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 a red herring. The Russian minority in Ukraine does not exist as a bounded, culturally distinct group within a larger population, in the way that one typically conceives of an ethnic minority. Rather, the category of personal ethnicity in Ukraine is a legacy of Soviet state policies. These policies assigned ethnic identity to citizens at birth and made them report that identity when applying for jobs or spots in higher education. The Soviet Union also established its 15 republics as internal national homelands, each named after the dominant nationality—i.e., Ukraine for Ukrainians. Thus, the Soviet state promoted a system of ethnic classification at two levels: an ethnocultural/personal level and a territorial level.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, ethnic identities have not become politicized in Ukraine. To the country’s great credit, upon winning independence the government did not condition citizenship on cultural practice or ethnic ancestry. It allowed people the freedom to choose personal identities, religion, and language. Unlike in the Baltic states, citizens after 1991 were not forced to learn the new state language (i.e. Ukrainian) in order to win the right to participate in politics. Instead, most Ukrainians living in the east and south of the country continued to speak Russian, whereas those living in the west continued to speak Ukrainian. At the same time, the Ukrainian language, which had been subordinated to Russian during the Soviet era, was introduced gradually into primary education so that today, most Ukrainians are bilingual Ukrainian and Russian speakers.

Nor do ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians form self-enclosed groups. Cultural boundaries are faint and porous due to a common Eastern Orthodox religion and Slavic culture, similar languages, and shared practices deriving from a recent history as Soviet and post-Soviet citizens. Ukrainian-Russian intermarriage is commonplace. Moreover, since the 1990s, experts have observed a shift in what Ukrainians consider their salient identity. More and more people consider themselves Ukrainian based on their citizenship and regardless of their ethnicity. This trend has accelerated in the five years since the Ukraine crisis began.

In short, the country’s cultural policies have been flexible and gradualist, and the identities and cultural practices associated with them are very fluid. In the words of one citizen whom I interviewed in 2017: “Identity? I don’t know. Probably Ukrainian, but it’s all mixed up. So many people have lived here historically that it’s all melted together. A pure nation doesn’t exist anywhere in the world.”

THE PERILS OF POLARIZATION

All of these factors make ethnic polarization or conflict unlikely in Ukraine. Yet continued harmony among the country’s ethnicities is by no means guaranteed. People start to perceive ethnic boundaries when politicians and opinion leaders stigmatize certain cultural practices and attributes as immoral or alien. Unfortunately, recent Ukrainian government policies may have begun to do just that.

People start to perceive ethnic boundaries when politicians and opinion leaders stigmatize certain cultural practices and attributes as immoral or alien.

In 2017, Ukraine’s parliament and president passed a Law on Education that bans the use of minority languages for instruction in schools after the fifth grade by 2020. The goal of the law is to expand the use of Ukrainian language throughout the country—a worthy goal. It means, however, that the approximately 621 Russian-language schools, 78 Romanian-language schools, and 68 Hungarian-language schools in Ukraine will have to adapt quickly or face penalties. Moreover, one provision of the law allows certain subjects at Ukrainian-language schools to be taught in European languages, such as Hungarian and Romanian, but not in Russian—eliciting charges of discrimination from the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission.

In addition, the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul recently granted the Ukrainian Orthodox Church autocephaly, or independence, from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Moscow Patriarchate (UOC–MP), which is affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church. With that, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church went from being one of four Orthodox churches in the country to the national church of Ukraine, leading church-state relations in Ukraine to resemble those in Russia, where the institutions are conjoined and the church often acts as a political arm of the state.

Although most of Ukraine’s population does not attend church, the political symbolism of this break with Russia is as profound as it is popular. Poroshenko, who led the push for autocephaly, describes the achievement in overtly political terms, as “a question of our independence, national security, statehood, a question of world geopolitics.” But as the separation of church and state in Ukraine comes to an end, many will doubtless wonder what it means for the significant number of people who continue to be members and clergy of the UOC–MP. There is a danger that both the state and society at large will perceive their membership in a church controlled by Moscow as amounting to political support for Russia and disloyalty to Ukraine.

DONBAS AND THE PATH FORWARD

There is also a danger that the war in Donbas—now in its fifth year—could contribute to the politicization of ethnicity in Ukraine. Before the crisis began, political opinion among Donbas residents reflected a geopolitical orientation toward Russia: most people favored Ukraine’s membership in the Russia-backed Customs Union rather than the European Union. Then, local activists staged the separatist rebellion that led to the establishment of the breakaway republics and, subsequently, to war. Donbas is one of eastern Ukraine’s Russophone regions and also the one with the highest percentage of people (approximately 41 percent) who identify as ethnic Russian or mixed Russian-Ukrainian identity. As a result, many observers label the entire region “pro-Russian” and write it off as politically disloyal.

But this misses the diversity of political attitudes there. Consider that support for separatism was not the dominant political opinion among residents of Donetsk and Luhansk before the war started in spring 2014; slightly less than a third of residents backed separation from Ukraine. Moreover, my research found that the political attitudes of ethnic Russians were divided on most issues related to separatism, such as perceptions of linguistic discrimination. In turn, many ethnic Ukrainian respondents also supported separatist issues, albeit not in numbers as large as the Russians. All of this means that political opinion in Donbas was not polarized along ethnic lines. People who identified with different ethnicities did not have diametrically opposed worldviews.

Unfortunately, it is unclear whether this is still the case in Donbas after five years of war. Given the Russian disinformation campaigns and the ongoing violence, local authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk have been politicizing both Russian and Ukrainian culture and identity. Still, Alexander Hug, former deputy chief monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, has not observed an ethnic or religious “undercurrent group dynamic” as in other conflicts and notes that “up to 40,000 Ukrainians cross [the] contact line every day.” He also believes, however, that intergroup conflict is likely to develop the longer the violence persists.

There are, to be sure, Ukrainian citizens with Russian identities who have welcomed Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. But at this critical period for the country, its political and cultural leaders should not inadvertently further Putin’s goals of fomenting identity-based conflict by equating Russian cultural practices and affinities with a lack of loyalty to Ukraine. The people of Ukraine long ago moved beyond a simple Russian-Ukrainian dichotomy—in their identities, their everyday practices, and their political attitudes. Now it’s time to see whether Ukraine’s leaders can keep up with them.

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  • ELISE GIULIANO is a Lecturer in Political Science and the Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies at Columbia University.
  • More By Elise Giuliano