At Open Democracy, Svitlana Kobzar wites: The argument for splitting Ukraine is that this would merely establish de jure a situation that already exists de facto, because Ukraine is deeply divided by its cultural identity/language differences. It would also supposedly settle tensions between the West and Russia because Moscow would get what it wanted and would not venture further. With Ukraine split into two, its western part could eventually move closer towards Europe while its Russian-speaking East and South would establish a state allied closely with Russia. This solution, the argument goes, would best reflect the preferences of the local population. Moreover, letting parts of the South and East go might also be sensible for economic reasons. The only problem with this proposal is that none of the arguments bear close scrutiny.
Ukraine’s linguistic divisions are real. The majority of the country’s Russian-speaking population lives in the East and South; most of those who speak Ukrainian live in the centre and the West, which has traditionally been more integrated with the rest of Europe for reasons of both geography and history. But is one’s mother tongue the strongest factor influencing one’s political choices? When sociologists pose questions relating to their respondents’ identity, history or preference for a pro-EU or a pro-Russian foreign policy, the result is indeed a political map of Ukraine where the western and central regions exhibit very different preferences from those in the East and South.
But as Ukrainian political scientist Yevhen Hlibovytsky argues, research suggests that for ordinary Ukrainians there are other issues which are far more important for their political choices than language. These are mostly associated with their own security: economic security, rule of law, education or human security. When sociologists ask questions about these issues, the result is a map of political preferences which does not reflect geographical or linguistic divisions – it presents a picture of a relatively united country.
While there is some correlation between predominantly Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine and pro-Russian foreign policy preferences, language is not, in fact, the most important predictor of separatist sentiments. As American historian Timothy Snyder argues, ‘It is true that Ukrainians speak Russian, but that does not make them Russian, any more than my writing in English makes me English.’ Many Ukrainians are bilingual and speaking Russian is not the main indicator of their choices. [Continue reading…]