Western diplomats are voicing concern as anti-government protests on the streets of Kiev continue. Protesters are angered by the decision of Victor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president, to delay the signing of an association pact which would bring Ukraine closer politically to the EU.
Much publicity has been given to the street agitators who, braving sub-zero temperatures, have attacked government property and symbols of Russian influence (including destroying a statue of Lenin).
However, whilst the majority of Kiev’s residents appear to favour closer relations with Europe, the country as a whole is more divided. A recent poll suggested that although 46% of the population wanted the EU association pact signed, a substantial 36% favoured an opposing agreement with Russia, a country with which Ukraine already has very close relations.
Ever since the 17th century, when Ukraine broke away from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the country’s fortunes have been inextricably bound with those of Russia. Long part of the Russian Empire, and subsequently a Soviet republic, Ukraine has an ambivalent relationship towards Russia and this is reflected in popular opinion. Some see the Russians as historical protectors and benevolent patrons; others view them as an imperialistic and bullying overlord content on using Ukraine for its own ends.
At no time has this divide been more starkly realised than during WWII when the Wehrmacht rumbled into Ukraine. At the time, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was one of the most important areas of Stalin’s empire. Agricultural and industrial output in the republic were high and, along with armament manufacture, comprised a crucial economic sector of the Soviet Union.
When the Nazi forces invaded, a sizable contingent of Ukrainians welcomed them with open arms, forming a collaborating partner within the Soviet Union. Years of harsh Stalinist collectivization and unfair distribution of resources, combined with a desire for genuine independence, left some Ukrainians grateful of the German advance. Some of the worst atrocities against Red Army forces were committed by Ukrainians inaugurated into the Waffen SS.
Even after it became clear that the Nazis had no intention of increasing Ukrainian autonomy, collaboration continued, showing the resentment harboured towards the Russians by part of society.
Simultaneously, thousands of other Ukrainians joined the Soviet forces in undertaking a heroic resistance campaign against the Nazi invaders. Sensing the true power designs of Hitler’s troops, and showing a loyalty towards their Russian benefactors, many ordinary Ukrainians fought a bloody defensive war. Many others simply fought for survival without allegiance to either side.
The divide in Ukrainian sentiment towards the Russians continued post-WWII. The republic became an increasingly important economic area for the Soviet Union and large swathes of Ukraine became heavily industrialised. Whilst these areas received considerable Russian investment, the proceeds of industrial output often benefited only a small minority with ties to the Kremlin.
The December 1991 referendum confirming Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union received a remarkable 90% approval rate, the most unanimous gesture of Ukrainian solidarity shown for some time. This was perhaps, however, more a sign of the decline of the Soviet Union rather than a signal of Ukrainian homogeneity.
Independence has brought contrasting fortunes for the Ukrainian people, whilst Russian influence has never entirely disappeared. Some of the older generation remember the days of communism with a glamourised fondness, whilst younger urbanites tend towards closer integration with the capitalist European states to the west.
These contrasts were again brought to light by the 2004 Orange Revolution when supporters of Yanukovych went head-to-head with protesters who favoured Viktor Yushchenko, himself dedicated to increasing EU integration, during a bitterly-fought presidential election.
With Vitali Klitschko, the renowned boxer, the latest to challenge the pro-Russian government, it remains to be seen whether the Kremlin camp can be won over. For Vladimir Putin, the delaying of Ukraine’s signing of the association pact was a major coup and testament to Russia’s continuing influence over its former republic. Putin himself will be hoping to preserve the Ukrainian buffer zone between Russia and the West that has existed for centuries.
Klitschko does not have to win over the protesters on Kiev’s streets but the rest of the country needs convincing. He must prove that Ukraine can survive without Russia, without its gas imports, technological/industrial support and military contracts.
In a country with such divided sentiment, the giant boxer undoubtedly still has his toughest fight to come.