East-West Divide within Ukraine Mirrors EU-Russia Tug-of-War

by Dr Alison Smith

The 2004 Orange Revolution, and the current EuroMaidan protests, have been widely reported in the European media as symbolising the will of the Ukrainian people to overthrow an autocratic government in favour of a democratic future within the European Union.  However, the reality is more complex.  Ukraine is a country divided.  Citizens of the Russian-speaking south and east strongly favour the current president Viktor Yanukovych, while citizens in the north and west favour a future within Europe.

The political divide in Ukraine is demonstrated starkly by the the results of the 2010 election, which are represented in the map below.  The brown, red, orange and yellow areas show strong support for the former Prime Minister and (now imprisoned) Orange Revolution leader, Yulia Tymoshenko.  The blue areas support the current President, Viktor Yanukovych, with equal fervour.

2010 Presidential Election Results:

Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 19.24.26

The geopolitical tug-of-war between the European Union and Russia is mirrored by a cultural conflict within Ukraine itself, a country with a turbulent history.  The far west of the country, where support for Tymoshenko is strongest, was Polish territory until 1939.  Given its history, it is hardly surprising that this region is most hostile to an orientation towards Russia.   However, in his recent decision to ally  with Russia, President Yanukovych has played to his core support in the east, a constituency that is equally powerful.

Of course, the situation is not quite so clear cut.  Yanukoych himself talked up the benefits of signing the EU association agreement before abruptly bowing to Russian pressure, and many Ukrainians in the south and east favour improved links with the west.  As relevant as language and culture are other demographic factors, most notably age: across Ukraine, young people are significantly more likely than older people to support links with Europe.  Indeed, it is Ukraine’s millennials that have led the charge against Yanukovych’s decision to reject a future in Europe.