The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The Risk of Partition, and What It Would Mean

Mar 3, 2014

After the installation of the new government in Kiev, the media discovered that Ukraine was more than its capital. Initially, they depicted this “revolution” as a mobilization of the whole population against the old regime. Now it’s clear that not only is there no unanimity among the population, but the situation could lead to a partition of the country.

In the Ukrainian-speaking West, there is massive support for the right and far-right opposition of “Maidan” (named for the square in the center of Kiev where the protestors gathered). The authorities in this region have been swept by the ultra-nationalists, or they have submitted to them. Svoboda, the party of the extreme right, gained close to 40 percent of the vote in these provinces and feels strong enough to try to ban communist organizations. On the night of February 20, extreme right commandos succeeded in taking over the headquarters of the police and other organs of repression in Lvov and seven other cities in the west of the country, and seized the weapons they found.

By contrast, in the industrial, Russian-speaking East, the attitude of the majority of the population remains wary, if not hostile, toward the forces that control the capital. And the authorities in this part of the country take the same stance. In the city of Kharkov which is close to Russia, an anti-Maidan Ukrainian Front is being formed. This is the second biggest city in the country and capital of the soviet Ukraine after 1917, with a million and a half inhabitants and a lot of industry. The local authorities in the region of Donetsk, with its steel mills and mines, threaten to secede.

The south of the country is equally uneasy with the new government in Kiev, especially in the Crimean peninsula, where the majority of the population is Russian. Khrushchev attached this peninsula to the Ukraine in 1954, which was just an administrative move within the Soviet Union. But the USSR has disappeared, and its administrative borders have become borders between countries. And this changes many things.

The division of Ukraine in two parts, more or less opposed to each other in language, in level of economic development, and increasingly by the demagogy of unprincipled politicians in each camp, presents great dangers. The repeated warnings by Obama and his European counterparts against Putin’s temptation to play the east of the country against the nationalist government in Kiev show that the Western leaders take the threat of a divided Ukraine seriously. For years, they have pushed to separate Ukraine from Russia and have heavily supported those forces which are also pushing in that direction. Now they are disturbed by the possibility of a conflict that they have helped start and that, if it gets out of their control, could ravage that part of Europe.

Nothing says that the situation will get to that point. But one thing is certain: If Ukraine splits in two, the West will bear a heavy responsibility for a separation that, in light of the circumstances, won’t be friendly. Though it was presented as a civilized divorce without animosity, the division of Czechoslovakia in 1992 was a reactionary development: the Slovak leaders wanted their own state to control, and the Czech leaders wanted to get rid of the less developed Slovakia that hampered their integration into the imperialist market. During that same time period there was another division of a country, which went much worse: the division of Yugoslavia. This was provoked by the rival ambitions of the bureaucrats of the country, fueled by the rivalries between the great powers of Europe. The result was a war that lasted many years, with millions of people left homeless, hundreds of thousands killed, a ditch of blood dug between populations by their leaders and their disgusting policies of ethnic cleansing.

A partition of Ukraine would present the risk of another Yugoslavia, but ten times worse because the country is bigger and more populous. Without recalling the pogroms of Tsarism, Ukrainian history gives plenty of tragic examples. During World War II, Ukrainian nationalists allied with the Nazis in their hunt for Jews, Poles, Russians, and communists. During the same period, Stalin organized murderous deportations of whole peoples. After the dissolution of the USSR, bloody conflicts shook the Caucasus and the Asian regions of the ex-USSR for a quarter of a century.

Of course, nothing is certain. But the game of the great powers and Russia in the ex-USSR, and the maneuvers of the Ukrainian politicians who play on the nationalism of one group against another, all create a time bomb ticking in the heart of Ukraine, in the population and among people who are neighbors.