March 17, 2014

GUARDADO | The Ukranian “Identity Crisis” Explained

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Throughout the past couple of months, articles about Ukraine’s “fractured identity,” “identity rift” and “crisis of self-identity” have dominated the news. Such articles reference Ukraine’s strong Russian cultural ties and its “lack of national identity and clear direction.” These remarks, however, are only references and do not address the root of the complex problem. In fact, to explain the situation, it is important to consider the nature of politics in new states and how Ukraine fits into such an analysis. In his essay, “The Integrative Revolution: Primordial Sentiments and Civil Politics in the New States,” contemporary American anthropologist Clifford Geertz analyzes the cultural and political determinants of the fates of new states such as Indonesia, Malaya, Burma and Lebanon. Although Geertz does not apply his ideas to Ukraine, they are extremely relevant and can help us understand the political crisis today.

Ukraine gained independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. For the people of new states, according to Geertz, the desire to be recognized as “responsible agents…whose opinions matter’” and the desire to “build an efficient, dynamic modern state” are two key goals. Neither of these should be surprising to the international community. There is a certain tension between these two desires, however, since one is a social search for importance in the world while the second is a practical aim to obtain a strong civil society, rule of law and a growing economy. While the former is the image that the new state projects abroad, the latter is the political effectiveness it achieves domestically. Geertz explains that this tension can be dangerous, but it is also necessary for the evolution of the state.

More dangerous to new states are the primordial ties that threaten to completely divide it from within. Primordial ties are the “givens” of social existence, such as language, identification with a particular region and skin color. Multiethnic, multilingual states must put the integrity of the new state above these primordial attachments, but this is difficult to do in the beginning stages of the independence when “the tradition of civil politics is weak” and “technical requirements for an effective government welfare are poorly understood.” Race, language, religion and custom become politicized and threaten “a redrawing of the very limits of the state.”

Such a description eerily resembles the linguistic and cultural divides of Ukraine, which stem largely from the fact that different parts of the Ukrainian territory have historically been under different influences. To the west of the Dnieper River, which cuts Ukraine roughly in half, Polish, Lithuanian and Austro-Hungarian influences have been strongest; to the east, Russian customs and language have dominated for hundreds of years. Conflicts especially arise when one group feels “politically suffocated” by the other, a claim that has been made by some Russians in Ukraine after the perceived imposition of Ukrainian language.

Ukraine is less stable, like all multilingual states, because these primordial attachments are still so fresh and prevent it from having a sense of unity, or feeling of “kith and kin” as Geertz describes. When colonizers first came to North America, for instance, they were ready to renounce allegiances to their home countries and had a desire to begin anew that provided them with a sense of oneness. In Ukraine, an additional generational divide further adds to this disunity: People who grew up before Ukraine gained independence have more difficulty considering themselves Ukrainian no matter what their native tongue is.

However, this analysis must not undermine the fact that the Ukrainian Euromaidan movement is about more than identity. As previously stated, one of the two main goals of new states is an efficient, modern state. This certainly applies to Ukraine, and more than a European or Russian identity, protesters want a transparent and democratic government that encourages a robust civil society.