Why Ukraine is Not Czechoslovakia

Map of Czechoslovakia in 1980, showing the Czech Socialist Republic and the Slovak Socialist Republic.

Map of the former Czechoslovakia in 1980, showing the Czech Socialist Republic and the Slovak Socialist Republic.

With regard to Ukraine’s social and cultural divisions, commentators have rushed to speculate that the country may very well split into even East and West halves in the manner of Czechoslovakia in 1993. However, such commentaries fail to understand the genuine dynamics of Ukraine today or indeed, the dynamics of the historical entity of Czechoslovakia.

Primarily, throughout their history, the Czechs and the Slovaks viewed themselves as two distinct, though closely related, ethnic groups who speak two distinct, though mutually intelligible West Slavic languages. During the communist era and specifically beginning in 1969, Czechoslovakia existed as a federation comprised of two states: the Czech Socialist Republic and the Slovak Socialist Republic. With the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, this internal administrative boundary, defined by geography, history, and language, became an international boundary.

By contrast, while there are strong regional divisions within Ukraine, the vast majority of the people in the country self-identify as “Ukrainians.” The only exceptions to this would be the Carpatho-Ukrainians (also known as the Carpathian Ruthenians or Rusyns) of the far-west Zakarpattia Oblast who speak their own distinct East Slavic language, and ethnic minorities like Russians, Romanians, Belarusians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Poles, Jews, Armenians, Greeks, and others.

Therefore, if the people in Lviv have anything in common with the people of Donetsk, it is that the majority of the population still self-identifies as being ethnic Ukrainian. Certainly, the concept of what it means to be Ukrainian would vary from Lviv to Donetsk. At the end of the day though, neither would identify as being part of a “Galician” or “Donbasian” ethnic group. They would regard themselves as “Ukrainians.”

Further complicating the overly-simplistic “East” vs. “West” narrative is the added presence of Central Ukraine. As I have reported in my earlier analysis, the people here are not strictly Ukrainian or Russian speakers. Rather, they speak Surzhyk, a mixed Russian-Ukrainian language, in the countryside and Russian in urban areas. Consequently, it is Central Ukraine that forms the point at which the Ukrainian-speaking Western Ukraine gradually blends into the Russian-speaking East. Politically, the people here are more moderate and navigate between the two extremes of Lviv and Donetsk. In some respects, the region acts much like a “swing state” in the American Midwest.

Linguistic Map of Ukraine

Linguistic Map of Ukraine, utilizing 2009 information from the Kiev National Linguistic University and data from the 2001 Ukrainian Census. Note that Ukrainian is highlighted in yellow. The mixed Russian-Ukrainian language Surzhyk is in orange. Russian is in red. Carpathian Ruthenian (spoken in Zakarpattia) is in the red-violet color. The Bulgarian, Greek, Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, Tatar, and Trasianka (Belarusian) minorities are also highlighted.

Further, there are also interesting cases in oblasts like Sumy and Kirovohrad. In both of these regions Russian is linguistically dominant, but politically, historically, and socially these regions are considered part of Central Ukraine. Western commentators who impose strict East-West divides onto Ukraine often include Sumy and Kirovohrad in the “West” simply because the Central Ukrainian oblasts have been voting for more pro-Western politicians since the 2004 Orange Revolution. In fact, in the case of regions like Kirovohrad, the pro-Western candidate just happened to get a slight electoral edge over their pro-Moscow competitor. Yet to define the people of Central Ukraine as being definitively part of Western Ukraine would be an oversimplification and would ignore the historical fact that the people of Central Ukraine have been largely part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union for the bulk of their modern history.

Thus, unlike the case of the Czechs and Slovaks in the former Czechoslovakia, the divide between what is “Eastern Ukraine” and what is “Western Ukraine” is unclear. This makes any effort at partitioning Ukraine into precise “East” and “West” halves impossible, thus ruling out any sort of “Velvet Divorce” Czechoslovak-style breakup. It also makes the overall situation in Ukraine potentially more dangerous, especially since the government in Kiev has been seized by mostly West Ukrainian activists. Indeed, if one observes the composition of the current Yatsenyuk government, one will find a preponderance of individuals from all political strands (from the pro-EU liberals to the far-right fascists) who can trace their origins back to the oblasts of Western Ukraine.