On All of the Important Questions Ukraine Is Still Extremely Divided
By Mark Adomanis
You sometimes hear that the Russians, through their annexation of Crimea and their barely-concealed attempts to destabilize the Donbass, have succeeded in uniting a formerly divided Ukraine. Writing at The New Republic, Maria Snegovaya, whom I don’t always agree with but greatly respect, made this case quite explicitly, stating that the Kremlin’s recent aggression in Ukraine had “united the country in its opposition to Putin and his worldview.” Many other pundits have written similar analyses and have argued that while Ukraine might have been divided in the past there is now broad agreement on what needs to happen: the country needs to reform its economy, distance itself from Russia, and integrate with the European Union.
It’s perfectly fair to say that Ukrainians are less positively predisposed towards Russia than they were a few months ago. Annexations of sovereign territory have a way of angering people, and it’s totally understandable that support for the Eurasian Union has decreased while support for the EU has increased. Indeed, given everything that Russia has been doing, it would be really strange if its popularity hadn’t decreased.
But focusing on the change in opinion is dangerous if you lose track of the absolute levels of support. Roughly a month ago the International Republican Institute (IRI) conducted a very thorough analysis (pdf) of Ukrainian public opinion. It’s results suggest that Ukraine remains, and will remain for quite awhile, a society with extremely stark regional political differences. Let’s take a look at a few of the more striking results.
First we have a question about NATO membership. Note that this poll was conducted over the span of a few weeks. By the end of the polling period Crimea had officially been annexed, but even at the beginning of data collection the “little green men” had appeared throughout Crimea and it was clear that Russia was up to something big. You might expect that this would lead to a dramatic surge in support for NATO, but a plurality of Ukrainians (44%) were against membership while only about 34% were in favor. The regional breakdown, however, is far more instructive. In the East, the area that is most directly threatened by Russia military adventurism, only 14% of the population wants to be in NATO. Whether people in the East should or shouldn’t support NATO is a totally different question: they don’t.
Ukraine NATO Referendum
A similar dynamic can be seen when it comes to the economy. You often hear that the current government’s program of market reform and austerity is popular and that the Ukrainian people are willing to make “painful choices” so that the economy can be put on a more solid long-term footing. The idea of “suffer now for a better life later” is part and parcel of the EU integration process, and the need to avoid “economic populism” in favor of long-term growth is a maxim that is ponderously repeated by every EU bureaucrat at any one of a thousand different conferences.
The problem is that Ukrainians actually aren’t willing to suffer now to benefit later: when asked if they were “ready to live through some economic difficulties now” if it made their “life better in long term” 51% disagreed while only 39% agreed. As with the question about NATO, the regional breakdown was extremely lopsided. In Western Ukraine 66% of people were willing to suffer short-term economic consequences for long term growth, but in Eastern Ukraine only 17% were. I don’t think you need to be a pollster to understand that a fifty point gap is pretty significant.
Ukraine Economic Reform
Finally, it’s worth considering the level of support and approval enjoyed by the current government. After all, American taxpayers just pledged them over a billion dollars so it would be nice if they enjoyed widespread popularity. At a national level, Yatsenyuk enjoys the support of a plurality of Ukrainians by a narrow margin: 47% support him while 44% are in opposition. That’s not great, but it’s not bad either. It’s when you look Yatsenyuk’s approval on a regional basis, though, that things get a little scary. His approval in the East (a region his government is now frantically trying to keep in the fold) amounted to a mere 16%. In the West, meanwhile, his support was a Putin-like 78%. The new government, then, is very popular among its core group of supporters in the Western oblasts but is extremely unpopular in the Eastern regions that are more heavily influenced by Russia. That doesn’t sound like a recipe for stability.
While Ukraine remains a very divided society, it is true that none of the above is set in stone. It is entirely possible to imagine a scenario (e.g. an outright Russia invasion of the Donbass) in which Ukrainian public opinion “rallies around the flag” and becomes substantially less divided. Given the way the Russians have been acting, no one should discount such a possibility. But if things stay “normal” and if Russia doesn’t annex large chunks of Eastern Ukraine then it’s very likely that Ukraine’s political system will once again come screeching to a halt. This won’t happen because Ukrainian politicians are bad or lazy, but because there quite simply is not a societal consensus on what sort of reforms should be pursued and what sort of policy Ukraine should follow. Ukraine’s stark regional differences have been out of the limelight because of Russia’s incredibly provocative (and unjustified) actions, but they’re not going anywhere and the sooner we realize that the better.