Strona główna/[ENG] POLITICS. Exorcizing ‘separatism’ in Lviv

[ENG] POLITICS. Exorcizing ‘separatism’ in Lviv

Exorcizing ‘separatism’ in Lviv
Even the odd ideas may spring up under the circumstances

Mykola Riabchuk

On a nice April day, shortly after the second round of Ukraine’s presidential elections, Svitlana K., a music school teacher in Lviv, was approached by a young woman who asked her to answer a few questions for a sociological survey. Svitlana looked through the questionnaire and stumbled at the very first point. It read: “We have just held presidential elections. How do you envision the future status of Galicia (Lviv, Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk oblasts)?” The suggested responses included: “It would remain within the unitary Ukraine under the current constitution”, “It would remain within the unitary but substantially decentralized Ukraine”, “It would become a part of the federalized Ukraine”, “It would become an independent state”, and “It would join the neighboring Poland”.

The vigilant woman has immediately informed the Security Service of Ukraine about the suspicious activity of some political provocateurs and placed a photocopy of the subversive document in her facebook to draw public attention to the hostile activity of presumably phony sociologists [1]. The Security Service (SBU), without further ado, informed the public next day that they had launched investigation into the provocative survey which contained a question about the possible secession of the region and, according to the “preliminary experts’ conclusion”, may fall under the paragraph 110 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine that outlaws public calls, or dissemination of materials that undermine the territorial integrity of Ukraine [2].

The funniest part of the statement was that “SBU does its best to find out the organizers of that provocation and bring them to justice”. In fact, there was no search in need since the questionnaire had a letterhead with the name, address and telephones of the organizers – a reputable Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) that held out the survey commissioned by another reputable institution, “Dzerkalo tyzhnia” (“Mirror of the Week”) newspaper. This did not prevent them, however, from the SBU search of their offices and quirky interrogation. The case was eventually dropped upon a broad indignation of the academic community, but no apologies from SBU has ever followed. The bizarre “separatist” accusation still can be found on their FB-page as well as the resolute warning to the fellow-citizens “not to give up to the provocation and not to share the above-mentioned survey that is an obvious [sic] element of the enemy’s propaganda”.

Ultimately, the KIIS had competed its study, and Dzerkalo tyzhnia has published the results of the ‘subversive’ survey, with a sarcastic advice to the SBU to be as careful about the public opinion as the KIIS was, and to rather appreciate than suppress the work of the pollsters [3]. The results, indeed, were not so dramatic to worry about: only 3% of respondents supported the idea of federalization, and only 4% looked favorably at Galicia’s hypothetical independence [4]. But the dynamics was less tranquilizing: five years ago, in December 2014, virtually nobody supported these options. On the other hand, the number of the supporters of today’s status quo has declined from 53% to 47%, the number of supporters of Galicia in the unitary but substantially decentraized Ukraine remained virtually the same (40%), and the number of those willing to join Poland fell down from 3% to 1.5% (the 2014 figure might have been inflated a bit by the real threat of the Russian military advance at the time, while nowadays, after Ukrainians gained a visa-free access into the EU, the idea of joining Poland moved from the realm of geopolitics to the purely personal issue of migration.

The surveys that quiz both national and regional attitudes toward federalization of the country, secession of certain regions, or some other hypothetical re-arrangements of the constitutional order are not something unusual in Ukraine. At least three reputable company carry out recurrently – the Razumkov Center, Rating Sociological Group, and Kyiv International Institute of Sociology. None of had evoked much fuss until recently, even though the results of some were quite disconcerting. In particular, it was the KIIS survey from mid-February 2014 (the height of Maidan) that indicated as many as 41% of the repondents in the Crimea who would like Ukraine to join Russia, 33% in Donetsk oblast and 24% in Luhansk and Odesa oblasts [5]. (The question was, sensu stricto, about Ukraine and Russia uniting into a single state – that could be understood by some respondents in a rather symbolical way, something like the “Union State of Russia and Belarus”).

The nationwide support for the secession of any specific region has never exceed single digits but the regional picture was different. In March 2014, the secessionist moods in Donbas and Crimea reached 30%, most likely under the strong bombardment of Russian fake news about the coup d’etat, fascist junta in Kyiv and mythical ‘Banderites’ coming from the West to exterminate all the Russian-speakers. Very soon, however, as the propagandistic dust fell down and ruinous results of the Russian ‘special operation’ became more evident, the support for secession declined in Donbas (government-controlled part) to single digits: in 2017, 2% of the respondents wished the region to join Russia and 7% to become independent [6].

The Russian aggression and its hypocritical rationale (the alleged defense of the Russian-speakers) removed the purely hypothetical questions about session, or even federalization, from the innocent realm of sociological curiosity into the toxic realm of Realpolitik. In Galicia, the support for secession has been always at the level of sociological error, oscillating between zero and four per cent, and the same occurred lately with the idea of federalization, that had been quite popular (at the level of 25%) before the war [7].

Paradoxically, there have always been more people outside West Ukraine, specifically in Donbas and Crimea, who would like Galicia to secede – probably seeing it as a major nuisance and the troublemaker. The reflected the dominant view of the region was set by the Soviets and developed eventually by both the neo-imperial propaganda in Moscow and pro-Russian propaganda in Ukraine.

Demonizing Galicia

Discursive othering of Western Ukraine, and Galicia in particular, had been a part of the much broader Soviet strategy, largely rooted in the pre-Soviet times but operating in the new discursive environment of ‘proletarian internationalism’ and ‘friendship of people’ rather that the ‘united and indivisible Russia’. In bothe cases, however it aimed at establishing and upholding of a peculiar imperial “normalcy” and destruction of everything that could possibly undermine it or put in doubt. In regard of Ukraine, that “normalcy” had three basic elements: the claim that Ukrainians and Russians are the “same people”, that Ukrainian language is just an odd regional dialect of Russian, and that the Ukrainian project is just a foreign intrigue promoted by local losers, paid agents, and useful idiots.

Western Ukraine and the city of Lviv challenged that “normalcy” by their very existence and (almost) a full-fledged functioning of Ukrainian language in urban milieu – something extremely unusual in all other urban centers where the language has been stigmatized and marginalized as a sign of rural backwardness or, worse, ‘bourgeois nationalism’. Hence, the ‘westerners’ had to be (mis)represented as “abnormal” or, rather, not-normal-yet, – by various propagandistic means. In official discourses, the region was described as underdeveloped – not only economically, but also culturally and politically, – heavily infected by remnants of “bourgeois nationalism” and “clericalism”, and therefore requiring particular ideological vigilance and (re)educational work. In semi-official discourses, disseminated through the KGB-led “whispering propaganda”, the same ideas were promoted more openly and straightforwardly: the region is full of nationalists, clericals, and disguised “Banderites” (members of the post-WWII nationalist underground), who only wait a signal from their exiled bosses and American masters to stick a knife into the back of the Soviet power.

Paradoxically, all these discourses did not vanish with the end of the Soviet Union. On the contrary, they were broadly revitalized in Putin’s Russia and remarkably unshackled from any vestiges of the peculiar Soviet “political correctness”. The Soviets, all their hypocrisy notwithstanding, still considered Ukrainians and Russians as different, even though very proximate (“brotherly”), people and still treated Western Ukrainians as prodigal sons that should be brought back to fold, rather than cut off as untreatable (or, according to Dugin [8] and Zhirinovsky [9], exterminated). This shift marks, on one hand, the retreat of the Putin’s Russia from the Soviet nationalities policies as too “liberal” to the more chauvinistic tsarist approach; and, on the other hand, recognition that Ukrainians, at least in the Western part of the country, passed the no-return point in the process of nation-building / identity-making, and can be rather extinguished than (re)assimilated.

Today’s Moscow goal is not to assert the colonial “normalcy” in the West and bring the “deviant” region closer to the rest of the country but, rather, to get rid of the West, so that to easier reestablish the neocolonial “normalcy” in the East. The anti-Galician narratives had been recrafted thus in two significant ways. Firstly, the region became increasingly painted out as a domain of neo-fascists and Russophobes, heirs of Nazi collaborators, pogromchiks, and zoological anti-Semites. And secondly, Galicians were attributed with a sinister plan to gradually penetrate and secretly capture all national institutions – fully in line with the preposterous but pretty popular in Russia theory of Judeo-Masonic conspiracy. While the first narrative has at least some, however overblown, attachment to the reality (inasmuch as the 4% vote for the far-right Svoboda party in Lviv can be considered as a serious evidence) [10], the second narrative is completely faked and can be easily disproved by sheer figures.

Galicians make up more than 10% of Ukraine’s population but not a single of its six presidents, twenty prime-ministers or top oligarchs had ever originated from the region. My own estimation implies the opposite: Galicians have always been heavily underrepresented at the top levels of the Ukrainian government (ministers, deputy ministers, speakers and vice-speakers of the parliament, heads and deputy heads of president’s administration, et al.). Since 1991, they made up about 3% of the people employed on the top positions. This results not necessarily from the popular anti-Galician bias (even though it cannot be excluded) but, rather, from their low starting point. Independent Ukraine emerged largely as a continuation of the Soviet Ukraine, with mostly the same institutions and personnel. Galicians in the Soviet Union had as little chances to make political career as Jews or Balts, so the 3% they made up nowadays is a significant advance for the regional Galician elite since that times.
The othering of Galicia and Western Ukraine was not the exclusive business of Russian propagandists but also, increasingly, of the pro-Russian political forces in Ukraine. The highest point was reached under the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych (2010-2014) whose Donetsk-based Party of Regions abounded with ardent Ukrainophobes and sheer Kremlin collaborators. One of them, the party’s main ideologist and minister of education (sic) Dmytro Tabachnyk acquired a particular prominence with extremely slanderous anti-Galician pamphlets in the weekly “2000” (worth notoriety at its own).
Galicians, in his writing, were described as “zombie-like radicals” infected with the ideas of “Russophobia, xenophobia and zoological nationalism” and assigned by the “Washington obkom” with the sinister mission: “New masters [after the Poles, Austro-Hungarians and Nazi Germans] need loyal puppets as ‘crusaders’ who are ready, with no hesitation, to ‘baptize’ Ukraine into the ersatz-religion of Atlantic globalism and set it on its bothers in faith and blood in Slavic Russia” [11]. If we do not stop them, he warned, “we shall face the same tragic fate as the declining European civilization that evolved on the basis of Christianity, but ends up with the prohibition of Christian symbols, propaganda of sodomy, euthanasia, and irresponsible destruction of the institution of family” [12].

Galicians are depicted as active participants of the heinous global conspiracy aimed against Russia and all the Russia-led “Orthodox-Slavic” civilization. As in all conspiracy theories, facts and logical arguments are substituted with most appalling and paranoid statements: “nowadays’ procurators from NATO embassies are promoting Galician personnel to key positions in the government apparatus as the most loyal servants of the overseas empire”; “the Galicians seized power in Ukraine”, “most of the central government bodies became merely Kyiv branches of various West Ukrainian communities”; “the current situation with the ‘ruling region’ [13] of Galician ‘crusaders’ who felt the sweet taste of power over the whole Ukraine, cannot last longer”.

In this discourse, Galicians are assigned not only with a conspiratorial role of the proverbial Jews who try to penetrate and capture everything. They also embody, symbolically, all Ukrainians who reject Russian superiority (proverbial “brotherhood”) and defend their national sovereignty – their own, anti-colonial, “normalcy”. Anti-Galician slurs in this context are merely cover-up for Ukraine-slandering – more or less in a way anti-Zionism is often employed as a cover-up for anti-Semitism.
At some points this discourse acquires racist overtones – when the author describes Galicians as “lackeys who barely learned to wash hands”, suffer from the “historically determined inferiority complexes”, speak ridiculous “Galician Volapük”, and fail to appreciate the Soviet mission civilisatrice: “Galicia is the most depressed region that could not survive without constant subsidies from the state budget, which consists mainly of contributions from the industrialized southeastern regions” [14].

Galicians fight back

All this Galicia-bashing is definitely frustrating for the inhabitants of the region who feel they contributed so much to the national independence but gained so little from the nominally independent state captured primarily by the Soviet, mostly opportunistic and often Ukrainophobic elite. Volodymyr Kostyrko, a renowned Ukrainian artist from Lviv, who scandalized public with the caricature of Ukraine as a hybrid animal with two bodies – half-pig and half-lion, wrote sarcastically in his 2001 blog: “Before 1991, Galicians had poignantly felt two things – poverty and Russification. Now, they feel three things, happily, – poverty, Russification and great joy from national independence” [15].

His Lviv colleague Volodymyr Vitkovsky, a political analyst and commentator for the Universum monthly, expressed similar grudges in his 2009 article (at the height of Tabachnyk’s activity, shortly before he became a minister and tempered a bit his publicist zeal). Everything the Galicians got for their patriotism and self-sacrifice, Vitkovsky complained, was the “status of a neglected and despised province … in the state project that more and more people in the world consider as absolutely unpromising … We are travelling into the future by a Russian train, in its last, third-class wagon, constantly quarreling with the conductors and the rest of the passengers” [16].

Six years later, after Euromaidan, another prominent Lviv intellectual Andriy Kviatkovsky articulated virtually the same (re)sentiment: “Galicians still are broadly disliked (…) Someone publicly denounces their false patriotism, some – false piety, some – hypocrisy and Pharisaism, some – vanity and contempt vis-à-vis other Ukrainians, some – excessive miserliness. Lately, some Kyiv mass media began to mold the image of Galicians as the worst separatists in Ukraine” [17].

Kviatkovsky did not provide any references but we may assume that his overstatements were based mostly on the material from social media and internet fora, full of Russian/pro-Russian trolls. The content analysis of Ukrainian mainstream media does not confirm his complaints. The designation of Galicians as “separatists” might be not fully groundless, though, since, at the time (2014-2015), quite a few West Ukrainian intellectuals expressed skepticism in regard of the eastern regions, in particular of Donbas, and the need to defend/liberate them from the Russian invasion. Ostap Drozdov, an outspoken Lviv journalist and the host of the political TV show at the ZiK channel, expressed the idea the most flagrantly: “To die for the people who don’t want to be in Ukraine is total absurdity. So, my call might be shocking for some, but here it is: “South East, goodbye!” (Remarkably, he rendered “goodbye” in Russian as “do svidaniya”, instead of Ukrainian “do pobachennia”) [18].

This peculiar kind of “separatism” that would like to get rid of some other regions as presumed nuisances rather than to secede its own region from the country, has been noticeable in Galicia at least since 2010, i.e., since the victory of Viktor Yanukovych who got a landslide support in his native Donbas and the industrial South East. Shortly after that, a leading Ukrainian writer Yuri Andrukhovych wrote (with a grain of salt, as usual): “Should another miracle whenever happen and the ‘orange’ forces would win again, we should allow Donbas and Crimea to secede. They wouldn’t do so as long as their guys keep power in Kyiv” [19].

Five years later, Andrukohovych retreated from his radical view – largely because the Russian invasion made his dreamed scenario of peaceful divorce absolutely impossible. This did not distract, however, some other authors from their favored idea. Oleksandr Boychenko, one of the most persistent supporters of the ‘expulsion’ of Ukraine’s South East from the country, compared Donbas to gangrene that poisons the organism and puts at risk its very existence [20]. The idea was propped up in a more academic fashion by a Ukrainian-American professor Alexander Motyl. The amputation, he argued, is necessary, alas, even though there are quite a few loyal Ukrainian citizens in the region. But the government cannot liberate them insofar as a regular Russian army stands behind the so called “separatists”. So, the Ukrainian state should offer the loyal citizens the resettlement program, more or less like West Germany did for East Germans, but don’t try to retrieve the region where the majority of population is indifferent toward Ukraine at best [21].

The views like these have, however, a very limited currency in Ukraine. The latest opinion survey (June 2019) indicates that only 4% of respondents would like the occupied part of Donbas to secede and become either a part of Russia or the independent state. In the East, the idea seems to be twice more popular, but 8.5% of support does not make it viable either [22]. Ironically, it is roughly the same number of people who would like Galicia to leave – 8% in the South and East [23] and, even more, about 17%, in Donbas [24]. It is also remarkable that in Galicia only 6% of respondents would like their own region to secede [25]. Until recently, i.e., until Volodymyr Zelensky’s victory, the figure was even lower, at the level of 3%. (The two-fold increase of support for secession seems to reflect not so much real preferences as a protest manifestation and a kind of warning against possible changes of government policies and geopolitical orientation).

The idea of the Galician (or West Ukrainian) “separatism” might be really too odd and too marginal but it has some currency in the intellectual circles and therefore cannot be completely dismissed despite its negligible popularity. Many nationalisms were conceived in small circles and evolved incidentally, due to peculiar circumstances. It is very unlikely that Galicians would ever opt for the separate nation-state project and a separate homegrown identity. They made their choice in the mid-19th century when accepted the all-Ukrainian project conceived in the East by the heirs of Cossack gentry, professors and alumni of the Kharkiv university [26].Today Galicians are, in a sense, “more Ukrainian than Ukrainians” – the self-designated guardians and standard-bearers of the national idea, intent to revitalize it rather than appropriate or substitute with their own. The only development that may shatter their Kyiv-centric all-Ukrainian world-view is a hypothetical loss of Kyiv (and most of Ukraine) because of Russian military invasion or a forcible bringing of Ukraine into a union with Russia by some recklessly pro-Russian government in Kyiv. Both possibilities look unlikely but at least one them was considered seriously in 2002-2004 when dogged by scandals and ostracized internationally president Leonid Kuchma turned to Moscow for a political support. In 2010-2013, the similar threat reemerged even more dramatically under Viktor Yanukovych.

Back in 2002, during the ‘Kuchmagate’ crisis, the opinion survey was held in Lviv by the Sociological Laboratory of the Ivan Franko National University. It included a hypothetical question “What would you do as a Galician in case Ukraine joins the union with Russia and Belarus?” Almost half of respondents (46%) chose the answer “We would struggle for the independent Galician state”. 16% responded that they would demand a substantial autonomy from Kyiv, 30% said they would not care, and 3% would cheer the move [27]. The declared intentions to fight for the independence might be grossly exaggerated (barking dogs never bite). But two things should be kept in mind. First, people’s dissatisfaction with dysfunctional national institutions can be seriously amplified by their perceived non-Ukrainian or anti-Ukrainian (as under Tabachnyk and Yanukovych) character. And secondly, the persistent alienation of West Ukrainians from the nominally ‘Ukrainian’ state may further increase because of systemic Galicia-bashing in social media and their frustrating experience from personal trips to the East where they usually fail to get any service in Ukrainian – either in Kharkiv, Odesa or even in Kyiv. This does not necessarily mean they would like everybody in Eastern Ukraine to speak Ukrainian but they reasonably believe that in the bilingual state the Ukrainian-speakers should be entitled to the same services for the same money as the Russian-speakers. Ironically, bilingualism for the Russian-speaking visitors works much better in “nationalistic” Lviv than for Ukrainian-speakers in “internationalist” Dnipro or Kharkiv or Odesa.

This makes some West Ukrainian intellectuals to conceptualize post-Soviet Ukraine as a “Creole” state, created by the heirs of colonists and assimilated natives. None of them ever fought or even dreamed about the independent Ukraine (as natives did), but inherited it in 1991 by default, as the Soviet Union collapsed. Since then, they masterly appropriated all its resources and institutions, and wisely placated the most annoying natives with some minor concessions – mostly in culture and education. In this regard, the 1991 declaration of independence was as irrelevant for aborigines as American declaration for blacks and Indians [28]. And todays’ Russo-Ukrainian war is arguably just another bickering between Russian Russians and Ukrainian Russians over the spoils of the former colony. “Something like this had already happened a few hundred years ago in America, – a renowned prose writer Taras Prokhasko commented sarcastically in his blog, – when a number of wars and agreements were made between Brits and Americans, northern and southern. But nobody cared about Indians. They were persistently cheated and cynically misused in all projects. Since the whites perfectly knew that there would be no Indian America whatsoever” [29].

This discourse is not separatist sensu stricto but, as any resentment, may fuel separatist projects, especially as being articulated by prominent writers and intellectuals. So far, it is challenged by two counter-discourses – a radical nationalist and a liberal. Both of them are “unitarist” in a sense that each supports Ukraine as a unitary state and rejects any local separatism or autonomism. Radical nationalists share the teleological view of history and belief in a primordial character of Ukrainian nation. Both Western and Eastern Ukrainians had been presumably subjugated by enemies who strove to denationalize them. Westerners were luckier a bit since they avoided the worst ordeal: Russian rule. So, they managed to largely preserve their (primordial, of course) national identity. Now, they have a mission to resurrect the rest of the country. Galicia is seen in this discourse as the Ukrainian Piedmont – the center of Ukrainian Risorgimento.

What in the bottomline?

Ukrainian liberals wage their criticism against both the nationalists and the “autonomists”, denouncing primarily their exclusiveness and detachment from the reality. The polemics with radical nationalist does not bring much results since their ideology is largely irrational, close to religious faith, so basically immune to logical arguments. The debate with “autonomists” is more serious since the opponents share the same liberal principles, referring primarily to the right of nations for self-determination and the right of regions to determine the scope of their own autonomy. Thus, the “unitarists” do not question the legitimacy of the idea but, rather, put in doubt its viability and usefulness. Their arguments essentially boil down to a few points.
First, the “Galician” project is arguably too vague and never elaborated by its proponents in any detail: the same authors speak sometimes about independent/autonomous Galicia, sometimes about the whole Western Ukraine, sometimes about a greater but truncated Ukraine – without South East or without Donbas only. Secondly, the project has no popular support, so makes little sense to be discussed [30]. Thirdly, it is very unlikely that Kyiv and the rest of Ukraine would ever agree on any secession, since even the modest idea of “federalization” has very limited support in Ukraine [31]. Fourthly, there is no need for Galicians to secede since Ukraine is gradually becoming more Ukrainian and more European, and there are also good chances for other reforms, so that the country may perfectly accommodate the needs of all its regions and citizens [32]. And fifthly (this is actually the back side of the fourth point), Galicia is as backward and Sovietized as the rest of Ukraine, with the same political culture, same corruption, and low social capital [33]. A simple split of one corrupt state for a few clones, with the same nepotism and clientelism, would not solve the fundamental structural problems [34]. “Piedmont”, the prominent Lviv philosopher Taras Vozniak argued, was the most advanced part of Italy, so if Galicians would like to play a similar role they should change, first of all, themselves and their own region, – to make it exemplary and attractive for the entire Ukraine [35].

Andriy Portnov, a historian from Dnipro, aptly summarized these debates by concluding that the Galician “separatism” is not a serious phenomenon to worry about. Much more damaging might be the anti-Eastern “reductionism”, voiced by some Galician intellectuals. Firstly, this mode of thought demobilizes public opinion and facilitates the Donbas’ secession. Secondly, it shifts the responsibility for the tragedy of the region from local elites and external invasion onto the Donbas population at large. And thirdly (and most importantly), the belief that Ukraine may succeed in reforms if gets rid of incurably Sovietized Donbas distract intellectuals from the search of real solutions of Ukraine’s problems [36].

Mykola Riabchuk


Kultura Enter
2019/04 nr 90–91