25th June 2011,
Continuing our exploration of Ukraine’s kaleidoscopic regional diversity, Democratist recently spent a couple of days in Lviv: One time capital of Austro-Hungarian Galicia, architectural gem and UNESCO world heritage site, it was the focus of the western Ukrainian national revival in the late 19th century, and again in the 1980’s. Under President Yanukovich, it has become a rather defensive and self-conscious center of Ukrainian cultural and national independence and, since last October, electoral home to the reactionary, populist Svoboda party at the local level.
What is most immediately striking about Lviv and its surrounding oblasts is just how unlike the rest of Ukraine it is in terms of history and ambiance. Arriving by train, Lviv station (1904) is an elegant, vaulted Art Nouveau monument to the Habsburg Monarchy which oversaw its construction, and which ruled Galicia from 1773 until 1918; a relic of a lost world of Austrian officials, Polish landowners, Jewish traders, and Ukrainian peasants. It is a testament to the extraordinarily diverse multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-confessional society that gave birth to the city’s many magnificent buildings, and which still existed when Galicia became a part of Poland at the end of the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921); a world finally torn to shreds by Nazi genocide, and Stalin’s forced expulsion of the Poles after Galicia became part of the Ukrainian SSR at the end of the Second World war.
In fact, it was only after 1944 that the Ukrainian peasantry moved en masse into Lviv from the surrounding countryside and the city took on the ethnic character it maintains today: Up until then, Ukrainians had mostly eked out their lives in the country, while Poles and Jews dominated in the town. It was the grinding rural poverty and hunger that these peasants faced which had forced some two million of them to emigrate from Galicia, mostly to the US and Canada in the late 1900’s, thereby giving birth to the large Ukrainian diasporas in those countries.
But despite its provincialism, thanks largely to the efforts of the well-organized and civic-minded Ukrainian “Greek Catholic” church and related civic organizations, as well as the Czech and German examples, and an unusual degree of encouragement from the imperial administration, Ukrainian nationalism and culture flourished in Galicia in the second half of the nineteenth century. This occurred while a process of russification was continuing (especially after the 1876 Edict of Ems) in the Ukrainian territories to the East which had become part of the Russian Empire. However, the basis for the Habsburgs’ indulgence of the Ukrainians – including some representation in the Galician Diet after 1861, and the development of their own political parties, civil society and newspapers – was not liberalism, but rather imperial calculation: Vienna sought to build up Ukrainian national consciousness as a bulwark against rebellious Polish nationalism – to balance the Ukrainian peasantry in the countryside against the Polish landowners in the town.
Nonetheless, it was the Austro-Hungarian period, which was to provide the historical-sociological groundwork for the subsequent strong resilience of Ukrainian culture and language in the region compared with the rest of the country. Following the Soviet (1939), and then Nazi (1941) invasions, this found military expression through the creation of Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) in 1943 under the leadership of Stepan Bandera. The UPA sought the creation of an independent Ukrainian state, and fought against the Poles, Soviets and Germans to this end: As such, at different points in the war it co-operated with the German Wehrmacht and Waffen SS, and also played a role in the killing and ethnic cleansing of Poles in Galicia. While it officially disbanded in 1949, some units continued operations against the Soviets until 1956. Bandera himself was assassinated by the KGB in Munich in 1959.
It was therefore unsurprising that Galicia, as the “heartland of Ukrainian nationalism” – where the Uniate church remained strong (if underground) throughout the Soviet period, and dissident activity significant, should have been at the forefront of calls for Ukrainian independence from the USSR in the late 1980’s. As Anna Reid writes in her excellent Borderland: A Journey Through The History of Ukraine (1997) it was the nationalist movements based there that tipped the scales towards the Ukrainian Communist Party’s decision to declare independence after the failed coup of August 1991. And without them, given the ambivalence of many Ukrainians outside of the region towards their national identity at the time, the country may never have become independent at all.
Nor is it surprising that the region should have been a strong supporter of the Orange Revolution in 2004. However, the failure of the revolution to deliver on many of its promises, and the victory of Viktor Yanukovich in the 2010 Presidential elections have left Galicia frustrated and defensive. While the traditions of language, church and political activism remain strong, last October’s local elections saw the vociferously xenophobic (both anti-Russia and anti-western) and anti-democratic Svoboda party take up to 30% of the vote in the region, and it has now become a key player in local politics.
In turn, there is much speculation that Yanukovich’s Party of Regions (PoR) has been happy to provide Svoboda with publicity (and perhaps financial help) as a way to split the “Orange” vote – safe in the knowledge that such extremists will almost certainly never garner any significant support outside of Galicia. Many of the PoR’s policies, not least the closure of Ukrainian language schools in the East of the country by the divisive Russophile education minister Dmytro Tabachnyk, also seem calculated to provoke nationalist anger and reaction. However, since Svoboda gained about 5% of the national vote last year, it may well reach the 3% threshold required to be represented in parliament in the polls due in October 2012.
The PoR’s apparent covert support of Svoboda is a clever ploy that plays effectively on local fears and seems likely to further weaken the mainstream “national democratic” vote as represented by Yulia Tymoshenko. On the basis of Democratist’s discussions with various contacts within Ukraine, it appears to be part of a broader series of measures which are being introduced by the PoR to facilitate the weakening, demoralization, division and co-opting of the opposition, and the entrenchment of a managed democracy.