Ukraine and Russia: A family feud?

Amid separatist rebellion and hastily arranged referenda on leaving Ukraine, the Anadolu Agency examines how a potent mix of history, language and identity has fuelled division among two peoples with historical ties stretching back centuries.

Ukraine and Russia: A family feud?

World Bulletin / News Desk

As Ukraine lurches towards further violence and separatist rebellion, a prominent international writer on nationalism has accused Vladimir Putin of reviving "long-standing Russian 19th century strategic goals."

Professor Michael Ignatieff, former Canadian Liberal Party leader and current lecturer on political science at the Harvard Kennedy School in the U.S., told the Anadolu Agency that Putin's aim is to prevent Ukraine joining NATO and orienting itself towards Europe.

Ignatieff was speaking as pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s eastern cities of Donetsk and Lugansk held a self-declared poll on joining Moscow on Sunday.

Ukraine and the West have denounced the vote as illegal.

Ignatieff, author of 1993’s 'Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism,' said: "He [Putin] needs Ukraine for the sake of the Black Sea and access to the Mediterranean. These are long-standing Russian strategic goals, going back to the 19th century.

"Putin's rhetoric may be genuine, may be contrived: that is not the issue. The issue is the use of force to create chaos in a neighboring state and to alter its borders without consent."

The disintegration of Ukrainian sovereignty also has its roots in clashes over identity and language. Ignatieff emphasized that Ukrainians have demonstrated a national consciousness and a sense of separate identity since the 19th century.

While many Russians do not consider Ukraine to be a foreign country, many Ukrainians have unhappy memories of union with Moscow: "A majority of Ukrainians remember the Soviet times as a period of occupation, culminating in the forced starvation of millions of Ukrainians and the collectivization of their agriculture between 1931 and 1938," Ignatieff said.

However, Professor Mikhail A. Molchanov, a specialist in Ukrainian-Russian relations at St. Thomas University in Canada, says that, for Russians, an independent Ukraine is a "national trauma" which runs against the grain of their nation's history:

"Kiev is still called in Russian folklore 'the mother of all Russian cities;' this is the birthplace of Russian civilization. The loss of Ukraine would mean the loss of historical roots of Russian civilization."

According to Molchanov the main problem of Ukraine is language: "Without acknowledging the fact that Ukraine’s political nation consists of two main ethnic groups -- Russian-speakers and Ukrainian-speakers -- it is hard to build a sustainable and viable future."

Molchanow believes there is an identity crisis within the Ukraine population dating from nation-building following independence in 1991 when Kiev expended significant resources to separate Ukrainian language and culture from Russian influences.

This is dismissed by Ignatieff. Most Ukrainians speak both Russian and Ukrainian, suffer no identity crisis whatsoever and, by and large, want national independence free of external pressure and threats, he says.

"Many understand that securing their national independence requires granting linguistic rights to Russian speakers and some degree of regional autonomy to all the regions of Ukraine, not just the eastern parts," Ignatieff adds.

Molchanov agrees that Ukraine's status as a home to two linguistic communities means concessions must be made: "The idea that Russian should be acknowledged as the second official language it is not an invention of the Kremlin or Putin or separatists. It is just the fact of the land."

However, ties between the two countries are deep-rooted. Economically they are closely linked says Molchanov, adding that Ukraine supplied many members of the Soviet elite, creating a perception "in the Russian mindset that Ukraine is much closer relatively than, for example, Lithuania or Estonia."

"The [post-independence] Ukrainian government started to build this model Ukrainian identity relying mostly on western Ukrainian traditions and tradition of Ukrainian diaspora abroad in Canada particular."

"It was presumed that they better preserved true Ukrainian language," he says.

"As a result the eastern Ukrainians perceived themselves as affiliated with Russia and have been ostracized and marginalized by the government in Kiev and western Ukrainians who constantly accused them of being a sort of improper Ukrainian or being pro-Russian."

A poll released Thursday by the Pew Research Centre in the U.S. has suggested that 70 percent of Ukrainians in the east wanted to stay in a united country, with only 18 percent of respondents backing secession from Kiev.

However, unrecognized polls hastily organized in the east by pro-Russian elements have produced results in favor of self-rule.

Perhaps it is in a protracted series of compromises over autonomy and language rights that a solution to the conflict may be found:

"The people do not want to live with Russia, they want to live in Ukraine but they want their rights acknowledged. They talk about joining Russia as the last of two evils. Their first choice is to live in Ukraine," Molchanov says.

However, as violence in the region worsens, that choice may come under increasing pressure as Ukraine’s two communities -- joined by a common history for centuries -- become strangers to each other.

Last Mod: 12 Mayıs 2014, 13:17
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