Would Eastern Ukrainians Vote to Join Russia?

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April 16 2014 2:33 PM

Would Eastern Ukrainians Vote to Join Russia?

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Heading for the exit.

Photo by Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

As even the most casual follower of the events in Ukraine is aware, the country’s politics are split neatly down the middle along regional and linguistic lines, mostly over the question of whether it should seek closer ties with Europe or Russia.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

But how many eastern Ukrainians would actually favor their region becoming part of Russia? That’s a bit harder to gauge. Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, is confident that a majority would favor unity if a referendum on the issue were held.

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Granted, there’s a good chance such a referendum would be as obviously flawed as the one we saw in Crimea last month, but assuming the situation somehow worked out to allow for a relatively fair vote to be held, would eastern Ukrainians vote for a split?

The most recent reliable polling suggests they probably wouldn’t, but it might be close.

The poll, conducted by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, with support from groups including the European Union, the government of the Netherlands, and the National Endowment for Democracy, asked respondents what they would “like to see the relationship between Ukraine and Russia look like.”

25.8 percent of eastern Ukrainians said that “Ukraine and Russia must unite into a single state,” compared with a national average of 12.5 percent. A parallel poll conducted by the Levada Center, a Russian research organization, found that only 12.5 percent of Russians favored the two countries reuniting.

This data, however, is already out of date. The survey was conducted in early February, before the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych or the annexation of Crimea. It certainly seems plausible that after these events, as well as weeks of aggressively anti-Kiev propaganda from the Russian media, easterners might be more hostile to the government in Kiev than they were a few weeks ago. In a post-Crimea world, Russianization may also now seem like a much more plausible scenario.

There are also a number of plausible outcomes the survey doesn’t include, including the most likely—an eastern region with greater regional autonomy. Some separatists have also raised the possibility of the region becoming an “independent country allied with Russia.”

The irony of the poll is that the vast majority of Ukrainians—72.2 percent in the east and 68 percent nationwide—believed that Russia and Ukraine “must be independent, but friendly states – with open borders, without visas and customs houses.”

Of all the potential outcomes of the current crisis, the one most Ukrainians regardless of political orientation actually want—a unified country maintaining a cordial relationship with Russia—now appears to be the least likely.

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