Understanding National Identity: Ukraine’s Ethnic Diversity

Sherzod Gulamov
May 07, 2014

Ukraine's real crisis lies within the country, writes EWI intern Sherzod Gulamov, and can only be solved by guaranteeing equal rights to all regions and ethnic groups. 

Read the piece here on EWI.info.


Imagine if you went to bed in one country woke up the next day in another. This is what happened to 293 million people of the former Soviet Union in 1991. Its collapse left millions of people with diverse backgrounds in newly created independent, national countries. Ukraine was one of them; composed of ethnically diverse regions, but unified within a single state. 

Ukraine is a multi-ethnic, multi- language and multi-culture country. According to the latest census, it is home to almost 130 nationalities. Twenty-two percent of Ukraine’s population is made up of ethnic minorities. Russians are the largest among them, 17 percent of Ukraine’s population, who historically lived in the southern and eastern part of the country. Since the first day of its independence, the leadership of Ukraine faced a challenging task of building a national identity that would unite various regions with ethnically diverse populations. The Euromaidan protests and the February revolution exacerbated deep-rooted divisions between the east and west. The new interim government not only failed to unite the country but also reinforced its division. Therefore, despite Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its destabilization activities in the eastern part of the country, the real causes of current Ukrainian crisis lie within Ukraine and can be solved only by the Ukrainian people and authorities in Kiev.

Ethnic divisions in Ukraine go back several centuries and are a result of imperial fighting between Russia, Austro-Hungary and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The southern and eastern parts of the country have historically been a part of the Russian Empire and mostly populated with ethnic Russians and predominantly Russian-speaking Ukrainians. These regions have always had a very close cultural and economic relationship with Russia. Some western areas were part of Habsburg Austria until 1918; others were brought into Ukraine only after the Second World War. The west has always been the land of Ukrainian nationalism with strong pro-European feelings.

These long-standing ideological divisions and lack of effective state policy regarding Ukraine’s diverse regions, after it became independent, are at the core of today’s crisis. Despite many alarming reports on situations with minorities issued by the international human rights organizations and the U.S. State Department, Ukrainian government officials failed to address these problems. Instead, the often-corrupt Ukrainian leadership concentrated on consolidating its power over the country. Some of the political leaders often confused nationalism with patriotism, consequently dividing the country further.

The shortcomings in national politics that caused a division among Ukrainians became obvious in the last two presidential elections of 2004 and 2010. The presidential candidates drew support from different regional bases and basically turned the country’s eastern and western regions into rivals by shifting political power from one to the other. While predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine supported a pro-Russian candidate, the pro- western candidates drew support from the more nationalistic western part of the country. Some ethnic minorities voted for pro-Russian candidate, Yanukovich, in 2010 because they saw his candidacy as more supportive of minority rights than pro-western Timoshenko and her nationalist supporters.  

Although Euromaidan protests included people of many different nationalities and ethnic groups of Ukraine, its aftermath once again turned into a regional political power struggle.  Following the escape of then-president Yanukovich, the new interim government of Yatcenyuk was formed by representatives of the western regions. The Svoboda party, perceived as ultra-nationalist and fascist by the people in the east, assumed key ministerial positions in the interim government, such as the deputy minister, general prosecutor and defense minister. Ukraine's south and east, which account for the majority of Ukraine’s GDP and are home to almost half of its population, are represented by only two of twenty ministerial positions in the new government. Naturally, these developments raised concern among minority groups, especially the Russian-speaking regions, who were concerned about their future and afraid to be punished for their previous support of the Yanukovich’s government. 

Therefore, the new interim government in Kiev had to establish its legitimacy across all the regions by assuring every Ukrainian that his/her rights would be protected, regardless of their ethno-linguistic background. Instead, MP’s of the Ukrainian parliament, Verkhovna Rada, voted on several very controversial bills, including:

  • 4201 – Bill to ban Ukrainian Communist Party activity.
  • 4176 – Bill to repeal law penalizing Nazi propaganda.
  • 4199 – Bill to repeal the use of their native language by minorities, which refers to Russian, Romanian, Hungarian and Greek.


Although the bill to repeal native language use was vetoed by acting President Turchinov, after sharp criticism by many European leaders, the veto came too late. The pro-Russian population in eastern Ukraine formed anti-Maidan protests against the new interim government in Kiev, supported by the Russian government and fueled by its news media propaganda. Moreover, UN Assistant Secretary–General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic raised issues of intolerance when he delivered a statement to Security Counsel on March 29. In his statement, he voiced his concerns about an increase of hatred between ethnic Ukrainians and Russians, as well as Maidan and anti-Maidan groups. Simonovich also called the new Ukrainian government to adopt all reforms and new policy measures “without any spirit of revenge and in a consultative, transparent and inclusive manner.”

Unfortunately, the new government of Ukraine has been failing to follow these recommendations. The nationalistic rhetoric is high among politicians who are looking to score some extra points before the upcoming presidential election. The leaders of some ethnic minority groups, although they publicly announced support for the current government, are watching further developments with great concern. If Ukraine wants to avoid further division and possibly a civil war, the new government leaders need to stop confusing their nationalistic ideas with patriotism and implement policies that include interests of all people in Ukraine, despite their ethnic, cultural or linguistic backgrounds.

Let’s not to be naïve: neither Western countries nor Russia truly care about democracy and freedom in Ukraine. Foreign governments care about their national interest and geopolitical influence. No one else can build the future of Ukraine except Ukrainians. The Ukrainian government should stop blaming Russia and deal with its internal demons. Russia is not the cause of these problems; it is merely fueling them and exploiting the situation.


Sherzod Gulamov is from Uzbekistan. He is an MPA candidate at Baruch College, School of Public Affairs and an Executive Office Intern at EWI. His areas of interest include post-Soviet Union countries and Central Asia.


Photo courtesy of Alec.

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