of mines. While exit polls and evidence for mass fraud I saw, as well as the repressive behavior of authorities, is compelling evidence that in reality Yushchenko won, the solidifying proposal of repeated elections is what I thought to be the best idea, even before Yushchenko came up with it in his 3-point demands.
Finally, what makes things more difficult is Great Powers meddling: heavy involvement in the campaign and harsh announcements only reinforce the polarisation (by reinforcing the image of the opposing side's vassaldom to the feared foreign power). While Russian Tsar-in-practice Putin's meddling is more heavy-handed, overt and stupid, American meddling is more fine and covert but of similar importance. Some representatives of the EU can also be criticised for some unthought-through declarations - on the other hand, pro-Yanukovych people who protest European involvement forget that observers like OSCE's were officially accredited, and that Ukraine is already part of some European institutions. (Also, while for Russia and the USA, there is a clear geopolitical theme of spheres of influence, in the EU that is not at all clear-cut: while Poland is a strong advocate of Ukraine's Western binding, the larger countries are weary of subsidizing yet another new EU member, and some of them - above all Schröder's Germany - have good relations with Putin's Russia.)
UPDATE: James @ Dead Men Left, apart from quoting an article with a glaring factual error (young blonde opposition sub-leader and minor oligarch Yulia Tymoshenko [<-correct spelling] is there at the protests usually behind Yushchenko, not in a US prison!...), gives his cautioned support for the uprising, where his economy-focused prediction of disillusionment with the opposition leaders' conduct in government sounds the more convincing if I recall what happened after all the revolutions in 1989 and later here in Central-Eastern Europe.
Meanwhile, Neeka's Backlog writes:
The judges look tired, interrupt every once in while, but let the Yushchenko's team guy finish. Channel 5 interrupts the broadcast from the Supreme Court midway through the questions from Yanukovych's team guy, switching live to Yushchenko's address at Independence Square.
Well, unlike Neeka, who can undoubtedly be happy about the opposition getting coverage at last, I am not sure this is a good thing. It might mean media bias turned around 180 degrees, rather than going away.
[*] Inserted texts in italics: UPDATE 17/12.