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A bad case of split personality disorder

What on earth is going on in Ukraine?

I am sure that you have seen the images of fire, death and protest on the news, and heard words like Putin, referendum, invasion, and maybe even Crimea (Ukraine). But what is really going on?

Ukraine is a very different nation to New Zealand.

It has been independent since the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, and its borders look really different now. This means the country has a bad case of split personality disorder – divided roughly East and West.

East-West conflict

East Ukraine spent most of the last 250 years ruled by Russians. It has good farming, great for feeding an empire. Russian leaders sent Russian speakers to live there, and passed laws to make everyone speak Russian.

Unsurprisingly, many East Ukrainians still speak Russian, and see Russia as a natural ally.

West Ukrainians basically disagree. They speak Ukrainian and are sick of the chronic corruption in politics and government; to them, echoes of the hated Soviet regime that plagued Ukraine’s economy since independence.

They see Western democracy, particularly the European Union (EU) as the best partner for a stronger, more successful Ukraine.

Equally divided

Unsurprisingly, every presidential election since 1991 has been an almost 50/50 split vote between candidates seen as either pro-Russia or pro-EU.

The last President who is from the East, Viktor Yanukovych he fled the country to Russia in mid-February after violent protests from mainly West Ukrainians, who forced Parliament to depose him.

Why? In November, Viktor vetoed popular moves to have closer trade links to the EU, and instead accepted a US$15 billion ‘bail-out’ package from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin’s Union

Putin has his own trade union that he is trying to put together with a bunch of former Soviet States, and he is keen that Ukraine, a major producer of food, and the site of vital gas pipelines from Russia to Europe, be part of his crew and not that of Europe.

During the protests, Viktor also introduced anti-protest and media-silencing legislation that intensified public anger, and led to his ousting.

The Revolt

What about Crimea?

In 1992, the Crimean Parliament adopted its own Constitution declaring Crimea as an autonomous, self-governing state, and a day later wrote a new line that confirmed that it was still technically part of Ukraine.

As you would have rightly guessed, Crimea is East Ukrainian with a pro-Russian majority.

After President Viktor was turfed out, Crimean protestors from both sides turned on each other, and Putin ordered Russian soldiers from legitimate bases within Crimea to occupy several key locations, because he had “a duty to protect Russians wherever they live.”

Since then, the Crimean Parliament has voted to declare full independence from Ukraine, and has announced a referendum that would see Crimea return to Russian rule.

No matter the results of the referendum on March 16, a volatile new chapter of Ukraine’s history is being written.

Jeremy Varo is Media & Communications Officer at Maxim Institute based in Auckland

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