Can Ukraine Survive?

April 03, 1994

Last weekend's parliamentary elections pinpoint to one of the fundamental weaknesses of Ukraine. Instead of being a country with a single national identity, it is strongly Ukrainian in the west, divided or Russian in the east.

This conflict of culture, language and identification would cause difficulties in the best of times. Unfortunately, these are not the best of times for Ukraine, which on paper should be one of the most important European countries on the basis of its population of 52 million. In just over two years, it has squandered much of the chance it had for independence. Indeed, its economic and political conditions have deteriorated so rapidly and so badly that even well-wishers wonder whether Ukrainian independence is a dream sustainable by reality.

Such doubts are likely to increase in the future. The strong showing of neo-Communists and candidates favoring closer economic and political relations with Russia suggests continued internal instability. The situation is not helped by conflict over Crimea, where ethnic Russians are angering Kiev by their demands to be reunited with Moscow.

Ukrainians have inherited a difficult lot. Over long history, theirs has often been a divided and contested country. Seldom independent, it has been ruled by Lithuanians and Poles, Cossacks, Germans and Russians. And while many Ukrainians have retained a strong cultural identity, their claim to historical uniqueness is challenged.

Kievan Rus, established circa 860, was the earliest form of organized government in the region. Both Ukraine and Russia (which was named after it) take legitimacy from it, even though its creation may have been due to weakness. According to an old chronicle, Rus was created not by local people but by three Scandinavian brothers who responded to an invitation by east Slav tribes: "Our whole land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come to rule and reign over us."

The same chronicle designates Kiev "the mother of Russian cities." The Russian Orthodox church dates its birth to the baptism of early Kievan rulers.

Perhaps not too much should be made of this distant history, except that it is a potent factor in the current debate over what form cooperation should take among the various parts of the former Soviet Union. As nationalism has heightened, the vision of Alexander Solzhenitsyn has gained wide acceptance among Russians. That calls for the re-establishment of "Russian Union," consisting of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

With Ukrainian presidential elections scheduled in June, the next few months will be crucial. Ukraine can survive -- but only if it manages to prove to its diverse population that it deserves to.

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