Ilya Timtchenko: The deadly illusion of a divided Ukraine

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March 2, 2014, 5:16 p.m. | Op-ed — by Ilya Timtchenko

Ukrainian and Polish people protest in front of Russian embassy against Russian military action the Crimean peninsula during a pro-peace demonstration on March 2, 2014 in Warsaw. AFP PHOTO / WOJTEK RADWANSKI

Ilya Timtchenko

Ukraine has many challenges, but they are well worth the fight, because the country needs to be delivered from poverty and abuse of power. Responsible and sustainable businesses can play a role in boosting the economy.

The Western media has devoted substantial coverage to Ukraine in recent days. Sadly, much of that coverage has been so oversimplified as to border on falsehood. Perhaps the best example of this is the narrative of a “divided Ukraine,” which has been repeated frequently and confidently by Western journalists. This narrative is factually suspect and, if believed by enough powerful people, will have disastrous results for our country.

National Public Radio reporter David Stern said: “As Ukraine is a split society, there is always the danger that there could be a civil war.”

Max Fisher, writing for The Washington Post, referenced an “Ethno-Linguistic Map of Ukraine,” which showed the regional division of the country into ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians, as well as showing the Ukrainian-Russian language divide. Writing for Open Democracy, Ethan Burger goes as far as to suggest that Ukraine should be partitioned into two countries: east and west.

The problem is that much of the media’s referenced information is coming from the outdated 2010 presidential elections or even from 2004 Orange Revolution data. During the past seven months, the picture has dramatically changed. As for the past month, the harsh division is simply not there anymore.

Most of Ukraine’s citizens who represent the nation’s cultural and intellectual society have held a view directly opposite to mainstream Western media.

On Nov. 28, Petro Poroshenko, a prominent pro-European Union politician and one of the likely candidates for Ukraine’s presidency, said on BBC’s HARDTalk: “For these four months the nation is united. . . . We have 58 percent [of the last opinion poll provided by Deutsche Welle] of people supporting the European Union integration. This is a national idea that unites the country.”

On Jan. 25, Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, Ukraine’s most famous rock star, said during an interview on Hromadske TV: “Today Ukraine is not divided into east and west, but Ukraine is divided into ordinary people and government structures. . . .”

Ukrayinska Pravda, a prominent Ukrainian news source, reported on Jan. 21 that 20.5 percent of Ukrainians want to live under dictatorship while 51 percent support democracy as the government rule of law.

Poroshenko, Vakarchuk, and Ukrayinska Pravda are correct. In 1991, Ukraine experienced a national referendum wherein 90 percent of Ukrainians voted for the nation’s independence.

This means that from the very beginning, almost unanimously, Ukraine has valued its independence from Russia.

Furthermore, Russian-Ukrainian linguistic divisions within regions do not necessarily imply divisions of political preference. Even though there seems to be a correlation between western regions being pro-EU and eastern regions being pro-Russian, the relationship is weak. There are those who are pro-Russia in western regions and there are those who are pro-EU in the east.

Also, the regional divisions that much of Western media references usually do not take into consideration demographic variables such as age. Most of Ukraine’s youth is pro-E.U. According to Deutsche Welle, about 65 percent of the 18- to 29-year-old participants supported E.U. integration. Many of the committed Kyiv EuroMaidan protesters are from Eastern and Southern regions.

The reality is that Russia wants to engender tension in Ukraine so that the country will be divided. The Economist’s Edward Lucas says: “It was that Putin [who] wanted Yanukovych to ‘dip his hands in blood.’” Several weeks ago, Putin’s former economic advisor Andrey Illarionov said during an interview on Hromadske TV that Putin is ready to implement "operations" in Ukraine’s territory during the 2014 Sochi Olympic games. Illarionov was only a week behind schedule with his prediction. Today, Illarionov writes in his blog that Putin does not want to go to war with Ukraine; instead, he wants a civil war in Ukraine – between Russians, Ukrainians, and Tartars.

The more chaos and inner turmoil in Ukraine, the more control Russia will be able to exert over it. If the narrative of a divided Ukraine becomes reality, partial annexation will be within Putin’s grasp. So far, Russia is puffing up its “bullyism.” Russia will likely not employ overt force as it did in Georgia in 2008 because doing so would be too costly. While Georgia’s population is only 4 million, Ukraine’s is 46 million (roughly one-third the size of Russia’s population). Rather, Russia will orchestrate Ukraine’s self-destruction; only then will Russia intervene to “save” Russians from the “evil fascist Ukrainian radicals.”

There are four steps that Western media should take.

First, they should stop spreading the outdated and inaccurate narrative of a divided Ukraine and should instead look to—or even conduct—Ukrainian opinion polls.

Second, it should emphasize the predominantly peaceful Ukrainian protests that have been occurring for the past three months.

Third, the media should reveal the corrupt system created by Ukraine’s kleptocrats.

Fourth, and most importantly, the media should continue to expose the kleptocrats themselves and shame their unscrupulous businesses in the West.

For instance, they could highlight the Omtron Limited USA case involving Ukrainian multi-billionaire Oleg Bakhmatyuk in North Carolina—or the Illinois-based Archer Daniels Midland case, wherein the agribusiness giant was found guilty of bribing Ukrainian officials.

When Western media spreads the message of a divided Ukraine, it actually strengthens the discord that does in fact exist. And if enough Westerners believe that Ukraine is truly divided, they might echo Ethan Burger’s question: “Why not Ukraine be split after all?” The more people who buy this idea of division, the easier it will be for Putin to steal part of our country.

The “divided Ukraine” narrative is seductive in its simplicity and disastrous in its ramifications. Sure, it’s easier to consume. But it’s also wrong—and it contributes to Putin’s plan to bring catastrophe to a nation that is struggling for democracy and human rights.

lya Timtchenko is an undergraduate senior currently pursuing a double major in International Affairs and Economics at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. He is the main organizer of the EuroMaidan in Boston

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