Note: I now have a new post on Ukrainian political geography complete with an interactive graphic.
If you’ve been following the news, you know that Ukraine is experiencing mass protests and civic unrest. The situation seems to be coming to a head today, with riot police threatening to break up demonstrations in Kyiv and President Viktor Yanukovych talking about meeting with opposition leaders. The protests were triggered when Yanukovych backed out of signing an agreement with the European Union that would increase trade and political cooperation. Things got worse when police beat some unarmed protesters last week. Ukrainians are generally fed up by lack of economic opportunity as well as pervasive corruption, and many seem happy to take to the streets.
Why would Yanukovych refuse to sign the EU agreement after previously promoting it, knowing that it would make a lot of Ukrainians unhappy? Well, the standard answer is that Russia put enormous pressure on Ukraine, including threatening economic retribution. And that’s true. But to grasp why Yakukovych felt comfortable making this decision, and why Russia has such an outsized influence on the country, you have to understand how Ukraine is ethnically, culturally, and linguistically divided by geography.
The map above shows the percent of ethnic Russians in each of Ukraine’s oblasts (regional administrative units. About 17 percent of Ukrainians identify as ethnic Russian (2001 census), but they are clustered in the east and south of the country. There is a very sharp drop off in the number of Russians to the north and west of this dividing line, for example from 25.6% in Kharkov Oblast to 7.2% in Poltava Oblast. There are many historic reasons for this ethnic divide, including migration from Russia in Soviet times to industrial regions in eastern Ukraine, but we won’t get into that now.
But ethnicity is really only a minor part of the story. The map above shows the percentages of Ukrainians whose native language is Russian. Again you can see the stark divide separating south and east from the rest of the country. Comparing with the ethnicity map you can also see that many Ukrainians who are not ethnic Russians speak Russian as their native language.
When you look closer, at the sub-regional level, you can actually see that Russian language is concentrated in Crimea and in the large cities and industrial areas of the south and east. Rural areas in the east are predominately Ukrainian speaking. This reminds me of election maps in the United States where Democratic votes are concentrated in dense urban areas, meaning that the map might be awash in a sea of Republican red even if the Democrats won.
This ethnic and linguistic divide coincides with a cultural and political divide. The map above shows how much of the vote Yanukovich got in each region in 2010. Even though the election was decided by only about 3.5%, Yanukovych didn’t even get 10% in some areas of western Ukraine while he carried over 90% in Donestk Oblast (where he is from) in the east. That’s a geographically divided electorate!
Eastern and southern Ukraine, especially urban areas, are ethnically, linguistically, and culturally closer to Russia than the other parts of the country. This divide is stark. In my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer working in all-Ukraine summer camps, it was not uncommon for many of the young people to have never met someone from the “other” region. Yanukovych and his Party of Regions have their power base in the east and south, and their supporters are much less likely to be upset at forgoing closer relations with the EU, and much more likely to favor closer relations with Russia. Moreover, the economic threats allegedly made by Putin would have affected the pro-Yanukovich regions more because they are industrial areas that sell lot of goods to Russia.
So Yanukovych choose a course of action that paralleled the wishes of his power base and his geographic region of support. It remains to be seen whether this was a wise political decision for him, but at this point it does not look good.
Perhaps Yanukovych overestimated the cultural and linguistic divisions in Ukraine, and did not account for the fact people all over the country are unhappy with the regime, generally perceived as corrupt and ineffectual, and with the economic situation in the country as a whole.
Update: Just an couple hours after I posted this, the Washington Post WorldViews blog published this article. It makes many of the same points regarding the ethnic and liguistic divides in Ukraine and includes some interesting recent polling on the EU integration agreement.