As the criminal Yanukovych regime’s violence, terror, and repression are driving Ukraine to armed conflict and, possibly, fragmentation, it may be worth asking whether Ukraine might not be better off without some of its southeastern provinces.
First let’s consider the bad reasons for a breakup—Ukraine’s diversity in general and the regional, ethnic, confessional, and cultural divisions between its “West” and “East” in particular. A good place to start is a recent article by Orlando Figes, professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London, “Is There One Ukraine?” Figes, who should know better coming from the UK, writes about Ukraine’s divisions as if they were unique and as if diversity alone justified or led to breakup. He’s wrong on both counts. Ukraine’s diversity is pretty much the norm for all stable states everywhere.
Is there one United States or are the divisions between North and South and Red and Blue states indicative of many Americas? Try telling the Quebeckers that there is only one Canada. Is there one Germany—or two (East Germany and West Germany) or several (Bavaria, the Rhineland, Berlin, and the rest)? Needless to say, there are many Russias—one centered on the Moscow-Petersburg axis, another in Siberia, yet a third in the Far East. And that’s not even counting the non-Russian regions of the Russian Federation. How many Turkeys are there? I can name at least three: secular Istanbul, conservative Anatolia, and the Kurdish east. China? Go tell the Tibetans and Uighurs they’re Han Chinese. India? Let’s not even go there. Austria? Vienna, as anyone who’s been to the country knows, is a world apart from the Tyrol. Perhaps Italy is one country? Take a train from Milano to Palermo and then answer the question. Surely France is one? Mais, non—as the Bretons, Basques, Provençals, Parisians, and many others can tell you. Isn’t Israel a homogeneously Jewish state? Only if you disregard the Arabs and the enormous distinctions between secular and religious, Sephardic and Ashkenazy Jews. And so on and so forth. The only country that may be “one” country is, possibly, Japan, and that may be because it’s an island state.
Here’s another question. Has any country ever been “one” country—especially twenty-odd years after its establishment? The United States was a loose agglomeration of former colonies—and, oh, yes, there was that slavery thing between the North and the South. Canada? Ditto. Otto von Bismarck’s Germany? Mazzini’s Italy? Ditto, ditto. And how about the country Figes studies—Russia? It’s always been a multinational empire marked by enormous regional, ethnic, and confessional diversity, as Figes knows..
Now, I don’t know whether diversity is, as the conventional wisdom insists, a source of strength. But I do know that it’s a fact of life—for countries, for universities, for corporations, for everybody. In this sense, Ukraine is normal and anything but atypical. (By the way, the same applies to Ukrainians: they’re neither better nor worse, neither more nationalistic nor less nationalistic, neither more generous nor less generous, neither more anti-Semitic nor less anti-Semitic, neither smarter nor dumber than any other people.)
What is unusual about contemporary Ukraine is that it’s exploited by a criminal gangster regime—Yanukovych’s— in cahoots with another criminal gangster regime—Putin’s. Many countries have the misfortune of being misruled by homegrown camarillas. Many countries have the misfortune of being dominated by predator states. Ukraine has the double misfortune of being misruled at home and “mis-dominated” abroad.
That’s why Figes’s suggestion—“Ukraine ought to consider applying a precedent from elsewhere in eastern Europe: deciding the country’s fate by referendum”—wouldn’t work. Personally, I have no doubt that Ukraine without its southeast would be much stronger, more stable, and more prosperous than Ukraine with its southeast. The southeast’s rust-belt economy needs either to be shut down entirely or to be refitted at the cost of trillions of dollars of non-existent investments. Moreover, the statistics plainly show that Kyiv subsidizes the Donbas, and not vice versa. The southeast also has a low birth rate, a high death rate, low life expectancy, high energy consumption, and high AIDS and crime rates. Last but not least, the southeast is home to the ruling Party of Regions and the Communist Party. Remove the southeast and Ukraine’s treasury experiences an immediate boon; its demographics, energy consumption, and health improve; and its politics automatically become more democratic and less corrupt.
Although lopping off the Donbas would benefit the rest of Ukraine, Yanukovych’s mafia regime desperately needs Ukraine to be whole. If Luhansk and Donetsk were to split away, their rust-belt economy would collapse without Kyiv’s financial support and the Regionnaires, trapped in their polluted bailiwick, would have nothing to steal. And what would Yanukovych’s multibillionaire pal, Rinat Akhmetov, do without easy access to Ukraine’s resources? A similar logic holds for Putin. What would he do with a rotten slice of Ukraine—a kind of mega Transnistria? Subsidize its dead-end economy? Spend valuable time and resources on jailing the corrupt Regionnaires and the troglodyte Communists? No, a weak Yanukovych regime in a weak Ukraine serves Putin’s interests perfectly.
So, forget a referendum. No Regionnaire-controlled regime will ever agree to it and, were one to take place, Donbas-based Regionnaires would do everything possible to guarantee an anti-secession vote. The Regionnaires need to be in Ukraine; more than that, they need the threat of secession to compel spooked democrats to make concessions. But the threat is hollow, precisely because Ukraine would be much better off without the Donbas and Regionnaires. The sooner the democrats realize this, the better.
The moral for the democrats is simple. If and when they return to power, the democrats should call the Regionnaires’ bluff. Next time the Regionnaires threaten to leave, the democrats should point to the door, and say, “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.”