A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[BRIEF NOTE] Why Ukraine Won’t Split (And Why It Doesn’t Matter That Much If It Does)

Continuing from last week’s post on Ukraine, it’s worth noting that the growing strength of Yushchenko’s movement has created fears that Ukraine could split into a Ukrainian nation-state in the north and west of the current country and an adjunct territory of Russia’s in the east and south. Andy at Siberian Light recommended this split, on the grounds that a peaceful division of Ukraine would avoid conflict. Discoshaman, for his part, observed that only three of Ukraine’s regions (Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk) are seriously considering secession, and that many Russified cities in central and eastern Ukraine support Yukashenko. Myself, I rate the likelihood of secession as low for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the intimate linkage of the secessionist movements to the current campaign and the absence of Ukrainian-Russian tensions in the east of Ukraine equivalent to, say, Serb-Croat tensions in the centre of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.


1. I don’t remember when, in the aftermath of Trudeau’s National Energy Program, Albertans proclaimed that they were willing to “let those eastern bastards freeze in the dark”. That’s because I wasn’t born then. This sort of tactic–proclamations of outrage with dark hints that if things don’t improve, now, secession is imminent–is common among distinctive units relatively unstable and/or federal states: the Dravidian movement, Tatarstan, Alberta, Western Australia. As Joel notes at Far Outliers in relation to Tatarstan, these crises are almost always resolved successfully without bloodshed, with the federation remaining intact and its unsatisfied member getting some of its grievances addressed. Is the Ukrainian situation so different?

2. It’s generally not considered an asset to have an economy based substantially on Soviet heavy industry. In the Baltic States, for instance, Latvia has inherited the largest share of Soviet-era heavy industry; Latvia also has the lowest per capita incomes of the three Baltic States. This may say much about the poverty of western and central Ukraine; this may say much about the poor state of the Ukrainian economy in general; this may say much about the hollowness of the secessionist cause’s economic base; likely it says all three things, and more besides. If the east seceded from Ukraine, the economy of rump Ukraine would be badly hurt, yes, and the long-term prospects for growth diminished; absent a captive market for its good, east Ukraine’s economy would be ruined.

3. Let’s say that Yushchenko wins the crisis decisively and implements a strongly Ukrainianizing and pro-European set of policies, and that as a result, the heavily-industrialized and strongly pro-Yanukovych provinces of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kharkiv and Crimea end up establishing autonomous republics inside Ukraine. (See these maps, the first showing the increase in voter turnout in the second round of the presidential election as compared to the first, the second providing a more nuanced look at the electoral divide.) As observed elsewhere, it’s isn’t exceptionally odd for territorially concentrated minorities in Europe with histories distinct from the national mainstream to gain self-government: devolution in the United Kingdom and the federalization of post-Franco Spain come immediately to mind, as does (in a different way) Finland’s unique policy of bilingualism and the asymmetrical political regionalism of the Italian state.

4. Imagine that relations between Kyyiv and the still hypothetical autonomous regions in the east of south break down completely, and these republics secede. Is this really a bad thing? I’ve argued elsewhere. that if the Abkhazians and South Ossetians really want to be free of Tbilisi’s rule, their homelands’ independence should be recognized regardless of Georgian claims. It would be a bad idea for Ukraine to maintain a forced and hence artificial unity over the whole of the territory of the former Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, not least because protracted tensions–or open conflict–would be dangerous. The world does not need another Yugoslavia.

5. Regardless of what happens, the events of November (and December) 2004 may strengthen the divides in Ukrainian society. Over the 1990s, ethnic and linguistic identity in Ukraine has been fluid, with many Russophone Ukrainians and even many ethnic Russians in Ukraine adopting an ethnic Ukrainian identity, in spirit if not so much in fact. If the polarization between Russophone pro-Yanukovych east and a generally Ukrainophone and pro-Yukashenko rest-of-Ukraine persists, this mobility could disappear in the east. (For consequences of which, refer to points 3 and possibly 4.) Much depends on who gets in power, in what circumstances, and what policies are proposed and adopted.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 30, 2004 at 8:52 pm

Posted in Assorted

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