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Forging Ukraine

The coming of age of Ukrainians

by Paul Wachter

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The events in Ukraine that culminated late last year in the “orange revolution” were not short on intrigue, behind-the-scenes foreign agitation and macabre flourishes. In the first round of presidential elections of 31 October, Viktor Yuschenko, the reformist former central banker and prime minister, received more votes than Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. The forces behind Mr. Yanukovych, however, were formidable: the corrupt incumbent President Leonid Kuchma, the wealthy oligarchs that profited under his term, the government-controlled television stations – and Russia. In the run-up to the elections, Mr. Yuschenko was poisoned by dioxin, which nearly killed him.

During the second round of elections in November, the Kuchma regime rigged the vote and announced a slight Yanukovych victory. Russian President Vladimir Putin rushed to congratulate the “victor.” But Mr. Yanukovych’s victory was short-lived. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians from all over the country traveled to the capital city of Kiev to protest. After Ukraine’s highest court intervened, Mr. Kuchma agreed to step down and withdraw his support for his prime minister in return for a Yuschenko pledge to reduce presidential power. On 26 December, Mr. Yuschenko won a repeat election and was installed as president soon after.

To many observers, the massive demonstrations in Kiev echoed Poland’s Solidarity movement, 20-odd years earlier, as well as the 1989 peaceful revolutions in central Europe. They took inspiration from the 2003 “rose revolution” in Georgia and gave inspiration to Lebanon’s “cedar revolution.”

But to lump these historic movements together would be a disservice to each. Recent events in Ukraine were rooted in the historic questions of Ukrainian identity and how Ukraine and Ukrainians relate to Russia and the West. Under the Soviets, this question was settled, however uneasily, by force. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, these issues resurfaced, not always quietly. With last year’s electoral crisis, tensions spilled out onto the streets.

The origins of these tensions date to the 13th-century demise of Kievan Rus’, the medieval state of the Eastern Slavs, from which descends modern Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. After a few centuries of independence, various parts of Kievan Rus’ fell under the control of the Mongols, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Ottomans, Muscovy (or Russia) and the Austro-Hungarians. In time, those Rus’ whose territory was annexed by Western European powers came to identify themselves culturally with Western Europe, while those who fell under Russia’s dominion looked culturally and linguistically to Moscow. (The Dnieper River serves as a rough line of demarcation.)

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Tags: Ukraine Cultural Identity Kievan Rus