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New Elections Won’t Mend Ukraine’s Cultural Divide

Another election may calm the situation, but it is unlikely to resolve the conflict between Ukraine’s east and west.

Kiev Ukraine
Saint Andrew’s Church in Kiev, Ukraine at night (Unsplash/Illia Cherednychenko)

A “peace deal” that follows two days of violence in Ukraine is unlikely to permanently resolve the country’s internal conflicts. The prospect of early elections might even antagonize the two sides further.

President Viktor Yanukovich and opposition leaders agreed to a proposal made by the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland on Friday to install a government of national unity, reverse constitutional reforms that had strengthened the presidency at the expense of parliament and call early elections.

The announcement of the deal calmed the situation in the capital, Kiev, where two days of clashes between protesters and security forces had left 77 people dead. But in the long term, it is unlikely to appease either side.

The unrest, which was stirred by Yanukovich’s shock decision late last year not to sign an association agreement with the European Union but deepen ties with his country’s former Soviet master Russia instead, has been virtually contained to those areas of Ukraine west of the Dnieper River. The east, which is home to some eight million ethnic Russians and voted overwhelmingly for Yanukovich in the last election, has not rebelled.

Yanukovich won the 2010 election against Yulia Tymoshenko with a margin of less than one million votes. He had earlier lost the 2004 presidential election by a margin of just over two million votes to the pro-Western candidate, Viktor Yushchenko.

While opinion polls show that a majority of Ukrainians, even in the east and south, would ultimately want to join the European Union, the incentive to do so is less economic than cultural.

Ukraine’s economy relies heavily on coal, fuel, grain and steel exports to Russia and other former Soviet republics. The country imports some 60 percent of its natural gas and more than 90 percent of its oil, virtually all of it from Russia. It has started developing its own Black Sea and shale gas reserves in order to become less dependent on imports but it might take years before those efforts bear fruit. In the meantime, Russia had threatened to take “protective measures” if Ukraine sought association with the European bloc over its own Eurasian customs union.

In a demonstration of such protective measures, Russia blocked Ukrainian goods at the border, causing the country’s foreign reserves to fall 30 percent last year while the economy contracted 1.5 percent in the third quarter. Its national debt increased to 77 percent of economic output.

Then shifting from sticks to carrots, Russia offered Ukraine $15 billion in credits and a price reduction in natural gas exports — after Yanukovich had scuttled the European association agreement.

But Russia’s bailout was seen by protesters in Kiev and the west of Ukraine as proof that its neighbor intended to draw Ukraine back into its sphere of influence.

While the European Union stands little to gain from putting Ukraine on a track for membership, Russia has both an economic imperative to keep Ukraine close and a strategic one.

A “European” Ukraine could have dashed the dream of Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, to turn his customs unions with Belarus and Kazakhstan into an Eurasian Union that can compete with Europe’s. By drawing Ukraine into this project, Russia would maintain a foothold in Europe, if not a European identity, whereas the alternative — an Eurasian Union that includes only Central Asian republics besides Russia — could relegate it to a less pivotal role in world affairs.

Ukraine is the most populous of former Russian satellite states, a major trading partner and shares Russia’s culture and Orthodox faith. Even many liberal Russians like to think of it as an extension of Russia proper and regret the separation of the two after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.

Western Ukrainians, whose heritage is Catholic, feel no such affinity. They consider themselves European and hope that closer relations with the European Union will give Ukraine a chance at modernity. Joining Putin’s Eurasian Union, by contrast, would, for them, mark a throwback to Soviet times with all the corruption and oppression that implies.

Earlier elections failed to bridge the divide between the two parts of Ukraine. It is difficult to see how another election — following the inevitable explosion of tension between two peoples who are trapped in one country — might accomplish just that.