Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, elected in 2010, has been deposed by the Ukrainian Rada, the parliament, following months of demonstrations, and presidential elections are scheduled for May.
Oleksandr Turchinov, the speaker of the parliament, has been named interim president. He is a close ally of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who had been jailed by Yanukovych.
Most Canadians have seen this as a struggle between pro-European supporters of democracy and what has been seen as an authoritarian government under the influence of Moscow. But there may be more to it than that.
Although most of the protests we have seen in newscasts have concentrated on Kyiv’s Independence Square, areas in western Ukraine around the city of Lviv have been in the forefront driving the insurgency against Yanukovych.
Why was western Ukraine so opposed to Yanukovych, whereas his support lay in the east? Although a sovereign state for more than two decades, Ukraine still faces questions regarding its national identity.
The eastern part of the country was controlled by tsarist Russia after 1654. As a result, the people are overwhelmingly Orthodox in religion, and many people speak Russian. But the western portion was for many centuries part of Poland and then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Following the First World War, it became part of the reconstituted independent Poland.
A large proportion of western Ukrainians are members of the Uniate (Ukrainian Greek Catholic) Church, which combines Orthodox rites with a fealty to the Pope in Rome. Western Ukrainians speak largely Ukrainian and retain strong nationalist sentiments.
Following the Second World War, the victorious Soviet Union annexed the western Ukraine and united it with the Soviet Ukraine. But many in the region fought against incorporation.
Some, like Stepan Bandera, a wartime leader of the militant, terrorist branch of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), had been a Nazi collaborator and involved in the mass murders of Ukrainian Jews.
The western Ukraine — where today there are statues honoring Bandera in various cities, including Lviv — is also the political stronghold of the All-Ukrainian Union Svoboda, the ultra-nationalist, far-right anti-Semitic party, which holds 36 of 450 seats in the Ukrainian parliament. It is the fourth-largest party in the legislature.
The party traces its roots to the Nazi-friendly partisan army during World War II. Some of Svoboda’s supporters are people who believe that the German invasion of Ukraine in the 1940s was not an occupation but a liberation from “Jewish Bolshevism.” Last month it held a torch-lit march in honor of Bandera.
Its leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, has been active in the anti-Yanukovych movement. He has a long history of making inflammatory anti-Semitic statements, including the accusation before parliament that Ukraine is controlled by a “Muscovite-Jewish mafia.” There are about 200,000 Jews living in Ukraine, mostly in Kyiv.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has asked, “Why do we not hear statements of condemnation toward those who seize government buildings, attack and burn police officers, and voice racist and anti-Semitic slogans?” The Russian foreign ministry has called the protests the “Brown Revolution,” comparing it to the Nazis’ rise to power in the 1930s.
“Svoboda’s prominence within the opposition movement is certainly concerning,” writes Joshua Keating, a staff writer at Slate, “not only because of the possibility they could now play a more prominent role in the future politics, but because they have allowed an increasingly authoritarian leader and his blatantly authoritarian international backers to make the case that their opponents are the ones who pose a threat to democracy.”
Yanukovych has denounced the takeover as “vandalism” and described it as a “coup” by “bandits.” In Kharkiv, in the mainly Russian-speaking east, regional leaders said they did not want the break-up of Ukraine, but they questioned the legitimacy of the parliament’s actions. They are particularly upset by a measure the legislature passed to cancel the official status of the Russian language in Ukraine.
So it remains to be seen whether, once the dust settles, Ukraine will become less authoritarian than it has been. It all depends on who assumes power.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.