Euromaidan: The Cyrillic Archipelago

Euromaidan protesters maintain a barrier erected in Independence Square. (Photo Courtesy of demotix.com)

Summary: The vestiges of the Soviet domestic policy of Russification has enabled the Kremlin to maintain strong ties to the nations of Ukraine and Belarus, whom it exploits for their strategic and economic value. A dichotomy has emerged between nations who have attempted to reverse this policy of Russification and those that have instead remained aligned with Russia. In the case of Ukraine, this dichotomy is internal, leading to the present strife the country is facing.

Civil unrest continues to shake the nation of Ukraine in an attempt to oust current President Viktor Yanukovych. The Euromaidan, as the crisis is called (literally “Eurosquare”), furiously and simultaneously exposed the fruits of history and placed the expansionist policies of the European Union and Russia in direct opposition. The outcome of this crisis will have critical implications for the future of EU-Russian relations, as well as the ability of the Russian state to exert influence in Eastern Europe. In this post, I provide a short history lesson and an analysis of what the current ethnic and cultural makeup of Eastern Europe means for the politics of the region.

The borders of the Soviet Union once contained the Baltic States, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova. The Kremlin instituted a policy of Russification in these nations, restricting non-Russian languages and placing ethnic Russians in powerful positions. In the words of Nikita Kruschev, “The sooner we all start speaking Russian, the faster will shall build Communism.” In the aftermath of the Soviet dissolution, these nations had significant populations of not only native Russian speakers, but secondary speakers as well who had taken compulsory classes in school. In the more than two decades following independence, a dichotomy has emerged between ex-Soviet states that have turned westward and those that have stayed close to Russia.

The Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) joined the European Union and NATO in 2004, and follow a Western European model of modernization, government and law, and economic development. All three have shown strong reversals of Russification trends with an increase in the use of native non-Russian languages (read: Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian) and a decrease in the prominence of Russian, despite a large Russian-speaking minority. None have Russian as an official language, and all show varying levels of resistance or antipathy towards the presence of the Russian language in official institutions and schools.

Belarus and Ukraine, however, have remained close with Russia. These nations have entered into trade agreements with Russia (and other former Soviet republics) of varying levels and engagement over the past decades, the most recent being the 2010 formation of a Customs Union of Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan. Putin has stated his goal is to expand membership of the Union to all ex-Soviet republics, excluding the Baltic States. Language remains a major tie that binds Belarus and Ukraine to Russia. In these nations, the legacy of Russification is alive and well.

This Washington Post article presents a view of the Ukrainian crisis from the point of view of language. Ukraine is split between a Ukrainian-speaking western region that sees Ukraine’s future with Europe, and a largely Russian-speaking eastern region that identifies culturally with Russia and whose jobs rely on Russian trade. Russian is one of two official languages of Belarus; Ukrainian law allows languages spoken by at least a ten percent minority to be declared official, and Russian has thus become an official language in several eastern Ukrainian provinces.

The Russian government recognizes this pattern. Indeed, Russia has demanded better treatment of Russian-speaking populations in Latvia and Estonia so that these groups can exert a larger political influence; in these nations, citizenship is not automatic and requires basic knowledge of the constitution and good knowledge of the respective official language, and thus many ethnic Russians are considered aliens.

For the Baltic States, laws encouraging knowledge of the constitution and the official language preserve a national identity that has historically been viewed as repressed by larger surrounding empires. However, this is not the case in Belarus and Ukraine. Belarus has remained extremely close with Russia economically and politically in the past decades, even going so far as talks of reunification. They share similar authoritarian governmental institutions, with similar claims of human rights violations. Like seems to beget like in the old Soviet sphere.

However, Russia remains dominant in its relationship with Belarus. Russia maintains close ties with Belarus for the purposes of national defense and economic expansion, but anything resembling an equal partnership would be contrary to the goals of Russia. The purchasing of Belarusian pipelines by Russian companies for greater Russian access to European markets benefits Russia, not Belarus. The large gas and oil subsidies Belarus receives in exchange barely offset costs, as Russia is known to raise gas prices, limit oil sales, and ban imports of Belarusian goods as well as shut off pipelines when Belarus attempts a major challenge against Russian dominance. Further, Belarus finds itself dependent on loans from Russian-owned institutions. The Belarusian economy has suffered as a result, with a high rate of inflation and a rapidly devaluing currency, problems Russia is both largely incapable and unwilling to address.

Russia sees a similar strategic and economic value in Ukraine, but has been unable to completely pull the nation into its sphere due to the politically active nature of the Ukrainian people. In 2005, they took to the streets in support of democratic institutions during the Orange Revolution following an election cycle marred by claims of fraud and voter intimidation. The result was a pro-Europe president coming into power, redirecting Ukraine’s Russian trajectory.

However, current president Viktor Yanukovych, who identifies strongly with a pro-Russian electorate, came to power in 2010 after the previous pro-European president failed to follow through on promises to diversify and improve the economy. Protests began after Yanukovych failed to sign an associative agreement that would have led Ukraine toward closer integration with the European Union. Yanukovych saw that the last president suffered in the polls when the economy suffered, and so he does what he feels will most boost the economy of Ukraine. The EU associative agreement entailed austerity measures called for by the IMF (Europe’s solution to Ukrainian debt troubles), while the Russians offered him a fifteen billion dollar loan and cuts in natural gas prices. Yanukovych of course chose the latter deal.

Protesters came out, challenging the turn towards Russia and the human rights violations of the current regime. Harsh repression and claims that the military will intervene have not only brought out more protesters, but also international attention. Importantly, the most dangerous and massive protests are in the west of the country. For the dichotomy I mentioned earlier between the ‘Russified’ but western-leaning Baltic States and the ‘Russified’ and eastern-leaning Belarus is an internal split in the case of Ukraine. The nation is in the ravages of an identity crisis that will push Ukraine west or east.

In my next blog post, I will discuss how the foreign policy of Russia ties into the present crisis, as well as how the West should respond to the crisis.

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