A massive wave of demonstrations known as Euromaidan swept Ukraine in November of 2013 beginning what seems to be an endless crisis. President Yanukovych accused of abandoning a political deal with the EU fled to Russia in fear of the protestors and an interim government took over. On May 25th a new president, Petro Poroshenko, was elected. He now faces the challenge of once again uniting Ukraine and so far he hasn’t been up to the task.
The country of Ukraine has been divided between East and West since its independence in 1991. In the West people generally speak Ukrainian and identify with Europe while in the East most speak Russian and identify with Russia. This disparity has been around for years and is evident even through voting patterns. But the divide in Ukraine has not become detrimental until now because, according to the West, Russia is fueling unrest in the Eastern regions of Ukraine. Admittedly, there has been proof of this claim. Advanced weapons are being used by pro- Russian rebels and there is a presence of foreign nationals in East Ukraine. After 30 pro-Russian supporters were killed by the government, the coffins were sent across the border to Russia and the separatists claimed the dead had been “Russian volunteers”. Videos have also been captured of arms exchanges across the Ukraine-Russia border.
The Russian government, however, pleads innocence. Russia has claimed that the desires of citizens in East Ukraine for independence are not tinted by Russian influence. They are purely the desires of the citizens as indicated by recently held referendums. For example, in the Donetsk region 89% of people voted for independence from Ukraine. The Pew Research Center, however, has found in a new survey that the referendums held in East Ukraine do not reflect the opinions of the citizens living there. The survey showed that 77% of the people in the Donetsk region would like to remain part of Ukraine while only 14% want secession.
But just because people in the East may not want independence does not mean they do not have grievances with the central government. Citizens of the eastern regions are tired of local tax collections going to Kiev and never coming back to the East in form of infrastructural or economic improvements. As the self proclaimed industrial powerhouse of the country, the eastern regions also want to hold onto their revenue instead of sending it to Kiev. Additionally, Eastern Ukrainians are wary about their ability to maintain their traditions after parliament proposed a law to cancel Russian as the second official language.
During his inauguration speech President Poroshenko reiterated his commitment to join the European Union multiple times but also promised to converse with citizens in the East. However, lately Mr. Poroshenko’s diplomatic tone about the East has been undermined by his actions. The president has mobilized an anti terrorism campaign in the country’s East, labeling separatists as “terrorists” and killing them. What Poroshenko fails to recognize is that some of those terrorists are citizens he is supposed to represent.
Poroshenko like past Ukrainian leaders has already proven to be unfit to rule a country as diverse as Ukraine. The idea that Ukraine must exclusively either join the European Union or maintain ties with Russia is dangerous. A middle ground exists. In fact, even though the current protests in the East are much more violent than Euromaidan the wishes of the citizens don’t seem to be much different. Those who rose up during Euromaidan did so because they believed uniting with the European Union could bring their country prosperity and opportunities. The Euromaidan protesters were tired of a government which refused to listen to their ideas about moving forward. In the Eastern regions of Ukraine separatists now claim that they want independence because the central government doesn’t care about their wellbeing. It becomes obvious then that in the center of both sets of protests is a desire for the Ukrainian government to defend and represent the interests of all its citizens, not just some factions. So, Mr. Poroshenko must remember that he was elected to listen to the people of Ukraine, not Russia nor the West. Poroshenko must expel the foreign nationals from his country and negotiate with his own citizens even if their anger has led them to desire separatism. While the international media continues to claim Ukrainians want closer ties to Europe or closer ties to Russia, I think it’s important to recognize that what the Ukrainian people want most is closer ties to their own government. And the new president should give them that.