Written by Uriel Araujo, researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts.
The situation in Donbass seems to have become a deadlock; Ukrainian authorities in Kiev keep hampering peace negotiations and hostilities go on – for example, last week the Ukrainian military moved at least nine airborne infantry fight vehicles to the disengagement line in the Petrovskoye-Bogdanovka area (Donetsk region in Donbass) and in the beginning of this month, the Army opened fire in the same area. Things are unlikely to get any better and a recent Ukrainian President’s statement – that has not got much coverage in the West – is quite worrisome.
Two weeks ago, President Volodymyr Zelensky told Donbass residents who consider themselves Russians to go to Russia. During interview with the Dom TV Channel published on 5 August, he said: “I think that if you live on the Donbass territory today, which is temporarily occupied, and you think that ‘our cause is right, we need to be with Russia, we are russkiye [ethnic Russians],’ then it is a big mistake to remain living in Donbass, it will never become Russian territory. Never.”
The conflict started in the aftermath of the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, when demonstrations (pro and against the Maidan movement) escalated into armed conflict. So far, no compromise has been reached between Kiev and the rebel authorities in Donbass.
In Russian and Ukrainian languages, rossiyane means a Russian national or a resident of Russia, of any ethnicity, whereas russkiye are ethnic Russians – living in the Russian Federation or anywhere in the world. In his interview, President Volodymyr Zelensky used the latter word. This is a remarkable statement. In fact, if we take Zelensky’s words seriously, this could be one of the most russophobic remarks made by a Ukrainian high ranking authority – in this case, the President himself – since World War II.
Does it indicate that, for the President, Russians are a kind of ethnic persona non grata in today’s Ukraine or at least in the Donbass region, which Kiev claims as its rightful territory? What about other ethnicities? Zelensky himself is a Jewish-Ukrainian, an ethnic Jew. In his country, there are many Jews, Tatars, and other ethnic groups, who consider themselves part of the national society also. The same goes for Russian-Ukranians, in a country characterized by strong bilingualism and a high incidence of marriages between ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians. At least 29 per cent of the population declares Russian as their native language – it is widely spoken, especially in eastern and southern Ukraine.
When the Ukrainian President himself makes such statements, how can Kiev criticise Russia’s 2019 initiative to issue passports to Donbass residents? This, as noted by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, is in line with international law. After all, according to the European Convention on Human Rights, every country has the right to decide whom to provide nationality/citizenship.
The ethnic and linguistic factors certainly played a role in the Donbass conflict. For example, Kiev’s 2017 education law – regarding primary education in public schools – banned any language but Ukrainian. And, in 2018, there was also a ban on the use of cultural products (books, movies) in the Russian language in the Lviv Oblast. Even so, one should not think of it as an ethnic conflict plain and simple: it is a fact that many self-declared ethnic Ukrainians are pro-Donbass (that is, “pro-Russia”). Moreover, a few ethnic Russians from the Russian Federation, including several neo-Nazis, have acted as volunteers in the conflict, fighting on Kiev’s side, mostly in the infamous Azov battalion. Some of them faced prosecution back in the Russian Federation and are applying for Ukrainian citizenship. This is so because one’s political stance might be in fact a better predictor – regarding his or her attitude towards the conflict – than simply ethnicity or even language.
The truth is that Maidan was and is the main dividing issue. Many people in the country see Ukraine as a natural ally of Russia, those two countries’ histories being intertwined over the years. Others see their country as a part of Europe and of the Western world. Thus, the Donbass war is also a clash of world-views.
Part of this great divide certainly arises from a huge difference between Ukraine’s contemporary unitary state itself, with its own kind of Ukrainian nationalism, and, on the other hand, the Russian Federation’s matrioshka’s model of multinational society. The Russian model bestows political autonomy upon many non-russkiye ethnic groups living in the Federation. 22 autonomous Republics, which are the homeland of various recognized ethnic groups, are part of the Russian Federation.
Ukraine, on the other hand, since 1991, has been a unitary state. Changing that could perhaps accommodate Donbass (giving it some autonomy, for example), but it would probably require setting up a Constituent Assembly to draft a new Constitution, and this is of course very unlikely to take place. Furthermore, years of conflict under Ukrainian artillery fire have pulled the people of Donbass further apart from Kiev.
Can Ukrainian society today include those who identify themselves as Russians? Zelensy’s remark is at best a misspoken statement that could further ignite tensions. At worst, it is a very troublesome sign.
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