Sunday's announcement drew criticism from politicians on both sides of the Ukrainian political divide and from the European Union and Nato as they all sought to emulate Honest Abe Lincoln and insist on the unity of the state. Mr. Yanukovych said he did not support the moves for a referendum in an area dominated by Russian speakers that have always looked more towards Moscow than Kiev. Mr. Yushchenko said"Those people who will raise the issue of separatism will be held criminally responsible under the Ukrainian constitution." And outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, after talks with regional leaders who have threatened to demand autonomy, said he could not accept any division of Ukraine."My position is that we cannot allow the division of Ukraine," Mr. Kuchma said in televised remarks. His warning was echoed by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who said"the unity of Ukraine is fundamental." Nato Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer agreed that maintaining Ukraine's territorial integrity was essential."The sense of belonging to one nation is very important and on that basis a solution should be found," he said.
But why is it so essential to retain the present-day boundaries of Ukraine? It is true that in various past times there has existed an independent Ukraine or proto-Ukraine. It is also true that in various past times what is present-day Ukraine was ruled by one or more of several other states. Consider the history of Ukraine since the late eighteenth century. From the partitions of Poland until the First World War, Ukraine was ruled by Austria and Russia. The chaotic events following the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and the collapse of the Habsburg Empire in 1918 prompted Ukrainian nationalists to try and create an independent Ukraine. Between 1917 and 1918, three separate Ukrainian republics declared independence. None survived. By 1921 the western part of Ukraine had been incorporated into Poland while the larger, central and eastern part became part of Soviet Russia. At the end of the Second World War, Western Ukraine was reunited with Eastern Ukraine as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. With the demise of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian parliament (the Supreme Rada) declared Ukraine's independence on August 24, 1991. This was confirmed by referendum on December 1, 1991, with 90% approving the decision.
Ukrainians comprise 77.8%, Russians 17.3%, and a variety of other ethnicities 5% of the population, according to the December 2001 census. Orthodoxy is the dominant religion in the east, while in the west it co-exists with the Uniate (or Greek Catholic) church, which combines Orthodox service rites with allegiance to the Pope. For a brief analysis of divided Ukraine, go here. And for a useful background briefing, go here. I am reminded of the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia into the Czech republic and Slovakia on January 1, 1993. Does anyone believe they should now be forcibly reunited?