From Borderlands to Bloodlands

September 2014
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5. Revolution, war and peace

Have the Euromaidan protests deepened the old division between East and West, or have they helped consolidate the Ukrainian nation? The pro-Yanukovych media presented the protests in Ukraine as a radical nationalist movement with its mass basis in western Ukraine. While radical nationalism was certainly present on the Maidan, the overwhelming majority protested under a democratic banner – for a pro-European Ukraine and against government corruption, police violence, unconstitutional restrictions of human rights and media freedom. These forces were also reflected at the symbolic level: while controversial nationalist symbols such as Stepan Bandera and the red and black flag of the OUN-UPA11 were certainly present on the Maidan, pro-European symbolism (especially during the first stage of the protests) and Cossack tradition (the Maidan as reincarnation of the Zaporozhian Cossack Sich) dominated.12 According to a survey conducted by the Demokratychni Initsiatyvy Foundation in December 2013, while western Ukraine was most strongly represented on the Kyiv Maidan (51.8 per cent during the mass rallies and 42.4 per cent among the permanent protesters), central Ukraine (30.9 per cent and 34.4 per cent) and eastern and southern Ukraine (17.3 per cent and 23.2 per cent) were also present.13 Moreover, in the final stage of the mass revolt against the Yanukovych government, demonstrations also took place in cities in the East and South. The Lviv historian Vasyl Rasevych suggested that the time had come when destructive identity politics drawing on irreconcilable historical memories were ready to be replaced by a unifying narrative: "The Revolution of Dignity and the war for a sovereign independent Ukraine – this is already common Ukrainian history, the history of an emerging political nation, the history of the victory of Ukrainian civil society."14

However, this new unifying narrative of a victorious revolution against a corrupt authoritarian regime came too late for Crimea. There, the scarecrow of Ukrainian radical nationalism, in the form of the Pravyi Sektor (Right Sector), revived fears of ethnic violence and Ukrainization among the Russian speaking population. The collapse of the ancien régime and some first unfortunate steps of the new Kyiv government (such as repealing the 2012 law giving Russian the status of a regional language, a decision that was immediately revoked) seemed to confirm these fears. These mistakes were exploited by Russia in a well-prepared operation that ended with the sweeping annexation of Crimea, despite the protests of the pro-Ukrainian minority and the Crimean Tatars.

In the East and the South of the country, the power shift brought different developments. In Donetsk and Luhansk, the local bosses of the Party of Regions encouraged mass protests against Kyiv, which they used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the new government. In Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Odessa and Kharkiv, former counter-elites and opportunists from the Party of Regions managed to stabilize the situation. What helped to keep the aggressive pro-Russian minority at bay was not so much support by the pro-Ukrainian part of the local population as the common effort of the local elites to prevent the collapse of the state institutions, to secure the loyalty of the police and security services, and to demonstrate determination and responsibility. A new alliance of local business, civil society and former counter-elites emerged around the basic agenda of providing peace, stability and security – an agenda that has turned out to be de facto pro-Ukrainian. Especially telling is the case of Dnipropetrovsk, where the local oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy used his financial and organizational resources not only to prevent a pro-Russian separatist coup along the lines of Donetsk and Luhansk, but also to help active pro-Ukrainian forces. In this way, an industrial, Soviet-type city that until recently voted for the Party of Regions has become a bastion of civic Ukrainian nationalism.15 In Kharkiv, now a frontline city, the local Euromaidan transformed into a grassroots network of volunteer groups supporting the poorly equipped Ukrainian army and caring for wounded soldiers and the flood of refugees from Donbas. In Odessa, which is only slowly recovering from the violent clashes of 2 May that cost dozens of lives, the new authorities and civic activists have initiated a public investigation and a reconciliation process intended to heal the city's trauma.16

One can say, then, that the "East" or "South-East" in the old sense no longer exists. The dramatic developments of spring 2014 have demonstrated that collective identities are situational and contextual and can rapidly change, especially under conditions of territorial secession, external aggression and military conflict.

The ongoing war in Donbas will have profound and long-term consequences for the region. While the armed conflict has certainly deepened anti-Ukrainian hostilities in some parts of the local population, it has taught other parts to appreciate security, stability and strong state institutions. If the Kyiv government and its army and police force prove to be a guarantee of security for the population, the first step along the long road of re-integrating Donbas into Ukraine may have been made.

However, armed conflict has also perpetuated the "othering" of Donbas in public discourse.17 While Russia is a driving force behind the separatist movement, a significant portion of the local population actively or passively has supported the Donetsk and Luhansk "republics", at least at the beginning. While Ukrainian liberals continue to discuss how to win over the local population to the national project and to inculcate Ukrainian identity, nationalists cultivate social hatred and even consider mass cleansing. Tens of thousands of refugees have flooded Ukrainian cities, while hundreds of Donbas men continue to fight against the Ukrainian army. In this strange war, there is no front line: civilians holding out in the conflict zone are either separatist sympathizers or their hostages, depending on your point of view. Hundreds of them have already been killed or wounded; thousands have lost their property. One way to cope with the horrible reality of war is to blame the victims: they are paying the price for their pro-Russian sympathies. And many families in western and central Ukraine do not understand why their sons and husbands should die for Donbas, when it does not even consider itself part of Ukraine. Yet the war has already imprinted Donbas on the imaginary national map, with local toponyms such as Sloviansk, Krasnyi Luch or Torez now familiar to the whole country. Donbas has become the land where Ukrainian independence, democracy and the future of the nation are being defended, and therefore, from now on, Donbas is Ukraine.18

The article is an adapted version of Tetiana Zhurzhenko's presentation at "Ukraine: Thinking Together" conference, co-organized by KRYTYKA in May 2014. First published in Transit no. 45 (2014) (German version); Eurozine (English version).

© Tatiana Zhurzhenko / Transit
© Eurozine

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