Ukraine's Political Violence Spurred by Cultural Divide

  February 15, 2014

Ukraine's Political Violence Spurred by Cultural Divide

Nicolai Petro: Violence persists between opposition and security forces, as opponents use culture to divide strongly nationalistic Ukrainian groups and factions identifying with Russia
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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island. During the collapse of the Soviet Union he served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department. He has published widely on Russian and international politics, and is currently in Ukraine on a Fulbright research fellowship. His web site

The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Fulbright program or the U.S. Department of State.


Ukraine's Political Violence Spurred by Cultural DivideJESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

On Tuesday, several protesters in Ukraine died in clashes with security forces in the capital of Kiev. This came after negotiations broke down between opposition leaders and the government.

The uprisings in Ukraine began in November after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a deal that would forge closer economic ties with the E.U.

Now joining us to discuss all this is Nicolai Petro. Nicolai is a professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island. He has been in the Ukraine since August as a visiting scholar and has observed the current crisis firsthand.

Thank you for joining us, Nicolai.


DESVARIEUX: So, Nicolai, first off, just break down for us who these groups are. Who's actually protesting? And what are they demanding?

PETRO: It's a variety of individuals and groups. There are the political opposition, that is to say, the representatives of three major political parties that are the united opposition. And then there are sundry individuals who occasionally join the protests from Kiev, residents in the city. That's when the protests get largest in terms of numbers. And increasingly there seem to be a group of radical nationalists who seek to take the fight, as they see it, for a national revolution directly to the parliament and to the police.

They each want different things. Some demand just new elections--that's new elections for Parliament and new elections of the president. Others demand a new constitution, or, rather, a restoration of the constitution of 2004. And the third group, the last group I was talking about, want a new order for the country that will allow them to conduct a cleansing of the country that will allow a national rebirth.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. I want to talk about your recent article titled "Ukraine's Culture War". You say that Ukrainian cultural identity and "… Russian culture has been a stumbling block to civic cooperation and national unity." Can you please explain how cultural issues have been a driving element, really, in this months-long political struggle that's happening in the country?

PETRO: Well, underlying all of the various issues are two fundamentally different understandings of Ukrainian identity and Ukrainian history.

For one group, primarily located in the far western provinces, it is a matter of restoring Ukrainian identity as one that is distinct from and often anti-Russian, against Russian influence. So they insist on things like only speaking Ukrainian, mandating the use of Ukrainian throughout the country, and having a particular vision of Ukrainian history which emphasizes what they call the liberation struggle during World War II, in which certain Ukrainian groups fought alongside the Nazis.

In the east, they have a very different conception of Ukrainian identity, one that has much closer ties with Russia, is comfortable with those historical ties, with the use of the language, and they really see World War II as a national struggle against foreign invaders, namely, the Nazis. So it goes back at least that far, and that's one of the crucial issues. But it could even--there are even precedents to that in earlier periods of history.

DESVARIEUX: Where do the ruling elites self-identify?

PETRO: Well, they are split along the same lines. So when you see someone on television here who is a national figure speaking in Ukrainian, one inevitably gets the sense that they are speaking to their constituents, Ukrainian-speaking constituency, which is largely in the western segments of the country. When you see their opponents, they're speaking Russian, and they likewise are talking to their constituencies, which are in the eastern half and the southern portion of the country. So they don't literally--they try to avoid speaking the same language in a literal sense.

DESVARIEUX: Most of the coverage that's coming out of mass media here when we talk about Ukraine is really revolved around whether or not the country will move closer to Russia or the E.U. Do you think Ukrainians sort of face this either/or choice?

PETRO: I don't think it is an either/or choice. I think if the E.U. and Russia stopped trying to pull Ukraine one way or the other and could actually sit down and agree that there's a common European heritage involved, then Ukraine would very easily fit into that heritage, because it is indeed split in its own identity.

But, unfortunately, we have a situation where the E.U. in particular seems to be pursuing a policy of pulling the Ukraine out of Russia's orbit, which basically leaves roughly 60 percent of the country--trying to cut it off, those Russian-speaking portions, from its emotional, cultural, and historical ties with its closest neighbor.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Nicolai Petro, thank you so much for joining us.

PETRO: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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