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Is the Risk of Ethnic Conflict Growing in Ukraine?

New Laws Could Create Dangerous Divisions

People attend an election rally of Ukrainian President and Presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko in Kiev, March 2019 Gleb Garanich / REUTERS

The Ukrainian presidential election is only weeks away, and its outcome is highly uncertain. President Petro Poroshenko is lagging in the polls behind Volodymyr Zelensky, a television actor whose only political experience consists of playing the president of Ukraine in a sitcom. The country will head to the polls while still at war in its eastern region of Donbas, where in 2014, local separatists forcibly seized government buildings and declared people’s republics in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Since then, the conflict has taken on elements of both a civil war and an interstate conflict, with Russia arming separatist combatants and sponsoring the breakaway regions. Violence is muted but steady: the number of deaths recently reached 13,000, one-quarter of them civilian.

Unsurprisingly, Ukraine’s leading presidential candidates are all running on platforms resisting Russia. The choice is logical given popular anger over President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and continued interference in Donbas. But Poroshenko differs from other candidates in that he couches his anti-Russian message in a national identity incorporating elements of Ukrainian ethnicity. Whereas his campaign slogan in 2014 was “A New Way of Living,” his current slogan is “Army! Language! Faith!”

Ukraine’s population is culturally diverse. A significant number of citizens identify as ethnic Russians, and an even larger number—nearly half of the population—are Russian speakers. Given the persistence of the crisis in the east, is there a danger that cultural identities and practices will become politicized and lead to ethnic conflict?

Although such an outcome is still unlikely, several new government policies could lead cultural identities to be redefined in a way that divides citizens where formerly no division existed. This development could both worsen political polarization and bolster Putin’s claims that Russian speakers and ethnic Russians face discrimination in Ukraine. These are precisely the claims that Ukrainians across the political spectrum knew to be untrue—until recently.

THE ROLE OF IDENTITY

Analysts often refer to Russians in Ukraine as an ethnic minority. But this term is

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