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Time to think the unthinkable?

Concerns are rising that Ukraine is about to split into two.  A lot of this is scaremongering, and actually things do look relatively calm on the streets, but the risk of conflict remains very real and I wonder if, actually, it is time for Ukraine to split. 

The chances of some kind of move toward a secession came closer yesterday when, in Donetsk, regional councilors voted 164-1 in favour of a referendum on 15 December to decide the region’s future.

"We won’t tolerate what’s going on in Ukraine," Donetsk region governor Anatoly Bliznyuk told regional lawmakers.

"We have shown that we are a force to consider."

Add to this comments from both candidates – Yanukovich says the election has brought Ukraine "to the brink of civil conflict" and Yuschenko warns that "Today we are on the brink of catastrophe. There is one step to the edge" – which appear to suggest that neither is entirely certain that the genie they have unleashed will be returned to his bottle without a fight.

Ukraine today truly is a country of two halves – the largely rural West is dominated by ethnic Ukrainians, the industrial East by ethnic Russians.   Both overwhelmingly supported their own candidate, usually with votes of around 90%.  Lets face it – this was not an election fought over ideological issues – it was one fought over which ethnic group gets to run the country.  Unless something drastic happens, the same process will be repeated in four years time. 

So, why not do something drastic?  Why not split the country into two while the chance exists? 

Well, for one thing, because most of the rest of the world hates the idea.  The international community rarely has any kind of enthusiasm for extra states.  It just complicates things.  If one state gets to split into two, why not every other state that wants to?  Why not Iraq, for example?  In this spirit, both the EU and NATO today warned Ukraine not to split.

"The unity of Ukraine is fundamental," said EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana

But think of the advantages.  All the energy spent squabbling over allocating resources between the two ethnic groups could be spent on developing the economy instead.   And, while we’re on the subject of the economy, all these protests must be costing the country a fortune.  If everyone in Ukraine goes on strike for just 1 week, that’s 2% of GDP down the drain.  The quicker people get back to work, the better for everyone.

And an agreement now, rather than later, means that nobody actually needs to fight a civil war.  People can just get on with their lives instead.

Even in international relations, a Ukrainian split seems to be win-win.  The EU can forge ever closer relations with a Ukraine no longer held back by Russia.  Under the dangled carrot of EU membership, the new Ukraine could see democratic reforms entrenched, and capitalism begin to flourish.

And Russia can either integrate Russian Ukraine into Russia itself, or build close ties with a state packed full of brother Russians.  Access to its naval base in Odessa will be guaranteed, along with another friendly face in the UN.

So, to the people of Ukraine, I say don’t listen to all the nay-sayers who will tell you that to break up means to fight.  Listen instead to the Czechs and to the Slovaks who in 1991 dissolved their country with little more than a handshake.   

Take the opportunity now, while it still exists.  Take it before you begin to hate and fear your neighbours.


  • Most citizens of Ukraine seem to think of themselves as Ukrainians — Russophone Ukrainians in the case of the East and South. They may think the Russian language is no less Ukrainian than Ukrainian itself. (English is now more Irish than Irish, and more Scottish than both Gaelic and Burns’ “dialect.”) They want their voice heard in Kyiv, but do they really want to join a Russia ruled by Putin and his oligarchs?

  • Russian Ukrainians certainly want their voice heard in Kiev. But, if they begin to think that their voice is no longer heard in Kiev, they may feel that they should either run their own affairs, or join a more friendly country.

    I do agree with you that Russian Ukrainians are not Russians, and see themselves as distinct from Russia. But, I would argue that Serbs and Croats in Bosnia also used to think of themselves in the same way. Things change – sometimes very quickly.

  • True, but the relationship of Serbs and Croats didn’t start at zero in 1991, or in 1946. Russians and Ukrainians seem to lack a comparable extensive history of misunderstanding and conflict, at least of two-way misunderstanding and conflict. I’ve blogged about it (1, 2), and I’m very skeptical that secessionism will take off.

  • I feel compelled to point out that 1) succession is unconstitutional, and 2) That those advocating separation are the oligarchs with the most to lose if Yushchenko becomes president.

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