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Ukraine's orange-blue divide

Similar to the red-blue political split in the US, it has brought the government to a standstill – forcing emergency elections Sunday.

September 28, 2007

It's similar to the red-blue political divide in America – except it's orange-blue. And there's a much longer history behind it.

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Ukraine's bitter west-east schism is reflected in the political deadlock between its "Orange" and Blue parties that has nearly paralyzed the state for the past year.

As the country of 50 million heads into parliamentary elections Sunday intended to break the stalemate, the two sides remain separated by language, religious traditions, societal histories, and geopolitical preferences. Some analysts suggest that, given such divisions, political standoffs could perpetually reoccur.

According to the independent Kiev International Institute of Sociology, people in Ukraine's eight western provinces, who make up about a quarter of the electorate, are eight times more likely to vote for the "Orange" parties headed by President Viktor Yushchenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, which stand for integrating with the European Union, joining NATO, and keeping Moscow at a distance. In the three eastern provinces, also containing a quarter of the electorate, people are eight times more likely to vote for the "Blue" Party of Regions, headed by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, which wants to make Russian the second official language, forge closer economic ties with Russia and stay out of NATO.

"The electoral forces supporting the two sides are almost equal, ensuring that any parliamentary majority will be small and fragile," says Oleksander Shushko, an analyst with the independent Institute for Euro-Atlantic Integration in Kiev. "These deep divisions in the country ensure that the political standoff will keep returning, and the best way to deal with it is to hold more elections."

An east-west split with deep roots

The western part of Ukraine, known as Galicia, was part of the Catholic states of Austria-Hungary and Poland for hundreds of years before Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin forcibly annexed it to the Soviet Union after World War II. Decades of brutal Soviet repression have left powerful anticommunist and anti-Russian feelings that still linger here.

Oleksandr Gumeniuk is a veteran of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which fought a desperate guerrilla war against Soviet forces in the forested Carpathian mountains near here – with covert help from the US – for more than 10 years after the end of World War II.

Though the USSR vanished 16 years ago, Mr. Gumeniuk and a dwindling handful of survivors from that shadowy conflict remain one of the most explosive issues on a list of flashpoints that profoundly divide Ukrainians and have kept the country in a state of rolling political crisis for the past several years.

While many here in the Ukrainian-speaking, nationalist west think the anti-Soviet veterans should be given military pensions and treated as Ukrainian patriots, their demands provoke fury in the heavily Russified east of Ukraine, where most accepted Soviet rule and millions served in the Red Army.

"Ukrainian independence today is a direct consequence of our struggle," says Gumeniuk, head of a local veterans' group, who was captured by the Soviet secret police and spent 12 years in a Siberian prison camp after the war. "We just want to be recognized. History should record that we fought for Ukraine's freedom."