Glory to Ukraine

One definition of a “failed state” is a state perceived as having lost control of its territory, or of the monopoly of the legitimate use of force therein. When looking at the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the ongoing conflict between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army, this definition may carefully be applied. Where did the separatist forces in Ukraine come from? Are they puppets of Moscow? Why have they become active now – after 23 years of independence?

In 1999, Ukrainian writer and poet Yuri Andrukhovych explained regional separatist tendencies in an essay* on the national identity of the young state he calls his home. Throughout history, the territory of the former Soviet Republic of Ukraine had been split between several great empires and was subject to multiple cultural influences. Habsburg and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the West, tsarist Russia in the East. The Soviets everywhere. Unsurprisingly, in 1991, the individual regions of the newly formed nation, with their own heritage and identity, had little faith in a common Ukrainian project.

Especially officials in Moscow seemed convinced that Crimea, the peninsula “given” to Ukraine in 1945, would be the first to break away from the now independent state, followed by other regions in the East and South. Two separatist projects were toyed with in politics and media: the Donbas project (consisting of Luhansk and Donetsk, as well as Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk) and the Novorossiya project (Odessa, Mykolaiv, Kherson, Zaporizhia and Crimea).

Andrukhovych’s illustrations have to be seen in the light of the desolate situation of the late 1990ies that fuelled the desire to break away from the unattractive new state, and return to Russia. In 1999, the Ukrainian GNP had shrunken under 40% of the value of 1989, and unemployment numbers were on the rise. Unpaid wages and pensions, precarious housing situations, methyl alcohol, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS seemed to shape the post-socialist landscape.

Separatism in Ukraine is therefore not a new issue, nor is it a surprising one. A country sewn together over time by external forces and struggling with conflicting identities, corruption and bankruptcy has all the makings of a powder keg. It took countless mass demonstrations, two revolutions, a civil war, killings, torture and the flight of a head of state to set off an explosion. In 2014, the two secession projects of the 1990ies are translating into reality.

So, who are these people – the pro-Russian, ultranationalist and anti-government separatists that took over entire Eastern-Ukrainian cities in the aftermath of the Euromaidan protests that overthrew the Yanukovych government? People who saw the pro-European movement as a coup d’état that unrightfully removed the president they had elected? People who envision stability and a future in a union with Russia, not with an unreliable EU that demands a lot and gives only little? People who want federalisation and more rights within the Ukrainian state?

The Donbas region is at war. Both sides, the Ukrainian army and the pro-Russian separatists, violate human rights. The collapse of the Soviet Union sent shock waves through Europe and Asia – and they still have effect. No one knows if the Ukrainian army will defeat the rebels. If they will strike back with Russian support? Will the regular Russian army invade? Will the two separatist projects of the 1990ies be continued? A shared national identity and a common future for Ukraine, or what remains of it, seem to move even further away.

*Andrukhovych, Yuri (1999): Disorientation on location. (Дезорієнтаціянамісцевості, 1999)