Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

“Orange States” and “Tricolor States” in Post-Soviet Ukraine

David Koyzis


By David Koyzis

December 20, 2013 

The last several national elections have revealed the United States to be nearly permanently divided into “red” and “blue” states, labels originating in the electoral maps posted by television networks as they cover presidential campaigns. But few Americans are aware that Ukraine is similarly, and more intractably, divided along political lines.

In the United States, the red states tend to support the Republican Party while the blue states support the Democratic Party. But, as more than one observer has pointed out, every state is actually a slightly different shade of purple, with blue counties concentrated in the metropolitan areas and red outside these regions. In other words, red and blue appear to represent not so much separate cultures and ideological commitments, but rather a traditional rural-urban split, exacerbated by considerable partisan petulance. While antagonism between Republicans and Democrats has engendered stalemate in Congress, the difference is actually not one of deep principle, opinions to the contrary notwithstanding. Rather, the difference is a contest over who better represents the larger liberal tradition on which America was founded over two centuries ago.

The divisions in Ukraine are even more stubborn. Unlike the United Sates, Ukraine does not have a revered common heritage of founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution. There is no founding generation to be mythologized along the lines of George Washington or Benjamin Franklin. There is no sense of national mission to hold the country together. 

Ukraine currently encompasses territories once controlled by Lithuania, Poland, the Austrian Habsburgs, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. The sense of distinctive Ukrainian nationhood thus varies across these lands, depending on who was in charge in the past. In general, the farther west one travels, the more one finds people speaking the Ukrainian language, worshiping in Ukrainian Greek Catholic churches (Byzantine-rite churches in communion with Rome), and desiring closer ties with western Europe. Here one finds what can only be described as “orange states,” supporting the Orange Revolution of nearly a decade ago that was spearheaded by reformist presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko and the currently imprisoned Yulia Tymoshenko. The city of Lviv (also known as Lvov, Lwow, and Lemberg), part of Poland between the two world wars and of Austria-Hungary before the First World War, is the center of pro-Western agitation.

But the story does not end here and is further complicated by the fact that the capital city of Kiev is the cradle of ancient Rus, the ancestral nation of Russians and Ukrainians alike. Even such Russians as the late novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn have viewed Kiev as a Russian city and Ukraine as part of the historic Russian heartland. Traveling east and south towards the Black Sea takes one into heavily Russified territory, where citizens tend to gravitate towards Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation. The sense of distinctive Ukrainian nationhood is very weak indeed in these “tricolor states” (for the white, blue, and red of the Russian flag). They are content to remain within the Russian sphere of influence and cannot quite see what all the fuss is about in the western part of the country. Worship, if it happens at all, is within Orthodox churches in communion with Moscow.

This intricate history sheds some light on the recent protests in Kiev. Although President Viktor Yanukovich’s primary support base is the pro-Russian south and east, he had been making cautious overtures to the European Union to reach out to the nationalistic west. But economic pressure from Putin prompted Yanukovich to reject an association agreement with the EU, much to the chagrin of many Ukrainians, who have been expressing their anger in the streets.

Ukraine’s divisions show no signs of easing any time soon. In fact, the chances of the country breaking up seem more likely, with the south and east drifting back into Moscow’s orbit and the west heading into NATO and the EU.

Yet Ukraine’s distinctiveness may lie, not in its factionalism per se, but in the distance between its factions. In other respects, Ukrainians are faced with the ordinary task of conciliating diversity, although the stakes are arguably higher there. Every political system is called to do public justice in the midst of a plurality of ideological, linguistic, or cultural interests. If Ukraine’s leaders can manage to bridge its historic cultural divide, there is hope for the United States, with its more deeply rooted political traditions, to begin to narrow the rancorous partisan gap between its red and blue states. 

— David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. His new book, We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God, will be published shortly.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”