24th Oct 2016

Western Ukrainians debunk fears of national split

  • Orthodox priest at the Maidan: The Ukrainian Orthodox Church tried to shield protesters from violence (Photo: Jordi Bernabeu)

People who came to St. Mikolaj’s, in the village of Staryj Sambir, near the Polish-Ukrainian border, on Sunday (23 February) to bury their hero listened to an appeal for national unity from the pulpit.

Bohdan Solchanyk, a 29-year-old academic, was shot in Kiev last week.

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The crowd of 1,500 or so chanted revolutionary slogans as it carried his open casket through a throng of blue and gold Ukrainian flags and Ukrainian Orthodox Church banners to the hilltop church. But it fell silent as it entered St. Mikolaj’s, where Solchanyk’s embalmed face, with its short beard, recalled the icons on the walls.

The local priest, Father Myhailo, noted in his homily that the "Maidan," the Ukrainian uprising, is an event of European importance.

“People came from all over Ukraine, but also from France, from Germany, from Poland, from Belgium, to stand up for human dignity,” he said.

He urged people not to “sell” their vote in the new elections in May.

He ended by calling on “all Ukrainians to come together to hold hands in a living chain, from Lviv to Donetsk, from Sevastopol to Kiev, and from Ivano-Frankivsk to Lutsk, so that no enemy can ever divide our country in two.”

Under the circumstances, his homily could have been different.

Solchanyk is believed to have been shot by a sniper from Russophone and Russian Orthodox east Ukraine.

During the unrest, Viktor Yanukovych, the former president, brought special police from the east to Kiev because they were more willing to use violence against the, mostly western, protesters.

Yanukovych, and most of his ousted government, come from the eastern Donbas region, where he is thought to have fled after his fall from power on Saturday.

Ukraine’s divisions have also been a big topic in Russian and in Ukrainian state propaganda.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has warned several times the Maidan will cause a civil war. Yanukovych himself said again on Saturday: “I will do everything to protect my country from breakup, to stop bloodshed.”

The warnings, which conjure up memories of the 1990s Balkan conflicts, are being taken seriously by EU countries.

On Sunday, the German foreign ministry said Chancellor Angela Merkel phoned Russian President Vladimir Putin to tell him “the territorial integrity of Ukraine must be preserved.”

One EU foreign minister, speaking off the record, told EUobserver the Union had hoped Yanukovych would sign the EU’s association and free trade treaty last year “because he is from the east.”

“It would have been better than if it is signed by a western Ukrainian politician, because it would show that eastern Ukraine also supports Euro-integration. It would have been better for the unity of the country,” the minister said.

For many Ukrainians, the only risk of conflict is if Yanukovych or Putin try to orchestrate one from above, however.

Oleksandr Sushko, an analyst at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Co-operation, a think tank in Kiev, noted: “There is turbulence and there are differences between the regions but not to a great extent. In sociological terms, there is absolutely no grounds for a split.”

“The only region where the idea of secession is more or less popular is Crimea, because it’s the only region where ethnic Russians are in the majority,” he added.

“But even here the risk is fully connected to the potential behaviour of some major political groups.”

Ordinary western Ukrainians agree.

Svitlana, 23, a civil society activist in Lviv, western Ukraine, has for the past five years invited young people from eastern cities to spend Christmas with families in Lviv.

She acknowledged there are barriers.

“They feel like they are coming to a foreign country. Some of them are scared to speak Russian on the street in case they get a bad reaction,“ she said.

But she added: “They quickly realise that none of this is true. They go back home with a totally different attitude.”

Igor, 51, a Lviv truck driver who has criss-crossed Ukraine, said eastern Ukrainians do not swallow everything they see on TV.

He noted that Russian media have made much of Stepan Bandera, a World War II-era western Ukrainian nationalist, who is associated with the red and black flag used by some Maidan militants.

“They keep telling them [eastern Ukrainians] that if the Maidan wins, then ‘Banderists’ from the west will come and steal their lands,” he said.

"Nobody believes this rubbish."

Meanwhile, father Myhailo’s appeal was echoed in Kiev over the weekend, when each member of Ukraine’s caretaker government pledged in parliament to work on behalf of “all Ukrainians.”

For his part, Zinowiy Dobriansky, a 58-year-old construction site manager from Staryj Sambir and a lifelong friend of Solchanyk’s father, has more reason than most to bear a grudge.

He remembers Solchanyk as a schoolboy. He described him as “the light” of Staryj Sambor because of his academic career, which saw him leave the village to teach modern history at Lviv university and to win a scholarship to study in Poland.

Like father Myhailo, Dobriansky also said Solchanyk died so that "everybody" in Ukraine can have a better life, however

He said eastern Ukrainians are “educated people.”

With the Maidan, in part, an uprising in support of closer EU-Ukraine ties, he told EUobserver: “They know what it means to become part of Russia. Millions of them have been to Russia, but millions of them have also been to Poland, or Germany. They can see that Europe is not paradise. But they see that people have much easier lives in Europe, that they have many more opportunities.”

“Ukraine will not be split,” he said.

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