Wed, Dec 01, 2004 - Page 9 News List

East-west split feared in Ukraine

History is on the point of repeating itself as the country threatens to tear itself apart

By Chris Stephen  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

Anton Agnev, a 24-year-old computer programmer from Donyetsk, is backing Ukraine's Orange Revolution despite the fact that so many of his neighbors voted for old pro-Moscow order represented by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich.

"I am from Donyetsk," he said. "I grew up there. We belong together. We are one country."

It is a view, however, that is not endorsed by tens of thousands of western Ukrainians who rallied yesterday in Anton's home city to declare that if their candidate -- widely suspected of trying to steal the election -- does not win, then Donyetsk and south and eastern Ukraine should secede.

Suddenly the specter of Ukraine tearing apart along old east-west fault lines has been revived, raising the prospect of a new statelet that would try to take in the rich industrial powerhouse of the country, together with the Crimean Peninsula.

Heading the call is Donyetsk Mayor Alexander Lukyanchenko. He said the split could beginning happening now unless demonstrators cleared the streets of Kiev, adding that the rest of Ukraine could not survive without its industrial east.

"We should, in an orderly, constitutional way, stage a referendum of trust to determine this country's make-up," he told the Donyestk assembly on Friday night. "We can live without that half, but can they live without us?"

The move touches on a raw nerve in Ukrainian society. This is a country that has spent most of the past centuries split between competing empires, and the fault lines run deep.

Historically, the west of the country was governed for more than 300 years by either the Polish or Austro-Hungarian empire.

The final parts of western Ukraine were added only in 1939. Meanwhile the east was dominated by Russia. For most of this time, the dividing line was the great Dnipr river.

This division is reflected in language, religion and even the name of the country, which means "frontier."

The east is Russian-speaking and Christian Orthodox. The west is mostly Ukrainian speaking and Greek Catholic, a religion orthodox in character but owing allegiance to the Pope.

The presidential run-off only deepened this division with the east voting for Yanukovich and the west for Yuschenko. Now protesters in Kiev fear that, with Russia and the West tugging at their country, the result may be a new version of East and West Germany reminiscent of the old Cold War. At Kiev's School for Policy Analysis, political science expert Olexiy Haran says historic faultlines are being exploited by government leaders to divert attention from their tolerance of corruption.

"Some of the governors are trying to push for the split in the country," he said. "I believe it's being done deliberately. The main issue is corrupted power, criminals, and democracy, not language or religion."

If so, it is a pattern familiar to anyone who has watched Eastern Europe's rebellions over the past 14 years. The use of the nationalist card by corrupt politicians to cover up their own corruption has a long and inglorious history.

I watched it succeed in Romania in 1990, when security officials of the old regime re-emerged as Romanian nationalists to provoke inter-ethnic riots with Hungarians in Tirgu Mures.

And I saw it work most spectacularly a year later in Yugoslavia, where nationalists from all persuasions, but most of all from the Serb camp, stoked up wars that sacrificed an entire nation to preserve their power base.

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