Ukraine’s National Identity Cannot be Defined by the West

Maidan Square, Kiev, December 8, 2013 by Alexander Solovyov via Flickr

This article is a response to “In Ukraine, Western Patience is Running Out – Time to Intervene“.

Born in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, I moved to Canada around the age of 7. Growing up, prompted by native-born classmates’ clamoring over why my accent was slightly amiss, my naïve response never made sense to them. I was poignantly aware of the land that my parents and I had left behind, constituting a geographical entity called Ukraine. At home I listened to Ukrainian folk songs and my grandmother’s tales on Cossak movements of 11th-century Kievan Rus. The language that I spoke though was Russian. Considering the orientation of Odessa under the Russian unification (dating back to Catherine the Great), I was perhaps torn between calling myself Ukrainian or Russian – always under the watchful gaze of my classmates.

By Kamiliya Akkouche

Today, if asked, I respond that I am Ukrainian but that I speak Russian. This is a very simple answer to a very complex issue. Within my Ukrainian identity, there is still a Russo-Ukrainian association in spirit. It does not undermine the belonging I share with my fellow Ukrainians who do not identify with this Russian element. Identity is a pluralist concept and is continuously being forged. For me, confronting how Russia has intersected with my cultural development will always be defining.

I viewed the EuroMaidan movement with great optimism. It presented an integrationist crucible in the question of identity. This modern technological resistance allowed Ukrainians (in whatever way they perceived their identity) to reclaim their plurality by finding a common ground. As Pekar wrote in a recent article, the Maidan force “… has allowed us to see through the flames into the ‘green’ level” revolution that is both self-organized and “post-capitalist”. This ‘green’ level revolution is the common ground that brings together different conceptions of identity. Coverage of the conflict that now engulfs Ukraine has become a muddy narrative of borders, politicians and calls for intervention.

The common ground message of the visionaries that stood on the Maidan square from all parts of Ukraine has been denatured.

Support for this muddy narrative can be found amongst many. It was even displayed in our very own LeZadig in an article published by Mr. Rosenberg last month. In his article he sets up the claim that to save Ukraine, “…now is the time for Western countries, the rest of the E.U., and NATO to intervene”. This is founded on the fact that …“the majority of Ukrainian people have struggled to move toward a democratic and capitalist society” and that Yanukovych derailed this with the rejection of the EU agreement. Mr. Rosenberg concludes to say, “It is morally justifiable for the West to intervene, because it is the Ukrainian people themselves who are imploring Western countries to take action.”

But here lays a regurgitation of dominant paradigms: the ones you see in Western media’s coverage that only reflect Kiev’s perspective on the conflict. He misses the point that exactly because there is no clear-cut “majority” in the Ukrainians’ national identity, there is also no clear-cut model of democracy, most definitely not the capitalist one he sees.

The Western part of Ukraine has historically shared closer ties with its European neighbours while the Eastern part has been more localized towards its industrial Russian neighbour. The point here is not the existence of an intrinsic cultural divide, but the fact that political platforms used these geographic contingencies to their electoral advantage. In fighting within Ukraine’s Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada made all coalitions between either Eastern or Western oriented parties to fracture.

No credible opposition has ever stood in place for Ukrainians to express their understanding of belonging, be it of ethnic or linguistic nature.

All this shows how politically misguided the attempts are at reducing the conflict and its potential solutions to a homogenous “majority”. This consequently prevents us from concluding that the West is best suited to morally guide the Ukrainians out of the rift. Ukrainians need to establish their own common ground to find a national identity. This is where the EuroMaidan movement needs to come into play again.

It offered a cohesive approach to both Ukrainian identity and vision. Yes, the movement assembled in reaction to Yanukovich’s unilateral rejection of the European Union agreement. However, the movement’s rallying cry was not focused on the European Union or a particular model of democracy or economy, whether liberal or capitalist. It was activism spurred by the drudgery of political corruption, and the disregard for human rights. All this imbued within the greater context of a post-Soviet reclamation of morale by the Ukrainian people themselves.

None of these factors were intuitively nullified through a potential EuroZone integration in the minds of Ukrainians. As an illustration, a discussion I attended in Sarajevo this past summer allowed me to speak with EuroMaidan activists who spent weeks on the ground living in Kiev’s encampments. They made no mention of the European Union; their revolution was a revolution of dignity.

If the West or anyone else wants to honour the EuroMaidan objectives in solidarity, democracy must be seen as a process that is both self-produced, and based on the identities that are configured within the region.

This is not to say that Putin should be allowed to reign free in the East. It means that our attitudes on the crisis must take into account that all sides, be it the Western powers or Putin, are using the constructed tensions between Ukrainians to further their political agendas. It therefore is fundamentally contradictory to stress Ukraine’s self-determination as a “democratic country that makes its own choices about its future path”, while at the same time calling for Western intervention.

The “frozen conflict” between each part of the country will not be resolved by external mediation until that mediation takes the transforming views on the ground into account. The only hope from the current post-revolutionary disillusionment are the few rather informal campaigners who either run in the parliamentary elections to counter the dominant parties or who just support Ukrainians through social media. It is these individuals and their efforts that we should support on the international scene. We should not be focusing on who among the state actors receives the privilege to intervene or who succeeds at claiming ownership of the democratic movement. Instead, it is time to focus on the civil society, as human agency is the ultimate voice to break the muddy narrative.

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