Is it too late for Kiev to woo Russian-speaking Ukraine?

A series of missteps may mean the new government in Kiev has lost what influence it had in Ukraine's Russia-friendly southern regions.

Ivan Sekretarev/AP
Unidentified gunmen wearing camouflage uniforms block the road toward the military airport at the Black Sea port of Sevastopol in Crimea, Ukraine, on Friday.

With Russian military forces now in Crimea and the regional government claiming loyalty to impeached President Viktor Yanukovych, it looks as if the new government in Kiev may have already lost any influence it had in Ukraine's southern regions.

But if Kiev loses the mostly Russian-speaking populations in the east as well as the south, many say much of the fault will be at the hands of the leaders of the antigovernment protests in Kiev and the political opposition leaders, who have done very little to woo voters in these regions. As a result, the country is now more deeply divided than it ever has been its 23 years of independence.

“They don’t take our opinion into account on the Maidan,” says Andrey Foman, referring to  Kiev's Independence Square. The actor, from Simferopol, stood with demonstrators outside the Crimean parliament this week and showed support for greater integration with Russia. "This is a clash of two cultures now in Ukraine."

Mr. Foman’s complaint of not being consulted about the government reshuffle is a common theme among Russian-speaking Ukrainians. In many ways, they are right. 

The antigovernment demonstrations that started in late November were sparked by Mr. Yanukovych’s backtracking on a campaign promise he had made to sign a trade and association agreement with the European Union. The demonstrations spiraled into an antigovernment, anticorruption movement that called for Yanukovych’s removal. Ukrainians across the country agree that corruption within the ruling elite has plagued the country for too long and hindered its development.

But the protests on the Maidan evolved into a movement in which nationalist groups developed a key role. This worried the Russian-leaning east and south, which are densely populated, heavily industrialized areas, where a large percent of the population is employed by state-subsidized, Soviet-era industries. They value political and economic stability above all else, and fear that integration into the European Union will erode the basic standards of living they have now. They are nostalgic about the Soviet Union and believe many of the western Ukrainian nationalist groups collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II.

Opportunity missed?

Most Maidan supporters say that they are not anti-Russian; in fact, it’s not uncommon to hear even the more radical nationalist groups, such as the Right Sector, speaking Russian to each other. The Right Sector leader, Dmitry Yarosh, is from the eastern city of Dniprodzerzhynsk. The issue of which language to speak has not been a focal point in the three-month long demonstrations.

But Russian media channels – which dominate the airwaves in the east and south of Ukraine – have broadcast daily images of Mr. Yarosh and other ski-masked, body-armor-clad protesters on the Maidan, talking about building a new Ukraine and discarding the old, Soviet ways and influence of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

These pictures overshadowed what most protesters on the Maidan said was the main goal of their movement: Oust Yanukovych and reboot the entire corrupt system in order to take Ukraine toward a more prosperous future, where the rule of law and human rights would be respected.

Some say the opposition leaders representing the Maidan movement could have done more to rally support for such an anticorruption, pro-democracy movement. But a lack of action in the Russian-speaking regions on the leaders’ part meant the television images won out.

“Nobody ever tried to communicate with the people of eastern Ukraine or Crimea,” says Sergey Chepik, director of the Agency of Social-Political Modeling, a think tank in the eastern city of Donetsk.

The toppling of about a dozen Lenin statues across the country by pro-Maidan activists has also been a major irritant to eastern Ukrainians, who see the statues as an important part of their history, for better or for worse. In Kharkiv, there is still a standoff on a central square between Maidan protesters occupying the regional government office on one side and anti-Maidan demonstrators determined to protect the city's Lenin statue, considered the largest Ukraine, on the other.

Linguistic misstep

Perhaps the most obvious of the new Kiev government's mistakes came last week, when deputies in the nationalist party Svoboda, or Freedom, pushed through the cancellation of a law that gave equal status to minority languages, such as Russian.

The previous law had allowed regions across the country to use languages other than the official national language, Ukrainian, on commercial signs, in schools and government documents. When it passed in 2012, it was seen as a victory for the areas where Russian was the dominant language, particularly in the east and south. The law also applied to areas in Ukraine in which other languages, such as Romanian, Hungarian, and Tatar, are spoken by smaller ethnic groups.

The cancellation of this language law only served to infuriate Russian-speaking regions, who saw the move as more evidence that the antigovernment protests in Kiev that managed to topple Mr. Yanukovych's government were intent on pressing for a nationalistic agenda. It only deepened tensions in the Crimea, for example, where the idea that the protesters on Maidan were radical fascists.
 "This was a very bad decision that they made in Kiev," says Viktor Neganov, a regional adviser in Sevastopol for the newly appointed interior minister, Arsen Avakov. "It provoked the people here and was not necessary."

In practice, the canceling of the minority-language protection law will not affect life in Sevastopol, or the rest of the predominantly Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine, Neganov says. "But symbolically, it is a big deal. It shows that they in Kiev are not taking into account what people down here think are important."

The Crimean situation

As a result, any potential for trust in the new government has been lost in places like Sevastopol, where this week the population declared overwhelmingly that they were pro-Russia. They would not, they said, be ruled by Kiev, where nationalists are trying to eradicate their Russian culture, language and values.

But in Crimea, there likely was little Maidan leaders could have done to win them over. This is particularly true in Sevastopol, where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based and residents see their city as Russian.  When Russian armored personnel carriers were seen on the highways around this city, many greeted them as old friends returning back home.

“They should have come in a lot earlier. If Yanukovych had been a real leader, he would have crushed those fascists in Kiev way before it got to this stage,” says Roman, a taxi driver in Sevastopol as he passed several of the Russian armored personnel carriers on the highway about 10 miles outside of the city.

As the Russian military presence increased in Crimea Friday and the Ukrainian interior ministry declared it an “armed invasion,” the difficulty Kiev faces in convincing Sevastopol’s population of 350,000 to recognize the authority of the new central government intensified.

“The present Ukrainian government was formed at the square. It was done before the legitimate Rada confirmed their candidacies,” Mr. Chepik says. “If tomorrow there will be another Maidan, and they will form another government? Keep in mind that there are 45 million Ukrainians” – and they are likely to want a say in the process, he added.

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