It’s yet another square in yet another unfamiliar city. This time it is the Independence Square and it is in the capital of Ukraine, Kiev. This month, protesters by the tens of thousands and soon, in the hundreds of thousands, are trying to influence the political destiny of their country. They want a closer relationship to the European Union. The president of Ukraine does not. It’s the struggle for the identity of their country.
But, which country? What is Ukraine and who can call himself a Ukrainian? For centuries it was a version of “Kurdistan.” There are Kurds who see themselves as a nation but are politically divided among neighboring states. The Ukrainians are a European parallel. Ukrainians speak their own Slavic language, practice their own version of Christianity, but were jostled by White Russians in Belarus, Great Russians in Russia, Polish landlords to the north and Hungarian ones to the West from the seventeenth century until the close of the 20th century. They could not form a state.
For a few years, after the great re-drawing of the map of Europe in 1918, the Ukrainians finally formed a nation-state only to be overwhelmed by the expansion of the Soviet Union. A brief independence was traded for more than sixty years of a Soviet Socialist Republic. Today’s battles in Independence Square are the confrontation of Ukrainians who see themselves as Europeans and Ukrainians who see themselves as Russians.
It’s a division between the Roman alphabet and the Cyrillic alphabet. It’s the division between Ukrainians who speak Ukrainian and those who speak Russian. It’s the division between a Ukrainian culture looking westward and the Russian or russified eastern Ukrainians who see the future in the Russian orbit. Many citizens in the eastern Ukraine are ethnic Russians who moved there during the USSR period.
Today the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin made a deal with Viktor Yanukovich, the Ukrainian president. The protesters in Independence Square are demanding continued negotiations with Europe to join the European Union. Yanukovich rejects this model. He received his reward from Putin: a $15 billion loan and below market prices for Russian gas. Ukraine has systemic economic problems and Putin just handed Yanukovich a solution.
But what’s the real price? The suspicion in the EU is that Putin is looking for the restoration of a shadow of the former USSR. Russia has kept close relationship with Belarus and is seeking a tight alliance between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. And now, perhaps, Ukraine? A new union of former USSR states?
However, this will do violence to those Ukrainians who remember the Holdomor: Stalin’s merciless attack on Ukrainian farmers during the 1920’s. The Kulak class of well-to-do peasants was consigned to the Soviet gulag and the country-side to a horrific famine.
There are those who saw the disintegration of the USSR in 1990 as the birth of an independent Ukrainian nation-state and finally freedom from not only Soviet ideology but also Russian dominance. There is as yet no single vision of a Ukrainian nation-state. There are two competing visions. Painful days are ahead.