Ukraine – trapped between two worlds

The existence of two distinct Ukrainian identities has been much remarked upon in the wake of the Euromaidan protests that erupted in Kyiv in November and December 2013. Here, Eurasiacat blogger Abel Riu Laguna suggests that the differences are not just cultural.

Since its independence in 1991, Ukraine’s authorities have had to manage the historic division that characterises Ukraine, not only in terms of language and ethnicity, but also from a socio-economic and political point of view. This deep contradiction made impossible to formulate a clear geopolitical direction in which to take the country: whether to Russia and the former Soviet space, or the European Union. The mass mobilisation that has taken place in Kyiv and other cities in Ukraine during the last month shows that nowadays a very important part of the Ukrainian society is willing to move closer towards the EU. Nevertheless, data show the sociological situation is much more complex, with support for EU accession still far from being in a majority in Ukraine.

According to a poll undertaken between 9 and 20 November last year by the International Institute of Sociology of Kyiv 41% of Ukrainians favour and 33% oppose accession of Ukraine to the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union. Support for joining the Customs Union is very high in the East (65%), high in the South (54%), moderate in central Ukraine (30), and lowest in the West (16%). When it comes to the support for accession to the EU, 40% declared themselves to be in favour, while 35% were against. In this case, Western and Central regions are the more pro-European (66% and 43% respectively), while in the Eastern regions only 18% of those polled favoured the accession of Ukraine to the EU.

It is true that the areas where support for accession to the Customs Union (CU) is highest have a larger Russophone population and important ethnic Russian  populations. Nevertheless, there are reasons to think that the higher support for the CU in those regions is due to economic, rather than cultural reasons. Eastern and Southern Ukraine enjoys a relatively privileged economic position, and as a report from Forbes Ukraine recently discussed, joining the European free trade area would have a significantly more negative impact on these regions.

If we look at regional data regarding GDP per capita in Ukraine (Graph 1), most of the Eastern and Southern regions (in blue) are placed in the upper part of the rank. By contrast, the majority of central and western regions, where support for the accession to the EU is higher (red) are among the poorest (Kyiv can be consider as an outlier, as its status as a capital city generates much more wealth than the rest of the regions in most economic indicators). Similarly, in Graph 2, all but one of the locations under the national average monthly wage of $417 dollars are located in the West.


Source of data: State Statistics Service of Ukraine


Source of data: State Statistics Service of Ukraine

The causes of this inequality are very diverse, and are related mainly to the level of development of the respective regional economies. Therefore, whereas the territories of the East and South provide 63% of the total industrial production in the country and only 35% of the agriculture, the central and western parts still hold an important role for agriculture. Paradoxically however, this more favourable economic situation does not translate into quality of government, independence of the judiciary, or lower criminality  and corruption. Living conditions in the South and East are harder, as shown by the levels of alcoholism, suicide, drug addiction, or prevalence of HIV infection, higher in all the cases than the national average.

With the signature of the Association Agreement in its current terms with the EU, the most affected regions would have been the Eastern and Southern ones, areas where most of the electoral support of president Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions comes from. Indeed, by signing the Association Agreement in Vilnius President Yanukovych would have betrayed his own political supporters, offended his parliamentarian ally, the Ukrainian Communist Party, and risked the presidential elections scheduled for the beginning of 2015.


2010 Presidental Elections: regional distribution of the vote obtained by V. Yanukovych and Y. Tymoshenko

Challenged by the historic choice of moving towards either Russia or the EU, Ukraine faces a structural conflict of immediate interests neither of which will go away soon. The claim of the EU is highly premised on democratic improvements, something that is insistently repeated by the protestors and part of the Western media. Nevertheless, the social and economic factors and divide are also of obvious importance, and to a certain extent seem to have been underestimated by Brussels during negotiations with Kyiv, leading to a temporary failure to attract Ukraine towards its sphere of influence.

The original and full version of this post appeared at Eurasiaca.


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