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Ukraine: East-West Split Highlighted By Election

In a run-off vote on Sunday (Nov. 14), Ukrainians will choose between incumbent Leonid Kuchma and Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko to be their president for the next five years. In the first round (Oct. 30), there was a distinct contrast in voting patterns between the east and west of the country. RFL/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky examines the reasons for the difference and the possible effect on the coming run-off vote.

Lviv, 11 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Those were the voices of some 2,000 people in the main square in the west Ukrainian city of Lviv, who began a meeting last weekend by singing the Ukrainian national anthem. With its cobbled streets and Austro-Hungarian-style buildings, Lviv is the heartland of Ukrainian patriotism. It was the center of Ukrainian national re-awakening in the 19th century and was the engine of the drive for national independence in Soviet times.

For most of incumbent President Leonid Kuchma's term in office, much of Lviv's and west Ukraine's population has been fiercely critical of him. They complain he has not done enough to nurture Ukraine's national identity or set it on a pro-Western and market-reform path. Now, however, they are among his most avid supporters.

At the public meeting over the weekend, speakers from more than 20 parties and community organizations urged voters to support Kuchma in the race for the presidency between him and Communist leader Petro Symonenko. But in the country's East, the picture is very different.

The elections have polarized the electorate between west and east. In the first round in which 13 candidates competed, Kuchma and other pro-democracy candidates gained more than 70 percent of the votes in the west. But in the east, leftist candidates gained a similar share.

The voting differences reflect the different histories of the two regions. West Ukraine only became incorporated into the former Soviet Union during World War Two. Until then, it had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- except for the interwar years, when it was annexed by Poland.

Western Ukraine's population was fiercely pro-independence minded and always regarded the Communists who united them with Eastern Ukraine as an alien occupation force. A Ukrainian guerrilla army known as the UPA fought against the Nazis during the war and continued battling against what it viewed as Communist Russian imperialism until the early 1950s.

One veteran UPA soldier who attended the Lviv rally, 80-year-old Mykhailo Palyvko, told RFE/RL that Ukrainians had to do everything possible to ensure the Communists did not regain power. He said much blood was spilled for independence, and that Symonenko -- who wants to restore a Soviet Union -- would once more make Ukraine a colony.

Palyvko echoed the beliefs of many of the speakers at the rally, and of many ordinary West Ukrainians, who believe a vote for communists is tantamount to being a traitor to Ukraine. Palyvko:

"We don't have any other choice. We veterans of the UPA can only vote for Kuchma because Symonenko will bring us no good. He was a Communist, he is a Communist and he will always be one. He wants the same thing as [Belarus President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka -- to form a new Soviet Union. We did not fight for that, for a new Soviet Union. We fought for an independent, sovereign Ukraine." In contrast to the west, central and east Ukraine were in the Russian empire and then the Soviet Union since the 17th century and experienced intense Communist repression. This included an artificially induced famine in the 1930s that killed millions and mass executions of nationally conscious Ukrainians.

The region also experienced large-scale industrialization under Soviet rule. That brought in millions of Russian workers, which accelerated the Russification of its culture. While Ukrainian is the language commonly spoken throughout west and parts of central Ukraine, Russian is the dominant tongue in the east.

The area is also home to huge Soviet-era coal mines and other heavy industries. Most are now semi-dormant because they are no longer being subsidized by the state. That in turn has led to millions of workers being paid meager wages and in most cases having to wait months for even these payments. Many -- especially elderly people with unpaid pensions -- blame their plight on the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

In the west the main issue is independence. In the country's central and east what counts most is obtaining a regular wage. Ukrainians in these regions have been attracted by Symonenko's Soviet-era rhetoric, and the ethnic Russians in the region like his promise to reinstate Russian as a state language.

In the coal mining region of Luhansk, nearly half voted for Symonenko in the first round. About a quarter voted for other Left candidates. Vladimir Panchenk is a miner at the Barakova coal mine in Krasno Don. He tells RFE/RL he has not been paid for months:

"I don't trust any of them. I believed in Kuchma when I voted for him before but now I don't trust him at all. I don't care if Symonenko comes to power. I just want to be paid my salary. That's all I ask for."

Kuchma won the presidency five years ago with most of his support from the east of the country after promising massive injections of cash for the rust-belt industries there.

The first secretary of the Communist Party in the Luhansk region, Vladimir Zemlyakov, says people will vote for his party because they are tired of living in poverty. He denies his party would reinstate autocratic rule and says elements of privatization might be retained.

"We're not so stupid that we are going to repeat the mistakes of the past. Human progress began with people being intelligent enough to select the best things. And we are not that stupid that we are going to transfer the old mistakes to new times."

But by no means do all the workers want a return to Communist rule. Again, unlike West Ukraine, their considerations are economic rather than nationalistic. Many, like coal miner Yuriy Telnoy, fear a Communist return will cause yet more disruption and increase poverty.

"I personally will vote for Kuchma. Because if the Communists return to power they will begin changing things again. As in the past five or ten people will have to share one meal. Therefore, I will vote for Kuchma."

Kuchma hopes that desire for stability will help sway enough of the eastern vote. But the elections have once more demonstrated the profound differences between the east and west of Ukraine -- a divide which no politician has yet been able to bridge.