Issues of identity, language and ethnicity have been mentioned as part of the background of recent events in Ukraine, although scholars and commentators have diverging opinions on the extent to which they really reflect divisions in Ukrainian society. With tension in Crimea raising in these hours, in this post we point to some background resources.
According to the official 2001 census Russians accounted for 17.3 % of the republic’s population mostly concentrated in the Eastern and Southern regions. The map published by Kyiv Post presented the Russian language gaining official status as a “regional” language across eastern and southern regions of Ukraine in the aftermath of the adoption of the language law in 2012. The law allowed elevation of any minority language spoken by at least 10% of their population to the status of official language.
Source: Kyiv Post based on the 2011 survey by Kyiv-based Razumkov think tank.
An article by Volha Charnysh, The Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity 2013, analysed the consequences of the language law conluding that this approach would allow the continuing exploitation of identity in Ukrainian politics. Chatham House’s analysis of the relationship between ethnicity and language indicates that due to historical reasons, ‘linguistic preference has tended to correlate more closely with region than ethnicity’. Thus, the authors concludes that language has not a key factor in exploring political orientation, nevertheless it is still subject of tension. On February 23, 2014, repealing the language law was among the very first acts of the Verkhovna Rada , the Ukrainian parliament, under the new leadership.
On February 22, 2014 the Verkhovna Rada adopted a resolution against of separatism and any encroachments on Ukraine’s national security” (available here in English courtesy the Embassy of Ukraine in Denmark), clearly accusing domestic and foreign forces of exploiting the situation to achieve a division of the country.
The February PISM’s bulletin highlights the Crimea as one of the ‘hot spots’ in the region and calls for support for this region as crucial for the further European integration of Ukraine. In one of the recent CEPS Commentaries Michael Emerson explored scenarios for a ‘post-Yanukovich Ukraine’, indicating that Eastern and Southern Ukraine, including Crimea, risk to evolve in a way similar to Transnistria. Joerg Forbrig, The German Marshal Fund, argues that the current Russian approach towards the Crimea, based on reporting violation towards the minority rights, closely resembles previous developments in regions of Transnistria, Abkhazia and South-Ossetia, seceded from Moldova and Georgia as well as Nagorno-Karabakh, contested by Armenia and Azerbaijan.
This is further emphasised by Andrew Wilson, ECFR, indicating that the Crimea can be used by Russia as an instrument of pressure or a regional opposition front towards the new government.
Europe-Asia Studies 2013 had a special issue on the implications of the self-determination of Kosovo. It featured an analysis of the Crimea’s case. Assessing positively the settlement between Russians, the Ukrainian central government, and Crimean Tatars reached in Crimea in the 1990s, Tetyana Malyarenko and David J. Galbreath argue that the key source of instability now does not lie in ethnic claims or geopolitics, but rather in the Ukrainian political and commercial interests “that threaten the de facto settlement between the region and the center’.
The issue has attracted much attention, with Zbigniew Brzezinski calling for ‘a Finland option’ of strategic neutrality for Ukraine and Orlando Figes, in Foreign Affairs, suggesting a referendum on the future of the country. A rather counter-intuitive stance is the one taken by Professor Alexander J. Motyl, who argues that secession of the “southeast’s rust-belt economy” is not in Russia’s interest.