Opinion piece by OsloMet researchers Jørn Holm-Hansen, Marthe Handå Myhre and Aadne Aasland.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin claims that Ukraine is not a nation. The large majority of Ukrainians would, however, have it otherwise. They have a strong sense of belonging to their country. Irrespective of their ethnic, linguistic and religious affiliation, and irrespective of whether they live in the east or west of the country.
Putin has contributed to bringing the people of Ukraine closer together and continues to do so at the time of writing.
The territory that today constitutes Ukraine has been contested for centuries and has belonged to successive empires and states. Nation-building has been an important goal and challenge since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Ukraine gaining independence in 1991.
But how can a nation be forged, and a country with such disparate ethnic, linguistic, historical and socio-economic divides be held together? A country where the people have had different geopolitical leanings, with many wanting to see Ukraine join the EU and NATO, while others, though their number is dwindling, would prefer strong economic and political integration with Russia.
Following the Maidan Revolution of 2013–2014, the annexation of Crimea and the Russian military presence in the rebel-controlled areas in Donbas, the people of Ukraine have increasingly backed the formation of the Ukrainian state.
Many of those who continue to speak Russian now give Ukrainian as their mother tongue, showing their affiliation to their country. New laws that regulate and limit the use of Russian and other minority languages in the media and schools have been perceived as discriminatory by representatives of ethnic and linguistic minorities.
Many Ukrainians, however, regard this policy as the result of increased nationalism stemming from the war with Russia, and the authorities’ attempt to unite the country.
There is naturally plenty of tension and controversial political issues, and the language of instruction in Ukrainian schools, interpretations of historical events and party-political preferences are hotly debated.
Ukrainians in general also have a low level of trust in the political authorities. Widespread corruption and close links between the political and financial elite (oligarchs) have played a part in this.
However, unlike Russia, Ukraine holds free elections and also has a strong, diverse civil society that can protest against the authorities without fear of repercussions.
And although we must not neglect the fact that radical right-wing forces do exist in Ukraine and that they have had a certain influence on Ukrainian policy and the writing of its official history, they have minimal support in elections, and they represent a way of thinking that most Ukrainians do not identify with.
Putin’s attempt to legitimise the invasion by calling the authorities in Ukraine neo-Nazis is pure fancy.
Over the past three years, researchers at OsloMet, together with Ukrainian and German researchers, have studied how political reform (uni.oslomet.no) affects the relationship between the ethnic groups in two of Ukraine’s border areas where there is greatest ethnic and linguistic diversity.
In the Kharkiv region, ethnic Russians and Ukrainians have lived side by side for centuries. People identify as Russians and Ukrainians, Russian-speaking Ukrainians or just Ukrainians.
In Kharkiv, a city with a population of more than one million, most people speak Russian, while many people in the surrounding countryside speak Ukrainian or Surzhyk, a local dialect that is a mix of Ukrainian and Russian. The Chernivtsi region in the opposite corner of the country borders on Romania and Moldova. The ethnic minorities here live in more compact Romanian and Moldovan villages.
Looking aside from the respective history of these regions, we found little antagonism between the ethnic groups at the local level in both groups. People were concerned with everyday challenges; better roads and transport, health services, schools and the labour market.
We studied one national decentralisation reform in particular, whereby municipal mergers meant that ethnically homogenous villages in the two regions had recently been merged into bigger administrative areas with more diverse populations.
In contrast to what we expected, i.e., that this would lead to friction and a fight for resources, the opposite in fact transpired. New arenas for participation, better transport between the villages and joint celebrations of festive occasions led to more local unity.
In the project, we also conducted representative surveys in the two regions and across the country as a whole. These surveys confirmed that Ukrainians in both the east and west of the country had a strong sense of belonging to their local community and to their country.
Of those asked, 85 per cent said they felt like nationals of Ukraine to a great extent, with a further 10 per cent saying that they felt this to some extent. More than 84 per cent of the people living in the eastern parts of Ukraine (the survey did not include the rebel-controlled areas in Donbas and Crimea) stated the same.
Although the nation-building process in Ukraine has not been completed, there is much to suggest that the country’s social glue is stronger than ever.
It is painful to see what this country, and our dear colleagues in Lviv, Dnipro and Kyiv, are going through.
This opinion piece was first published in Norwegian at NRK Ytring (nrk.no).