MOSCOW (Alexei Makarkin, deputy general director of the Center for Political Technologies, for RIA Novosti) - Ukraine is currently faced with an extremely contradictory political situation.
On the one hand, a significant part of the country's political class and many ordinary people increasingly view Ukraine as a unified state. The Ukrainian yellow and blue flag, which just a few years ago was a highly controversial symbol, is now seen as perfectly legitimate (it is used by both Viktor Yushchenko's supporters and Viktor Yanukovich's supporters).
On the other hand, the country is divided into several distinct areas each of which has its own cultural and historical identity. The ethnic composition of eastern Ukraine is very similar to that of the neighboring Russian regions. Galichina was part of Poland, then the Austrian Empire, then Austro-Hungary, and then Poland again, and it only became part of the USSR in 1939. The Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar communities (58%, 24% and 13% respectively) live side by side in the Crimea, but not without tensions. The only language spoken by almost the entire adult population of the Crimea is Russian, and therefore Russian is the language most often used in communications between different ethnic groups. This situation gives rise to federalist sentiments, which are further encouraged by the policies of the Ukrainian authorities.
This year, new local authorities came into power in the Crimea, as well as in other regions of Ukraine. Anatoly Matviyenko, leader of the Sobor Ukrainian Republican Party, became the new Crimean prime minister. He has never lived in the region before and is seen as a close ally of Yulia Timoshenko. Matviyenko says that the Russian language and culture should be protected. Moreover, it has been promised that next year the Russian language might be included in the curriculum for Ukrainian schools in the Crimea. But when Matviyenko took office this May, the press service of the Crimean local authorities stopped publishing its press releases in Russian, and the website of the local authorities switched to Ukrainian.
These seemingly minor changes have clearly annoyed the Russian community in the Crimea. Under the Ukrainian Constitution, the state language is Ukrainian, and all previous Ukrainian governments have ignored proposals that Russian be given an official national status. However, the Crimea is an autonomous republic (the only one in Ukraine) and it is governed not only by the Ukrainian Constitution, but also by its own constitution. The Crimean Constitution (Article 10) provides for the use of the Russian language in all spheres of public life.
It is not however simply a question of whether this principle is strictly observed or not. Russians in the Crimea see the steps taken by the new authorities as a rehearsal for a sweeping process of "Ukrainization." There is also an element of disappointment: during his election campaign Viktor Yushchenko constantly spoke of the need to protect the languages of national minorities in those areas where there are large ethnic minority populations. Government officials should speak to local populations in a language they can understand. Last year, this was put forward as an alternative to Viktor Yanukovich's proposal to give the Russian language an official status. Therefore there is a clear divergence between declared aims and practice.
The Russian-speaking population (mostly Russians) is in a difficult situation in Ukraine. The majority voted for Viktor Yanukovich and their natural disappointment with the election results is combined with fears of forced Ukrainization and encroachment upon their customary right to use the Russian language. During the Soviet era and in the years since Ukrainian independence, Russians in Ukraine have been accustomed to having the right to use Russian in public life and to receive education in Russian.
It seems that the country's new leaders are more interested in consolidating the support of those people who voted for Viktor Yushchenko in the "third" round of the presidential election (believing that this will give them a majority in the Ukrainian parliament, the Supreme Rada), than in winning over the Russian electorate. When this is combined with the tactless actions of certain representatives of the new Ukrainian authorities in the regions, the country may well see increased support for the advocates of federalism. These include the Party of the Regions headed by Viktor Yanukovich, and also more radical political forces, irreconcilable opponents of Yushchenko's supporters. Although Yanukovich's party has not yet recovered from last year's defeat, it is taking steps to do so. For example, it has signed an agreement on cooperation with the Russian party United Russia.