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.

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.

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."

Three years ago, when news came that then-presidential candidate Mr. Yanukovich of the Blue side may have stolen the election from the Orange champion Viktor Yushchenko, thousands of people in Lvov boarded buses and headed for the capital, Kiev, to protest.

"I was one of the first to arrive in Kiev, and the streets were already full of people passionately supporting Yushchenko," says Anatoly Romaniuk, a political scientist at Ivan Franko University in Lvov. "For many of us, it was the moment when we would finally begin to build a truly independent and democratic Ukraine."

The Greek-Catholic Church, an amalgam of Orthodox rites and Catholic dogma that was banned during Soviet times has since revived, now holding the allegiance of more than half of religious believers in western Ukraine, says Andriy Yurash, a religion specialist at Lvov State University.

Along with two Ukraine-based Orthodox sects, the Greek-Catholic Church came out in full support of the Orange Revolution. "During the Orange Revolution the church held daily services in the main square of Lvov to pray for its success," says Mr. Yurash.

In Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, the predominant Russian Orthodox Church, which is led by the patriarch in Moscow, opposed the Orange Revolution and has given its official blessing to Yanukovich in the current elections. "It is gradually becoming clear to us that this split between east and west Ukraine has very deep civilizational roots and will not be easily overcome – if ever," says Yurash.

While many are disillusioned, some still hope for reconciliation

Though Mr. Yushchenko was vaulted into the presidency in fresh elections following the Orange Revolution, the hope that he might find ways to heal Ukraine's divisions has fizzled out amid squabbling in the Orange camp and persistent political crisis. Following parliamentary polls last year, Yanukovich's party came roaring back with a plurality of the Supreme Rada's 450 seats and, after a lengthy Blue versus Orange struggle, a dispirited Yushchenko was compelled to name Yanukovich prime minister. Opinion surveys suggest the current elections may do little more than reproduce the same lineup.

Some experts fear popular exhaustion with democracy may play into the hands of extremists, such as the radical nationalist Svoboda party, whose support is growing rapidly around Lvov, or the old-line Communist Party, which is still strong in the east.

Ruslan Koshulinsky, Svoboda's deputy chairman, says people in Lvov increasingly want to see the half-hearted measures of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko swept aside. "In a spiritual sense, we are still under Russian occupation," he says. "We respect freedom, but steps must be taken to unite the [Ukrainian] ethos, or we will never be independent."

But, surprisingly, some of the toughest characters from Ukraine's tragic past insist that the only route to salvation lies through compromise and reconciliation.

"In other parts of Europe people who were on opposite sides of the barricades in civil conflicts have long since shaken hands and moved on," says Gumeniuk. "When is it going to happen here?"

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