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The real divide within Ukraine


MOSCOW -- The election maelstrom in Ukraine has evolved into one of the sharpest confrontations in Eastern Europe in the post-Cold War era.

The blunt criticism of the Nov. 21 election results by U.S. and European officials has been met with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's strident backing of Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovych, who beat challenger Viktor A. Yushchenko by 3 percentage points. The Ukraine Supreme Court nullified the election Dec. 3 following nearly two weeks of continuous street protests over allegations of vote rigging. A new election was set for Dec. 26.

Western commentary relentlessly focused on the conflict between democratic forces and entrenched power while ignoring the convoluted mosaic of regional and clannish political interests inside Ukraine. Mr. Putin made hasty congratulatory calls and generally overreached in his emphatic support for Mr. Yanukovych.

The animated crowds in Kiev were the picture of revolutionary fervor, which Americans have grown accustomed to seeing in the heady years of 1989 and 1991 and, more recently, in the popular uprisings in Serbia and Georgia. But the talk of democracy vs. authoritarianism masks the real cultural and linguistic divide that exists within Ukraine. Ultimately, a proxy geopolitical contest between Russia and the West risks further inflaming the internal tensions in a country that is sliding increasingly toward separatist tensions and possibly even civil war.

Although Mr. Putin has been a popular and respected figure in Ukraine, he may have overplayed his strong hand. Mr. Yanukovych, the chosen successor to the widely disliked President Leonid D. Kuchma, is an uninspiring politician with a criminal record. His pro-Russian stance was seemingly the sole factor for Mr. Putin's unconcealed support. Although Russia's position was castigated for its aggressive meddling in Ukrainian affairs, it is rather an indication of Moscow's increasingly defensive view of its exposed borders and overall standing in global affairs.

In the turmoil before and after the Ukrainian election, Russia acted on the false premise that stubborn determination is the best guarantee of success.

Besides spending an inordinate amount of political capital during the course of Ukraine's electoral campaign, Mr. Putin made tactical blunders after the vote that not only further isolated him among world leaders but also threatened his reputation at home. One was his congratulatory telephone call to Mr. Yanukovych immediately after the election. But Mr. Putin's approach is only a reflection of what has become the consensus position in Russian policy circles.

The revolutions in Serbia and Georgia -- another former Soviet republic -- recognized in the West as triumphs of popular democratic will, are viewed by Russian officials as blatant attempts on the part of the United States and the European Union to curb the dwindling sphere of Russian influence and install pro-Western governments. This apprehension, not some inherent pro-totalitarian inclination, has become the central force that is shaping the Russian approach in the region.

Despite likely vote manipulation on both sides, the Ukrainian scenario closely resembles the divergence between the red and the blue states in the recent American election. Unlike most of the nation-states that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Ukraine preserves distinct cultural and ethnic heterogeneity.

The western regions first were in the domain of the Habsburg Empire and then part of Poland until 1939, when they were annexed by the Soviet Union. The eastern regions are oriented more strongly toward Russia and retain multiple ties to Russian language and culture as well as to the common Orthodox Church. Other parts of Ukraine only add further complexity to the situation.

The construct of modern Ukraine is a varied and volatile coalition of ethnic, cultural and political interests. It is this multiplicity of allegiances that became the condition for the emergence of the vigorous political sphere that distinguishes Ukraine sharply from most former Soviet republics.

Now these forces are instead threatening to shut the lines of dialogue with talk of secession and civil strife. What Western governments have overlooked is the regional divide that exists within Ukraine. The recent rhetorical downpour has aroused Mr. Yanukovych's constituency in eastern Ukraine, where the country's economic power base is situated, to call for secession, sharpening the polarized climate.

The imperative now is to address the rift that exists today within Ukraine by minimizing outside interference and allowing Ukrainians to define their own political destiny.

Paul Abelsky, a writer with a background in European history, is based in St. Petersburg, Russia.

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