Yesterday I went into detail about the “founding father” of modern Ukraine, Stepan Bandera, who is seen as a hero in western Ukraine but deemed a Nazi collaborator in the eastern part of the country.
For decades, Ukraine has been deeply divided both historically and culturally between its east and west. That deep division actually dates back long before both Bandera and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN).
Today “western Ukraine” generally refers to the area that was formerly known as “Galicia” in history textbooks. Inhabited predominantly by ethnic Ukrainians, Galicia, along with the nearby Lodomeria, formed an autonomous kingdom under the Austro-Hungarian Empire through the 19th century right until the end of the First World War.
The kingdom adopted Ukrainian, Polish and German as its official languages simultaneously, and was among the most populous and prosperous areas within the Habsburg empire in those days.
However, the end of the First World War and the subsequent disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire spelt a sudden end to the golden era of Galicia.
Under the Treaty of Riga concluded in 1921 among the European powers, Galicia was officially incorporated into the newly independent Poland, despite the fact that the majority of Galicians at that time actually preferred to build an independent state of their own.
During the inter-war years, a series of military clashes broke out between Poland and the independent Ukraine over the sovereignty of Galicia, with the latter seeking to build a greater Ukraine and unify with the former autonomous kingdom.
However, in face of growing Soviet aggression in the east, both Kiev and Warsaw quickly set aside their differences and formed an alliance against Moscow. And under their bilateral deal, Warsaw agreed to grant Galicia a high degree of autonomy as long as it remained in Poland.
Unfortunately, Galicia’s fate once again took a nasty twist in August 1939 when the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed the German-Soviet Non-aggression Pact.
Under the secret pact, Berlin and Moscow agreed that they would divide up Poland, after which Galicia would become part of Ukraine, which itself had already become a member republic of the Soviet Union by the time the treaty was signed.
During the Second World War, Galicia, which had then already become the western part of Ukraine, was subject to totalitarian and brutal rule by Moscow, during which an estimated 200,000 ethnic Ukrainians were forced into exile in Siberia, and the vast majority of them were eventually massacred by the Soviet secret police.
At the Yalta Conference held in February 1945, the sovereignty of Galicia became a major sticking point among Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. However, eventually both the US and Britain decided that it would be in their best interests to acknowledge Moscow’s sovereignty over Galicia because they still very much needed the partnership of the Soviet Union to defeat both Germany and Japan.
As we can see, Galicia, or the modern western Ukraine, used to be an independent political entity in its own right and had a unique sense of national identity of its own. And that sense of national identity has survived the entire Soviet era and remains strong even to this day.
Given their unique historical background, western Ukrainians today still identify themselves strongly with western Europeans culturally and religiously, with the majority of them being Catholics. They strongly resist being assimilated into Russia like the eastern Ukrainians have been, and hence the current divisions and tensions between western and eastern Ukraine.
After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, there were calls among western Ukrainian nationalists for seceding from the rest of Ukraine and re-establishing an independent Galicia.
Galicia independence is not necessarily a wild dream. It is because as long as the western Ukrainians are able to gain the support of the European Union, they could press ahead with their independence plan like the people in Kosovo did back in 2008, although it would inevitably further undermine the political stability of Ukraine.
Ironically, however, unlike in the past, this time Moscow is likely to throw its weight behind the separatist movement in western Ukraine.
It is because a weakened, volatile and politically divided Ukraine is exactly what Russian President Vladimir Putin wants, so that it can continue to serve as a buffer state between Russia and NATO countries.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 17
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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