Faint echoes from Ukraine reach home

From Timothy Garton Ash’s piercing analysis in the Guardian.

Start by abandoning the labels “ethnic Ukrainians” and “ethnic Russians”. They mean almost nothing. What you have here is a fluid, complex mix of national, linguistic, civic and political identities. There are people who think of themselves as Russians. There are those who live their lives mainly in Russian, but also identify as Ukrainians. There are innumerable families of mixed origins, with parents and grandparents who moved around the former Soviet Union. Most of them would rather not have to choose. In a poll conducted in the first half of February, only 15% of those asked in the Kharkiv region and 33% around Donetsk wanted Ukraine to unite with Russia.

For Ukrainians and Russians, substitute Irish and British and maybe throw in Northern Irish. It rings a little bell doesn’t it?

And from Crimea, how opinion can suddenly shift.  Not at all like the circumstances of 1916 but still, a dramatic example of how violence can shift opinion.

In the same poll, the figure for Crimea was 41%. But then take a month of radicalising politics and Russian takeover, with Ukrainian-language channels yanked off TV. Add relentless reporting on the Russian-language media of a “fascist coup” in Kiev, exacerbated by some foolish words and gestures from victorious revolutionaries in Kiev. Subtract Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians living in Crimea, who largely boycott the referendum. Season with a large pinch of electoral fraud. Hey presto, 41% becomes 97%.

It is not just Russian “political technology” that changes numbers and loyalties. What happens in such traumatic moments is that identities switch and crystallise quite suddenly, like an unstable chemical compound to which you add one drop of reactant. Yesterday, you were a Yugoslav; today, a furious Serb or Croat.

So everything that is done in and for Ukraine over the next weeks and months must be calculated to keep that identity-compound from changing state

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London