Vienna, August 24 – Ethnic Russians in Ukraine are overwhelmingly loyal to Kyiv, a reflection of both their experiences at the end of the Soviet period and the strides the Ukrainian government has made to create a political rather than ethnic nation in that country, according to a leading Moscow specialist on ethnic issues.
Consequently, Sergei Markedonov argues in an article posted online this week, Moscow’s continuing efforts to exploit what many Russian officials and still believe is a significant dividing line within Ukraine are doomed to fail and may even backfire (http://www.russ.ru/layout/set/print//politics/docs/ukraina_raskola_ne_predviditsya).
On the one hand, Markedonov’s conclusions resemble those of Kremlin aide Modest Kolerov who in June 2006 urged that Moscow recognize that “there are no pro-Russian forces in the post-Soviet space” and that those who present themselves as such are marginal figures who lack any support in the countries where they now live.
But on the other, the Moscow analyst’s remarks this week are a significant extension of those ideas because they directly address the situation in Ukraine, a country that, in Markedonov’s words, has always occupied “a special role” in Russian thinking and “Soviet nostalgia.”
The creation of Ukraine in its current borders, Markedonov reminds his readers, was the work of Joseph Stalin who added the six western oblasts to the Ukrainian SSR at the end of World War II and Nikita Khrushchev who transferred Crimea to Ukraine in 1954.
As a result, Ukraine even in Soviet times had an ethnically diverse population, and Ukraine itself represented “an imagined community,” one in which ethnic Ukrainians for nationalist reasons and ethnic Russians there as the result of their specific life experiences with Russians from the RSFSR found a great deal of common ground.
Ukrainian nationalist sympathies in the late Soviet period are well-known, but Markedonov offers an interesting detail: Vitaliy Shelest’, the son of Ukrainian party boss Pyotr Shelest, repeatedly read and accepted most of the arguments of Ivan Dzyuba’s classic “Internationalism or Russification.”
But what the Moscow analyst says about ethnic Russians in the Ukrainian SSR is even more important. Markedonov, a native of Rostov, said that in the 1970s and 1980s, ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine were horrified by and viewed themselves as very different than the RSFSR Russians who traveled there to buy food.
And those experiences rather than some misplaced optimism about the future explain why ethnic Russians in the eastern portions of Ukraine voted for the independence of that country from the Soviet Union almost as enthusiastically as ethnic Ukrainians did.
Such attitudes, however, might not have mattered much if the post-Soviet Ukrainian leadership had sought an émigré-based ethnic national state, as some Ukrainians hoped. But instead, Kyiv has actively promoted the creation of “a political Ukrainian nation,” one with a place for ethnic Russians as well as ethnic Ukrainians.
This process, Markedonov continues, is “far from its completion,” but he argues that Moscow must recognize and base its policies toward Kyiv on the reality that over the last 16 years, “the Kyiv elite has been able to do a great deal to overcome the ethno-cultural split of the country.”
By acting in this way, the Moscow analyst says, Ukrainian leaders have been able to prevent their country from falling into the difficulties in which Georgia or even Moldova have found themselves and “what is most important” have been able to “create the traditions of a civilized transfer of power and the achievement of compromises.”
Since 1991, Ukraine has had three presidents. It has had even more prime ministers. And it has a political system in which compromise has been enshrined as a political virtue, something not found in many other post-Soviet states, including the Russian Federation.
As a result, Markedonov concludes, “the state in Ukraine exists, and a single political nation has become to be formed.” And the sooner that people in Moscow understand this, the batter” instead of continuing to pursue policies based on assumptions that are no longer true if they ever were.