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Ukraine: Analysis From Washington--From Nationality to Ethnicity

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 17 September 1997(RFE/RL) - In Ukraine and other post-Soviet states, individuals increasingly are selecting their own ethnicity rather than simply accepting the nationality that the Soviet system imposed on them in the past.

A reflection of the new freedoms individuals in these countries have and of the increased importance of citizenship relative to other social categories, this shift from nationality to ethnicity is a fundamental part of the democratization of these countries.

But the complexities of this process and especially the continuing influence of Soviet-era categories on it underscore the difficulties that these countries still face.

According to a recently-released report by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, residents of Ukraine are shifting away from the Soviet-imposed nationality listed in their passports to a self-defined ethnicity that they may vary depending on context.

The study, entitled "Ethnic Reidentification in Ukraine" and prepared by Stephen Rapawy, showed that an ever greater percentage of that country's residents declare their "nationality" to be Ukrainian.

In the Soviet census of 1989, 72.7 percent of the residents of Ukraine identified themselves as Ukrainian nationality, with some 22.1 percent declaring themselves to be Russian.

These figures, the U.S. Census report suggests, accurately reflect the so-called "passport nationality" of people living in Ukraine at that time. That was a state-imposed identification that individuals could change after age 18 only with extreme difficulty.

But polls taken since that time and especially since independence show that residents of Ukraine are increasingly detached from that official category.

The percentage of residents of Ukraine who declare themselves to be Ukrainian by nationality has risen over time to a high of 77.7 percent while the percentage of Ukrainian residents who declare themselves to be Russians has fallen to 18.4 percent.

Some of this reflects both fertility differentials and Russian outmigration, but much appears to reflect continuing confusion about nationality and citizenship and the desire of people to declare themselves Ukrainians regardless of what is in their passports.

Even more striking is some World Bank data reproduced in the U.S. Census study. In 1995, survey researchers asked 4627 residents of Ukraine to declare the ethnicity of their ancestors.

Some 66.5 percent of those polled said they were 100 percent Ukrainian, and only 10.8 percent said they were 100 percent Russian.

Both these figures were significantly lower than the 72.7 percent who said they were Ukrainian and the 22.1 percent who said they were Russian in the 1989 census.

But the percentage difference is far smaller for Ukrainians -- some 6.2 percent or about 10 percent of the total declaring themselves Ukrainians -- than for Russians -- 11.3 percent or more than half of the total declaring themselves Russians.

And that in turn suggests, as the author of the report puts it, that many who had declared themselves Russian by nationality in the Soviet past may choose to declare themselves Ukrainian by ethnicity in the future.

Precisely because ethnicity is so plastic and because it, in contrast to nationality in Soviet times, does not necessarily determine outcomes such as getting an education, a job or an apartment, such a shift may seem relatively unimportant.

But in fact, it is critical. Much of the Soviet state's control of the population rested on its control of an individual's "nationality." Consequently, the collapse of that system and its replacement by ethnicity helps to make a return to authoritarianism less likely. More immediately, the collapse of the Soviet-era category of nationality and the rise in importance of citizenship rather than a primordial attachment are necessary preconditions for the establishment of a pluralistic multi-ethnic society.

As the U.S. Census Bureau report makes clear, Ukraine has made significant progress in this direction. But the report also shows that Ukraine still has a long way to go to overcome this Soviet-era category and to function solely on the basis of democratic ones.