— Euromaidan PR (@EuromaidanPR) February 24, 2014
The real divide in Ukraine is not between East and West, but between the democratic forces on the one hand and the Party of Regions on the other. The latter is strongest in the southeast, mostly because its cadres (who are mostly former communists) have controlled the region’s information networks and economic resources since Soviet times and continue to do so to this day. Their domination since Ukraine’s independence rests on their having constructed alliances with organized crime and the country’s oligarchs, in particular with Ukraine’s richest tycoon, Rinat Akhmetov. They have enormous financial resources at their disposal, control the local media, and quash — or have quashed — all challengers to their hegemony. Their rule has been compared, not inaccurately, to that of the mafia. Ukrainians in the southeast tend to vote for them, less because they’re enamored of Yanukovych (they are not), and more because they have no alternatives and, due to the Region Party’s control of the media, see no alternatives.
But Christian Caryl says neglecting the divide is “wishful thinking”:
To emphasize these complexities is not — as some would claim – to deny Ukraine’s viability as a state. Nor does it imply that Ukraine ought to be carved up into constituent units.
Ukraine is perfectly capable of continuing its existence as a state if it can find an institutional framework that will take its political diversity into account — instead of lurching from one crisis to the next as it has over the past 15 years.
Ukraine’s regional differences do, however, mean that we should take the possibility of civil conflict seriously. Reporters in Kiev have already described the rise of quasi-military “self-defense units” among the protesters. What has gone largely unremarked is the rise of similar paramilitary groups in the East. As this map by political observer Sergii Gorbachev shows, Yanukovych’s political machine has been busily standing up “militia units” throughout the East, sometimes with overt ties to local gangland structures. Here, for example, is a Russian-language interview with one ex-convict who’s setting up his own pro-Yanukovych militia in the Eastern city of Kharkov. He won’t say how many members the new group has, but he’s quite open about its aims: “I’m preparing my population and my people for war.”
Adam Taylor points to Crimea, where loyalties are distinctly Russian, as a potential breakaway region:
From the 18th century on, the region was part of Russia, but that changed in 1954, when the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union passed it from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, a decision that is still controversial in some circles. Today the peninsula might still be a part of Ukraine, but in many ways it is separate from the rest of the country: It has its own legislature and constitution, for example, and it’s still very Russian: Some 60 percent of the population is ethnically Russian, with the rest being Ukrainian or Crimean Tatars.
It appears that some members of this Russian community have regarded the events in Kiev with a mixture horror and opportunism: The chaos in Ukraine could finally be the region’s chance to turn back to Moscow.
Max Fisher, who has pushed a structural explanation of the conflict, argues that both competing narratives have some merit:
The structural storyline, of an identity crisis fueled by history and demographics, appeals for its neatness and its comprehensive breadth. But it tends to rankle people, and not without reason, who see it as explaining away the bravery and idealism of the protesters, or forgiving the very real abuses of Yanukovych.
The more human narrative, of regular Ukrainians pushed to the breaking point by an abusive government they can no longer tolerate, is much more emotionally satisfying. Anyone can relate to it. It appeals especially to Americans, who feel an immediate affection for any pro-democracy movement, particularly one that expresses a desire to reject Russia and embrace the West. Still, this story ignores the 30 percent of Ukrainians who wanted to reject the E.U. deal for a Russia-led trade union, and it ignores the pro-Russia attitudes in the eastern half of the country. It almost seems to tell pro-Russia Ukrainians that they don’t count, which can feel a bit Russophobic.