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January 30, 2014

9 questions about Ukraine you were too embarrassed to ask

(Continued)

WASHINGTON — 3. I heard this was about Ukrainians wanting ties with Europe and their government selling out to Moscow. Is it?

That's sort of true lots of Ukrainians want their country to be "European" rather than linked with Russia, and Yanukovych is sure buddying up to Moscow but it's also sort of wrong. Yes, about half of Ukrainians say they want the European Union deal. But another third say they'd prefer integrating with the Russian-dominated Eurasian Customs Union. So it's more split than you'd think.

Here's the thing you have to understand: Ukraine is divided. Deeply, deeply divided by language, by history and by politics. One-third of the country speaks Russian as its native language, and in practice even more use it day-to-day. The Russian-speakers mostly live in one half of the country; the Ukrainian-speakers live in another. You can see that clear-as-day divide in the accompanying photo illustration.

It's not just that Ukraine has two halves that predominantly speak different languages. They have different politics and different visions for their country.

The Russian-speaking, eastern half of Ukraine tends to be, big surprise, more pro-Russian. President Yanukovych is from that part of the country, has most of his support there, and did not even speak Ukrainian until he was in his 50s.

The pro-EU-deal protests have mostly been in the Ukrainian-speaking, western half. That's also the half that voted overwhelmingly against Yanukovych in 2010. (That has been changing since the anti-protest law, which inflamed nationwide anger with Yanukovych.)

This divide has been a challenge for Ukraine since it won independence in 1991. Elections have been near-evenly split between the two halves, pulling the country in opposite directions. As the Ukraine-focused political scientist Leonid Peisakhin put it, Ukraine "has never been and is not yet a coherent national unit with a common narrative or a set of more or less commonly shared political aspirations."

In some ways, this crisis is about popular anger against a president who mishandled the economy and whose attempts to quash protests have edged into authoritarianism. But it's also about Ukraine's long-unresolved national identity crisis. This story is often framed as Ukraine being pulled by Moscow on one end and Europe on the other. But Ukrainians themselves are doing a lot of the pulling: a 22-year tug-of-war between two halves and two identities.

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