(March 6, 2014) Crimea will have fewer doubts about leaving Ukraine than Russia will have about accepting it.
By Lawrence Solomon, published by the National Post on March 6, 2014
Ukraine, like Czechoslovakia, was a residue of World War I, an arbitrary jumble of nationalities that acquired state status. Like Czechoslovakia, whose citizens later broke up into a more coherent Czech Republic and Slovakia, the different regions of the Ukraine would be better positioned to prosper after a break up.
The area now known as Ukraine wasn’t a country before the 1920s — it was a patchwork of ethnicities and nationalities that included, among others, all or parts of Galicia, Volhynia, Ruthenia, Bukovina, Bessarabia, Severia, Romania, Poland, Russia, and Lithuania. In the post-World War I turmoil, Ukrainians (people who inhabited many of these lands and spoke an early form of Russian) created several sometimes very short-lived states in the area — the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, the Hutsul Republic, the Hetmanate, and the Directorate — and fought neighbours as well as themselves in civil wars.
The turmoil of World War II also changed borders, with Ukraine losing Moldova but adding parts of Poland and Romania. In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev, the USSR’s leader, gave the Republic of Crimea to Ukraine as a present, to mark an anniversary. Ukraine is now the largest country lying entirely within Europe, and, not surprisingly, the least governable: Many of the same ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural rifts that led to civil war almost a century ago are still at play, pulling in different directions and sowing resentments that retard economic advance.
The first step to bringing coherence to the region involves Crimea, a long-suffering region under Ukrainian management. Yesterday, the parliament of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea overwhelmingly decided to hold a referendum March 16 to secede from Ukraine and become part of the Russian Federation. Crimea will have fewer doubts about leaving Ukraine than Russia will have about accepting it.
Although Crimea is predominantly ethnic Russian and Russian speaking, although Crimea was part of the Russian state since Catherine the Great conquered it in the 18th century, and although most Russians consider Crimea to be part of Russia, Putin will be of two minds in accepting it. Russia’s Christians and Crimea’s Muslim Tartars — today a 12% minority — have a bitter history. Crimea under Tartar rule was a fierce slave trading nation, its chief business being “the harvesting of the steppe” — the capture and export of some two million Russian and Polish Christians to the Ottoman Empire. Stalin during World War II was no less brutal — believing the Tartars to be supporting the Nazis, he deported the entire Tartar population from their Crimean homeland. The Tartars, who have been returning to Crimea since the collapse of the Soviet Union, would loathe Russian rule as much as Putin would loathe the prospect of incorporating a hostile Muslim minority into Russia.
With Crimea’s departure from the Ukraine now a fait accompli, Ukraine will need to consider next steps. The next step should be divorce between Ukraine’s Russia-loving east and Europe-loving west. Although they are both populated primarily by ethnic Ukrainians, east and west meet on almost nothing – the east is mainly Russian speaking, the west mainly Ukrainian; the east is mainly industrial, the west mainly agricultural; the east’s economy is mainly oriented toward Russia’s, the west’s to Europe.
A Gallup Poll last year, before the upheavals in Kiev, found only one in six of those in the east (including Crimea) favour a Western-style democracy, compared to about half in the west. Of all Ukrainians, only 1% were very satisfied and 11% somewhat satisfied with the way democracy was working in the country. Separating the two halves would give each the wherewithal to thrive, particularly since each has immense natural gas reserves that foreign capital would gladly invest in once East and West Ukraine became stable.
The Europe-oriented Czechs and the Russian-oriented Slovaks, both of whom, like the Ukrainians are also Slavs, illustrate the social and economic benefits that can come of separation. After their peaceful 1993 divorce, both halves soon became economically successful in their own right as well as friends and close trading partners. The breakup was not a zero-sum game, as so many who hold national borders sacrosanct believe, but win-win for both, just as it would be for the Ukrainians.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute.