Ukrainians are getting less divided by language, not more

Protesters hold the Ukraine flag and anti-government placards at a rally in Kiev, Ukraine. (Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Protesters hold the Ukraine flag and anti-government placards at a rally in Kiev, Ukraine. (Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The journal Post-Soviet Affairs recently published a special issue on politics and identity in Ukraine. The question of Russian vs. Ukrainian identity has been central to the study of Ukrainian politics for decades now, but especially so since the “Euromaidan” protests of 2014, Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea, and continued violent conflict among Ukraine, Ukrainian separatists, and Russia-supported forces in the southeast. With this in mind, I spoke to one of the guest editors of the special issue, Olga Onuch, associate professor in politics at the University of Manchester and author of “Mapping Mass Mobilizations: Understanding Revolutionary Moments in Argentina and Ukraine” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). What follows is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Joshua Tucker: Most of the time when we hear discussions of identity in Ukraine, the focus is on language: Russian language speakers and Ukrainian language speakers. Has language continued to be a central marker of identity since Euromaidan?

Olga Onuch: Political scientists have long debated whether the language someone speaks is part of an identity that informs who they vote for, whether or not they participate in protests, and what policies they support.

But yes, there is heightened awareness of ethnic and linguistic identities now. Arguably, Russian President Vladimir Putin is the one who, in 2014, really hyped the idea that Russian speakers formed a specific political group that preferred to secede from Ukraine and needed Russia’s protection. That left observers wondering if ethnolinguistic identities were the push factor that explained support for secession.

While there was some evidence that such identities were important in the past, political science theory predicted they will shift or harden in the face of mass protest and conflict. That hasn’t happened. First, the conflict has not spread to other majority Russophone regions. Second, Ukrainians outside the contested regions of Donbas and Crimea rallied around moderate policy proposals like decentralization, shunned right-wing politicians and parties, and peacefully elected a new president and parliament.

Political scientists quickly realized that before we could evaluate whether such identities have shifted, hardened, or become more or less important, we first needed to consider how we measure and analyze our data. We all collected original data and collectively took some time to debate and think through what we are capturing when we are measuring language and ethnicity.

What we found is fascinating. For instance, political scientist Henry Hale and I found that different measures of Ukrainian ethnicity thought to be capturing the same thing are actually measuring distinct things. Choosing one measure over another changes whether one finds ethnicity to be significant.

JT: So what were these different aspects of identity that you felt had previously been conflated

OO: We identified four dimensions of ethnicity that have distinct effects: individual language preference (the language one feels most comfortable in), language embeddedness (language spoken at work or home), ethnolinguistic identity (mother tongue, scale of ethnic group belonging), and nationality (civic identity). We recommend that all four be included in future analyses. This means many scholars may have been getting things slightly wrong in the past.

When we do account for these four dimensions, we do find that personal language preferences and ethnic or civic notions of “Ukrainianness” are important in shaping political attitudes to language policy and joining NATO. However, the language spoken at work, not at home, affected the likelihood of joining the Euromaidan protests. Counter to expectations, ethnicity doesn’t appear to have shaped Ukrainians’ expectations of a new Russian invasion.

JT: Several articles in the special issue focus on new emerging identities in Ukraine post-Maidan. Could you tell us a bit about these?

OO: Yes! Volodymyr Kulyk shows that over the last two decades we observed two phenomena: (1) a “shedding” of “Russianness” and (2) a simultaneous rise in people declaring their sense of nationality to be civic and not ethnic.

Using original panel data, Graeme Robertson and Grigore Pop-Eleches find a significant increase in people thinking of Ukraine as their “homeland.” This is a heavily polarized post-colonial society where ethnicity is thought to be hugely salient, where outside forces are trying to heighten ethnolinguistic tensions. And yet attachment to the state is growing.

At the same time, they find that ethnic identities and language practices have not shifted or hardened as a result of the current conflict. Thus, whilst civic identities have seemingly strengthened, ethnolinguistic identities have remained consistent.

Finally, Elise Giuliano’s article points to the possibility that class-based and regional identities centered around feelings of “being left behind” have become increasingly important for those most affected by the conflict in the east. That’s very significant. Eastern Ukrainians’ feelings that the government has abandoned them correlate with their support for separatist conflict. This is similar to feelings of abandonment correlating with voting for the far-right in France, for Brexit in the U.K. and for Trump in the U.S.

JT: What was the most surprising thing you learned from your work on this special issue?

OO: Gwendolyn Sasse and Alice Lakner have really interesting data that tracks several populations: those living in the eastern regions that are still controlled by the Ukrainian government; those living in the self-declared “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic”; the internally displaced; and those who fled to Russia. Surprisingly, they find that the war has not shifted ethno identities — and yet, civic identities have either remained stable across all four groups or, in some cases, have strengthened.

JT: More and more these days, we hear Ukraine described as a “frozen conflict.” Based on the research in this special issue, are you more or less optimistic that this conflict will be resolved soon?

OO: I have a measured optimism. Ukrainian citizens seem to be unified by a shared sense of belonging to a civic community or homeland. However, regional socioeconomic inequalities are driving support for violent conflict and secession. In some places, citizens are struggling economically because of the collapse of former Soviet industries, bad economic policies, and massive corruption. That’s not easy to fix.

To reduce anger at the central government, politicians and international donors should focus on regional development policies and invest in the east of Ukraine.

A solution to the conflict will also require outmaneuvering Russian tactics. It is possible that Putin’s continued attempts to inflame ethnic or linguistic divisions, may lead the conflict to spread — yet, what we have seen to date suggests the opposite. Although the Ukrainian state is weak, and its elites are not only corrupt but also lack capacity and coordination, ordinary Ukrainians across the country have an increasingly stronger sense of a common civic identity.

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University. He specializes in voting, partisanship, public opinion, and protest, as well as the relationship of social media usage to all of these forms of behavior, with a focus on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Follow @j_a_tucker

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