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on the road

May 10, 2015 | 13:00 GMT

8 mins read

Ukrainian Crisis Hardens National Identity

Senior Eurasia Analyst, Stratfor
Eugene Chausovsky
Senior Eurasia Analyst, Stratfor
In the past year, Ukraine has undergone momentous changes and hardships -- a trip from the western city of Lviv to Kiev highlights a more subtle change in national consciousness.
(EUGENE CHAUSOVSKY/Stratfor)

The Ukrainian city of Lviv is located in the far west of the country, less than 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the Polish border. Lviv was once part of the kingdom of Galicia, which included parts of modern Ukraine and Poland. The city has long been known as the center of Ukrainian culture, overshadowing Kiev as the driving force behind the development of a distinct national identity. Lviv played a particularly important role in the period between World War I and World War II, when Ukraine first attained independence, and again in the lead-up to the collapse of the Soviet Union. During Ukraine's unrest in 2014, the city was once again at the vanguard of history. Demonstrators stormed local government buildings and declared the city independent on Feb 20, a full two days before Kiev's EuroMaidan protesters forced then-President Viktor Yanukovich to give up his hold on power and flee abroad.

Alongside the political, economic and security changes Ukraine has undergone, many of its people have experienced an emotional transformation.

Of Ukraine's major cities, Lviv is the most European — in terms of both history and culture. The city was ruled by Poland from the 14th to the 18th century and, as rival powers gradually partitioned Poland, was then controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire until World War I. After the war, nationalists in Lviv attempted to form an independent state, only to ultimately fail, and Poland reclaimed the city in 1919. It was not until the end of World War II that Lviv fell under Moscow's control as part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Kiev, by contrast, had been under Russia's sway for three centuries already.

Lviv has played a particularly important role in Ukraine's history.

Lviv has played a particularly important role in Ukraine's history.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Modern Lviv bears the marks of this European history and has a distinctly different character than eastern Ukraine or even Kiev—it is the city in which Western influence is at its maximum and Russian influence is at its weakest. The Ukrainian language predominates on the streets of Lviv, which are lined with classical and Gothic European architecture. Catholic cathedrals such as the Church of the Holy Communion and the Latin Cathedral stand in the city's old town. On the main thoroughfare, Svobody Avenue, a monument to Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz is erected in front of an Austrian-built Baroque opera house and a statue of Taras Shevchenko, the icon who made Ukrainian into a literary language.

A tent stands on Svobody Avenue in central Lviv as a memorial to government troops killed in the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

A tent stands on Svobody Avenue in central Lviv as a memorial to government troops killed in the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

(EUGENE CHAUSOVSKY/Stratfor)

Today on Svobody, there stands a more immediate symbol of Lviv's Western orientation and solid Ukrainian credentials: a memorial tent to the "freedom fighters" battling pro-Russia separatists in the east. Nearby is a small booth set up by the nationalist Svoboda party, whose leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, is from Lviv and played an important role during the EuroMaidan demonstrations. Ukrainian flags can be spotted on every street, along with a few EU and Council of Europe flags. Troops occasionally walk by, chatting casually with locals. Many shops and cafes are decorated in the Ukrainian national colors of yellow and blue as well as posters supporting Kiev's efforts against eastern separatists. Most have buckets soliciting donations for the war effort.

A truck soliciting donations to support the Ukrainian military's efforts in eastern Ukraine.

A truck soliciting donations to support the Ukrainian military's efforts in eastern Ukraine.

(EUGENE CHAUSOVSKY/Stratfor)

It was here, in the center of the city, amid the nationalist decorations, that I met up with some Ukrainian friends — two couples in their mid-thirties from Kiev. Normally the May holidays would find them abroad, but Ukraine's current economic circumstances have made that difficult. The hryvnia, which once exchanged at eight to the dollar, depreciated over the past year and now sits at 22 to the dollar. A road trip to Lviv was much more affordable for them.

My first question was what they thought of Ukraine's national crisis. Right away, one of them responded that it didn't matter what they thought — they couldn't change anything. Before the ouster of Yanukovich, this sort of apathy was the norm among young people. It surprised me, however, to hear it at such a critical and tumultuous time. But this knee-jerk cynicism belied the fact that my previously apolitical friends had, over a short period, become intensely aware and involved in domestic politics. While fatalism was still the norm, even after Kiev's pro-European Union protests broke out in November 2013 and police began to beat student demonstrators, many otherwise apolitical people rallied to the anti-government cause. They provided food and supplies to protestors on the Maidan. When the rallies succeeded in toppling Yanukovich, my friends were thrilled.

When Russia reacted by annexing Crimea and providing support to militants in eastern Ukraine, my friends transformed into full-fledged Ukrainian patriots. Before 2014, none of them had voted in elections. In recent parliamentary elections, however, they all voted — two chose Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's party and two voted for the radical Right Sector party. The latter choice shocked me. When I asked why, they said they chose Right Sector because it was the only party fully committed to defending the nation; in their minds, the other parties seemed self-interested and willing to sell out to the highest bidder. None of my friends cared whether Ukraine pursued EU membership, but they all said Russia was clearly a threat and that Ukraine needed help meeting that threat.

All of my friends have been affected by last year's conflict and instability, either emotionally, physically or economically. Utility prices, for example, have risen substantially. They will continue to do so under the new government's reform and austerity program, which is key to obtaining funds from Western financial institutions. My friends said that these costs were difficult for them to bear, but that they would endure them. To them, that was the price of progress. They preferred higher bills to the humiliating corruption under Yanukovich. They acknowledged that the reform process would take time, but were willing to wait and see it out if it would lead to a more well-run and just state. Ultimately, however, they wanted at least some demonstrable improvements soon, saying that Poroshenko could suffer Yanukovich's fate if he did not deliver.

Elsewhere in Lviv, I found others who shared my friends' cautious optimism. A Lviv-born taxi driver told me that his life had worsened since 2014. Most of his complaints were about the economy — high gas prices, food costs and heating rates did not balance with stagnating wages. He noted, however, that Ukraine had suffered worse hardships before and that at least now the West was acknowledging Russian President Vladimir Putin's designs on Ukraine. In addition, he was relieved that Yanukovich was gone. In Lviv, life was calm and plenty of tourists still came to the city, while the fighting was "way out there in the east."

A Ukrainian flag flies in a rural village near Rivne, about 180 kilometers (112 miles) northeast of Lviv.

A Ukrainian flag flies in a rural village near Rivne, about 180 kilometers (112 miles) northeast of Lviv.

(EUGENE CHAUSOVSKY/Stratfor)

Leaving the city, however, it became clear that even nearby towns were suffering the crisis more acutely than Lviv. This became quickly apparent as the charming old city gave way to Soviet-style concrete apartment blocks and small, rusting factories. Along the E-40 highway heading east, these concrete buildings eventually faded out, leaving only flat, green fields and small, derelict villages. I spotted people on horse-drawn carts working the land as they and their families had done for centuries. Many of these people likely camped out in the EuroMaidan and were essential in championing the demands for reform that ultimately led to Yanukovich's ouster. Passing through them made it easy to see why — there really wasn't much else to do.

All the signs along the road to Kiev were printed in both Ukrainian and English – none were in Russian. A few Soviet-era monuments stood alongside the road — a tank, a MiG-29 fighter. All of these, however, were draped with Ukrainian flags. The welcome sign outside the town of Tarakanov bore not only the Ukrainian flag, but also the red and black Ukrainian nationalist flag now used by Right Sector.

Driving into central Kiev, we crossed the over the Dnieper River on the yellow and blue illuminated Peshechodny Bridge. Seeing Ukraine's national colors, my friend said "Isn't it beautiful?" Hearing this middle class, Russian speaker who had once been so politically apathetic swell with Ukrainian pride underlined the drastic evolution they and other Ukrainians had undergone over the past year. Alongside the political, economic and security changes Ukraine had undergone, many of its people had experienced an emotional transformation. Their identity had changed. They knew the war with Russia would be difficult and long. They knew that the economy was weak and that the government was still corrupt and influenced by oligarchs. In spite of all this, they now felt more Ukrainian than they had before.

This, however, does not mean they support the new government unconditionally. Instead, it means they hold Kiev to higher standards than ever before. This was a shift in public sentiment on a deeper, more personal level. The government could just as easily be voted or removed from office as the previous one. This new identity, however, could not be removed as easily. Granted, Ukraine still has a number of cultural divides and were I to speak to Ukrainians in Kharkiv or Odessa, not to mention separatist-dominated Donetsk and Crimea, the answers would be quite different. Regardless of its scope, the new and politically engaged attitudes that I witnessed in Lviv will play an important role, both domestically and abroad, in Russia and the West, in charting Ukraine's new future. 

Eugene Chausovsky focuses on political, economic and security issues pertaining to the former Soviet Union, Europe and Latin America. He was previously a researcher at the University of Texas, where he focused on Russian demographic trends and their impact on the country's political and electoral systems. He also holds a degree in international relations from the same university.

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