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Fomenting unrest

Mikhail Bushuev, Markian Ostapchuk / gb
April 9, 2014

There has been a great deal of concern that what has happened in Crimea could repeat itself in eastern Ukraine. But experts maintain that there are few similarities between the two regions.

Pro-Russian Protests in Donetsk, Ukraine 06.04.2014
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The situation in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk is once again under the control of the official Ukrainian authorities. But demands for a referendum on independence for the 'People's Republic of Donetsk' by a group of local separatists who had occupied the regional administrative office in Donetsk reminded many of the recent events on the Crimean peninsula.

But, can the situation in Crimea and eastern Ukraine be compared?

"I see more difference than similarities between Crimea and eastern Ukraine. In many ways, Crimea is a special case," said Susan Stewart from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in an interview with DW.

"In particular, the make-up of the population on the peninsula is different. In Crimea, the majority is ethnic Russian. Over 80 percent names Russian as their native language," she said, adding that many Crimea residents came from Russia or emigrated there from other predominately Russian regions of the former Soviet Union. "There are many military people there and many of them are now pensioners," Stewart said.

Dr. Susan Stewart, SWP, Berlin
More difference than similarities, in Stewart's viewImage: DW

According to data from the 2001 census, Russians are not the majority in any other region of Ukraine. Most people living in the east and south of the country have Ukrainian roots. In Kharkiv, 26 percent called themselves Russians; in Donetsk, 38 percent.

Little separatism in the East

Polish sociologist Joanna Fomina also sees considerable differences between Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The eastern regions have a much stronger orientation toward Ukraine than Crimea, Fomina told DW. As a result, the people of Donetsk and other eastern areas take a critical view of current developments in the country. "They see themselves as Ukrainian and the identification is quite strong. In Crimea, that feeling is clearly less pronounced," she said.

Fomina stresses that the preference toward speaking Russian in the east and south of Ukraine does not equate with a closer connection to Russia. In her study, "Language, Identity, Politics - the Myth of Two Ukraines," published by the German Bertelsmann Foundation, she documents through opinion surveys that the desire to have closer economic ties with Russia does not mean they want to split from Ukraine and be annexed by Russia.

No survey in any Ukrainian region uncovered significant separatist ambitions. In the east and south, support for splitting up the country was only between 11 and 13 percent - well below the actual number of ethnic Russians.

Author Joanna Fomina
Most people in the East see themselves as Ukrainian, says FominaImage: DW/N. Jolkver

Susan Stewart also thinks it highly unlikely that all too many people in the east and south would want to separate from Ukraine.

"I suspect that [the separatists] are mainly activists from Russia. They are recruiting people in the east and south who do not want to jeopardize the good relations with Russia and who were disappointed by the Maidan protests [in Kyiv]," Stewart said.

Economic divide

In addition, Stewart points out that from an economic perspective the Crimean peninsula is totally different to the Donetsk region. "Crimea, as a rule, received money from Kyiv. Economically speaking, the region was a burden, although tourism and agriculture were partially developed," she told DW.

Eastern Ukraine is far more important economically, especially the Donetsk region, which actually contributes revenues to national coffers. "The East has all the heavy industry. It is important, on the one hand, but, on the other, many of these businesses have not been modernized and are still using old Soviet technology," says Stewart. That is why the region is more important than Crimea, but still a problem.

Kremlin seeking destabilization

So, what do events in Crimea have in common with those in southeastern Ukraine? The answer is that they allow Russia to destabilize the situation in Kyiv, experts say.

"I'm not sure if the Russian side has a precise plan. I have the impression rather that it is looking to see what works the easiest," Stewart says.

The annexation of Crimea was easy. Now, Moscow is looking to see whether or not such a scenario would function in the east and south or whether Ukraine can be destabilized without military measures. Stewart believes that Russia is trying to prevent the formation of a stable government in Kyiv, which would undoubtedly pursue closer ties with the European Union and make real economic gains with Western help.

That is why Stewart does not exclude the possibility that the Kremlin will try to disrupt the May 25 presidential elections in Ukraine.

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