A Nation-State or a State-Nation?
No. 4 2008 October/December
Alexei I. Miller

Doctor of History
European University at Saint-Petersburg, Russia
Department of History
Center for the Study of Cultural Memory and Symbolic Politics
Research Director;
Institute of Scientific Information for Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Leading Research Fellow


ORCID: 0000-0001-8139-0976
ResearcherID: Z-1451-2019
Scopus AuthorID: 56321369000


E-mail: [email protected]
Tel.: +7 (812) 386-7634
Address: 6/1A Gagarinskaya Str., St. Petersburg 191187, Russia

U.S. political scientist Alfred Stepan published an article soon
after Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution in which he analyzed the
opportunities for a policy of national construction in Ukraine
(Stepan, Alfred. “Ukraine: Improbable Democratic ‘Nation-State’ But
Possible Democratic ‘State-Nation’?” Post Soviet Affairs, No.
4/2005, pp. 279-308). Although Stepan had never studied Ukraine
before the article, he is an acclaimed expert on authoritarian
regimes and models of their democratization.

Stepan’s analysis of the political situation in Ukraine rests on
the opposition between two models. One of them is the very familiar
‘nation-state.’ An alternative model – the ‘state-nation’ – has
been developed by Stepan in cooperation with his long-time
co-author Juan Linz and Indian political scientist Yogendra Yadav,
using materials on Belgium, India and Spain.

The policy goal of the nation-state is to impose a powerful
united identity of society as a community of members in a nation
and citizens in a state. To this end, the government conducts a
homogenizing assimilation policy in education, culture and
language. In electoral policies, autonomy-minded parties are not
considered to be coalition partners, while separatist parties are
outlawed or marginalized. Portugal, France, Sweden and Japan
provide bold examples of this model. This policy proceeds smoothly
if the state mobilizes only one group as a carrier of cultural
identity that has political representation. This group sees itself
as the only nation in the state.

If a country has two or more mobilized groups of this kind – as
was the case in Spain after General Franco’s death, in Canada
during the creation of its federation in 1867, in Belgium in the
middle of the 20th century, or in India when it gained independence
– democratic leaders have to choose between the exclusion of
nationalistic groups and their integration in society. All these
four countries eventually chose a model that can be accurately
described as a ‘state-nation’ rather than the ‘nation-state.’ They
chose to recognize more than one cultural – and even ethnic –
identity and give it institutional support. Multiple and
complementary identities would rise up in each country. For this,
they would set up asymmetric federations, introduce the practice of
‘consociative’ democracy, and have more than one official language.
Autonomy-minded parties were allowed to form governments in some of
the provinces and sometimes join coalitions to form central
governments. This model pursues the goal of breeding institutional
and political loyalty to the state among different “nations” living
in the state, although polity does not match the differing cultural

Countries that have recently gained independence can choose a
persistent and energetic but simultaneously peaceful and democratic
strategy of building a nation-state if the policies and cultural
demos match, the political elite is united in accepting these
policies, and the international situation is not hostile to the
implementation of this strategy. However, Ukraine’s situation did
not meet a single of these criteria when it became independent.

Stepan underlines a basic geopolitical difference between
Ukraine and the countries that he and his colleagues analyzed in
the format of the state-nation model; i.e., India, Belgium, Canada
and Spain. None of them had a neighbor posing a real irredentist
threat, while Ukraine faces a potential threat from Russia. This
assessment should be specified: Stepan spoke of a potential
irredentist threat in 2005 and admitted that neither Russia nor
Ukrainian citizens of Russian origin would take it seriously at the

Stepan drew up a number of oppositions as he compared the
nation-state model to the state-nation one:

— Commitment to a single “cultural civilizational
tradition” versus commitment to more than one such tradition; the
latter case should not block the opportunities for
self-identification with a common state;
— An assimilatory cultural policy versus the recognition and
support of more than one cultural identity;
— A unitary state or monoethnic federation versus a federative
and often asymmetric system reflecting cultural heterogeneity.

Stepan said in his other works that a presidential republic is
more characteristic of nation-states, while a parliamentary
republic is more typical of state-nations.

The general theoretic maxima Stepan formulated suggests that the
aggressive policies of a nation-state, are dangerous for social
stability and the prospects of democratic development if the nation
concerned has more than one mobilized ethnic group. He admits that
the state-nation principle, if applied in Ukraine, would involve
making Russian a second official language. Countries like Belgium,
India and Switzerland have more than one official language. Stepan
said that Ukraine would have more chances to create a democratic
political society if it did not pursue the aggressive strategy of
imposing the nation-state model.

He made a stipulation, however, when he said that a soft course
toward building a nation-state can ease the emergence of multiple
and complementary identities that are vital for state-nations and
for democracy in multi-ethnic societies. According to Stepan,
Ukraine could be an example of such a situation.

Stepan offered a number of arguments to back up this
postulation. He said that the preferred language of communication
is not necessarily a mark of ethnic identity in Ukraine, since
people who identify themselves as Ukrainians outnumber those who
only speak Ukrainian by a factor of two. According to research, 98
percent of people identifying themselves as Ukrainians – regardless
of the language they speak – would like their children to speak
fluent Ukrainian. The percentage of people calling themselves
Russians and who would like their children to be fluent Ukrainian
speakers is also very high – 91 percent in Kyiv and 96 percent in

Since the vast majority of Russophone citizens want their
children to have a good command of Ukrainian, the state can conduct
a policy of imposing the language on non-speakers – in the
nation-state spirit – without causing tensions between Russian and
Ukrainian speakers. Stepan also indicated that only five percent of
respondents in Donetsk (in Eastern Ukraine) and one percent
respondents in Lviv (in Western Ukraine) said in 2005 that it would
make sense to split Ukraine into two or more countries. At the same
time, Russia, a potential irredentist attraction, was waging a
bloody war in the Caucasus and this considerably reduced its


A total of three years have passed since the publication of
Stepan’s article. Let us take a look at how the situation in
Ukraine has been developing since then and to what degree his
forecasts have materialized.

The period from 2005-2007 was quite turbulent in the political
sense. It saw a scheduled parliamentary election in 2006 and an
early election in 2007. Both elections showed that the electoral
base of all the political parties without exception remains
strictly bound to one or another macro-region.

The government of Yulia Tymoshenko, which was formed in the
follow-up to the 2004 presidential election, was dismissed some six
months later. It did not include politicians whom the East and
South of the country could perceive as their representatives, and
the Yuri Yekhanurov cabinet that came to replace it did not include
them either. In turn, the government formed by Victor Yanukovich
after the 2006 parliamentary election did not have any
representatives from Western Ukraine. The talk about a possible
coalition between the Regions Party and a part of the
pro-presidential Our Ukraine was short-lived.

Like the Tymoshenko cabinet, the Yanukovich government gradually
found itself drawn into a bitter conflict with Ukrainian President
Vi?tor Yushchenko, which paved the way for the unconstitutional
dissolution of parliament and early elections in 2007. This
conflict was accompanied by a de facto crushing of the Constitution
Court that lost the ability to claim an independent role for
itself. All the parties to the conflict made a ploy of their
“petted” courts of various jurisdictions, thus further undermining
the reputation of the judiciary.

Ukraine started 2008 with a new cabinet with Tymoshenko at the
helm. The new government soon jumped into a conflict with the
weakening president. All leading political forces were unanimous in
their sentiment that the ?onstitution needed to be revised, but all
of them had their own vision of both the mechanism of revision and
the new model of constitutional power.

Before the Verkhovna Rada, or the Ukrainian parliament, was
dissolved in the summer and fall of 2007, the authorities mostly
conducted a moderate policy along the nation-state model, the
chances of which Stepan had assessed as fairly high. Cautious steps
were taken in the East and South to make decisions in the
state-nation vein, as a number of regions and municipalities made
Russian an official language. However, on the presidential
administration’s initiative, these decisions were challenged in
court and not endorsed by state agencies.

Ukrainization efforts in the areas of culture and language
intensified sharply during the 2007 political crisis. The
government plans to change the entire higher education system over
to Ukrainian in three years, and the authorities have enacted a law
mandating that all distribution copies of foreign movies must be
dubbed into Ukrainian. Along the same lines is a Yushchenko
statement on the dangers emanated by the Russian-speaking mass
media – this foreshadows further cuts in Russian-language programs
on Ukrainian television.

The topic of the Holodomor – the famine of 1932 and 1933 – as a
genocide spearheaded at the Ukrainian people has been fanned
sharply. At the very least, this makes Russians living in Ukraine
uncomfortable, since talk about genocidal motives goes hand in hand
with assertions that migrants from Russia took the place of
indigenous Ukrainians who were exterminated. Add to this the
people’s bitter reaction – everywhere except for Halychyna (Western
Ukraine) – to efforts to idolize the Ukrainian Insurgent Army
(UPA), along with its notorious commander Roman Shukhevich, and
Stepan Bandera, the chieftain of the Organization of Ukrainian
Nationalists (OUN).

An unexpected surge in efforts in late 2007 to bring Ukraine
into NATO played a highly provocative role in both domestic policy
and in Ukrainian-Russian relations. Moscow responded to this in the
spring of 2008 with statements that stirred up irredentist elements
in its policy toward Ukraine in general and the Crimea in
particular. The claims have so far come from nonofficial
“spokespeople” for the Russian political establishment – Moscow
Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and State Duma Deputy Konstantin Zatulin.
However, statements of concern over the position of ethnic Russians
in Ukraine have come from the Russian Foreign Ministry, too.

The threat of irredentism, which Stepan described as
hypothetical in 2005, is now taking increasingly clearer contours.
Moscow’s activity has so far been reticent in this area, but now it
seems to be willing to generate controllable tensions in the Crimea
so as to amplify doubts among the leaders of many NATO countries
about the feasibility of granting NATO membership to Ukraine.

Unfortunately, the Russian-Georgian conflict and the reaction it
produced in some sections of the Ukrainian leadership may lead to
an escalation of all the above-mentioned conflicts and Moscow may
find itself bogged down even deeper in Ukraine’s domestic policy


One of the most crucial issues of modern Ukrainian policy is the
nature of identity, or rather the identities of people living in
the eastern and southern regions. The crux of the matter is that
any discussion of the Eastern Ukrainian identity includes both
people who consider themselves to be Ukrainians by birth, but who
use the Russian language to communicate, and those who associate
themselves with the Russian nation (the 2001 census showed that 17
percent of the country’s population, or 8.3 million people, belong
to this category).

Nobody knows what might happen if Ukrainian policy continues to
develop along the nation-state course. It is quite possible that a
sizable part of Russophone Ukrainians will accept it with a larger
or smaller degree of enthusiasm.

But has state policy in the area of language not stepped over
the boundary beyond, which Ukrainization begins to play a
mobilizing role for the more than eight million people who consider
themselves to be Russians? The important thing for them is not the
change to Ukrainian identity, but the loss of living comfortably in
case they maintain their Russian identity.

Opinion polls taken at the beginning of 2005 showed that only 17
percent of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine believed that the
Orange Revolution would bring anything good for them, as against 58
percent of ethnic Ukrainians. Without the risk of making too big of
a mistake, one can state that ethnic Russians proceeded from the
assumption that relations with Russia would deteriorate further and
Ukrainization would intensify.

It is difficult to forecast how the mood among Ukrainian
citizens who are ethnic Russians will change now that many of their
past apprehensions have been proven true and Russia has begun to
play the irredentist card.

Grave problems in the Ukrainian economy will most likely
continue to spread in the mid-term, as the country will have to
live through a sharp rise in energy prices, the financial loan
crises, a steep rise in inflation, endless postponing of structural
reforms and their further deferment amid conditions of political
instability and preparations for yet another election. The economic
situation in Ukraine in 2008 resembles the spring and summer in
Russia in 1998.

The permanently growing gap between Ukraine and Russia in terms
of people’s incomes will soon have a dangerous impact on the
political situation in Ukraine. Add to this the removal of the
factor that repelled the Ukrainians with Russian identity – the war
in Chechnya – and the reduction of military service in Russia to
twelve months.

In spring 2007, on the eve of another deterioration of the
political crisis which occurred in the wake of the dissolution of
parliament and the ensuing upswing in nationalistic policies, the
Razumkov Opinion Research Center in Kyiv did some important
research that unveils the moods that existed at the time among
Russian-speaking Ukrainians and other specific population

The researchers singled out four groups:

  • ‘The Russians’ – i.e., Ukrainian citizens who are ethnic
    Russians and who speak Russian as their native language, associate
    themselves with the Russian cultural tradition and use Russian in
    everyday communication;
  • ‘The Ukrainians’ – i.e., Ukrainian citizens who are ethnic
    Ukrainians and who speak Ukrainian as their native language,
    associate themselves with the Ukrainian cultural tradition and use
    their native language in everyday communication;
  • ‘Russian-speaking Ukrainians’ – i.e., people ascribing
    themselves to the Ukrainian ethnos; and bilingual Ukrainians – i.e.
    ethnic Ukrainians who speak Ukrainian as their native
  • ‘Bilingual Ukrainians of the Ukrainian cultural tradition’ –
    i.e., people who say that they are ethnic Ukrainians, speak
    Ukrainian as their native language and belong to the Ukrainian
    cultural tradition.

The authors of the research say quite correctly that this
approach reveals clearly that the so-called ‘Russian-speaking
citizens’ are not an “imagined community“ – in the sense implied by
Benedict Anderson – they are a real group sharing a common
identity. As an ‘imagined community,’ they exist only in the minds
of researchers.

The last three categories of respondents – i.e., ethnic
Ukrainians who use Russian in everyday communication – gave
practically identical answers to the question on whether they
regard themselves to be Ukrainian patriots. Among those polled, 37
to 42 percent gave an assured “yes” answer, 41 to 45 percent said
“probably yes,” 6 to 11 percent offered a “probably no” answer, 3
percent or less gave a definitive “no,” and 6 to 7 percent were
undecided. In all, 80 percent of the respondents in this group
offered positive answers, which almost equals the number of
positive answers among ‘the Ukrainians.’

The responses of ‘the Russians’ produced a different picture, as
only 20.4 percent of them gave an assured “yes” and 29 percent
answered “probably yes.” This means that less than half of the
respondents viewed themselves as patriots. A total of 14 percent of
the Russians said overtly they did not consider themselves to be
patriots of Ukraine, 27 percent said “probably no,” and 9 percent
declined to give any answer.

The difference is still greater in terms of expectations for the
development of the language and cultural situation. A mere four
percent of ‘Russians’ think that Ukrainian should be the only
official language in the country. Another 13 percent would be
satisfied if Russian were made an official language in some
regions, and 70 percent said it must be the second official
language. Furthermore, 10 percent of the respondents believe that
Russian should be the only official language in Ukraine. ‘The
Ukrainians’ produced a practically mirror-like picture. ‘The
Russian-speaking Ukrainians’ were very close to ‘the Russians’ in
that aspect, as 49 percent of the respondents in those groups said
they were in favor of two official languages. A difference could be
seen in the group of Russian-speakers who have a command of
Ukrainian, as only 20 percent of them showed a readiness to give
Russian the status of the second official language.

When asked the question “Which cultural tradition should prevail
in Ukraine?” a mere six percent of ‘Russians’ were prepared to
reconcile themselves to the absolute dominance of Ukrainian
culture. Another 50 percent agreed that different cultural
traditions would prevail in different regions, and 24 percent said
the Russian tradition would prevail. In the groups who speak
Ukrainian, a majority of respondents invariably agree to the
dominance of Ukrainian culture, although they make up the absolute
majority (59 percent) only among ‘Ukrainians.’

Remarkably, in answering a question about the most preferable
definition of the Ukrainian nation, most people in all groups
preferred “a civil nation embracing all Ukrainian citizens” (‘the
Russians’ and ‘Russian-speaking Ukrainians’ showed 43 percent and
42 percent respectively, and other groups, 35 percent each).
However, the aggregate number of all other answers accentuating –
in some way or another – the ethnic character of the nation was
bigger in the ‘Ukrainian’ groups than the percentage of answers
accentuating the civil principle.

On the whole, this data confirms that ‘Russian-speaking
Ukrainians’ would like to see the Russian language and culture have
an equal status with Ukrainian, but they are ready to tolerate
nation-state policies, while the ‘Russians’ resolutely reject such
policies. It would be quite logical to suppose that a feeling of
discomfort and the potential for irredentist mobilization has grown
in the latter group over the past twelve months.

Let us also pinpoint an evident disillusionment with the
policies of the Regions Party among those voters who attach
significance to the status of the Russian language and culture. The
party has not been persistent enough in implementing its own
promises in this area and it is now losing electoral support. Thus,
a niche emerges for a new political force that may position itself
as a Russian party. As ‘the Russians’ make up 17 percent of
Ukraine’s population, a party like that can hope that they could
form a faction in the Verkhovna Rada even if the parliamentary
qualification barrier is higher than the current three percent.


The intensification of nation-state policy in Ukraine and
Russia’s moves to exploit the irredentist theme have heightened the
risks in relations between the two countries over the three years
that have passed since the publication of Stepan’s article.
Chronologically, the whipping-up of nation-state policies by Kyiv
preceded the intensification of the irredentist factor in Russia’s
policy, greased the conditions for it and partially served as its
trigger (which, however, does not pardon Russia).

President Victor Yushchenko emanates the strongest destabilizing
impulses, as all the steps described above were initiated either by
him personally or by the small parties he still relies on.

Yushchenko is the main promulgator of the ‘memory revitalization
policy.’ He goes as far as to press the Rada to adopt a version of
the law on the Holodomor that would include criminal responsibility
for denying that the Holodomor was genocide. He tries to launch the
discussion of the topic at international organizations – the UN,
the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe. Yushchenko personally initiated an
application to NATO for getting the Membership Action Plan (MAP),
and he ardently tried to push it through at home and abroad on the
eve of the NATO summit in Bucharest. In the wake of the August war
in Georgia, the topic of the external (Russian) threat may move
center stage in Ukrainian policy.

Yushchenko does not have a majority in parliament and he rules
with the aid of decrees, many of which run counter to the
Constitution. As a person who has squandered his popularity and who
is struggling to stay in power, he was behind all of the
destabilizing moves in the institutional sector. The list includes
– over the past twelve months alone – the unconstitutional
dissolution of parliament, an attempt to steamroll his own version
of the new Constitution (one that vastly broadens the presidential
powers) by way of a referendum and bypassing parliament, a
discrediting of the Constitution Court that still does not have a
full panel of judges, and permanent incursions into areas of
governmental prerogatives.

It may look that the two largest political forces – the Yulia
Tymoshenko Bloc (BYT) and the Regions Party (RP) – show an
understanding of the mechanisms that Stepan and his co-authors
highlighted in the state-nation model. Both advocate the
parliamentary (or parliamentary/presidential) republic. However,
whereas the RP speaks against the buildup of a rapport with NATO,
the BYT does not show any special activity in the field and does
not emphasize the problems of the Holodomor or the Insurgent Army.
The RP objects to the Insurgent Army’s rehabilitation and to the
politicizing of the 1930s famine. Neither force has engaged in
nation-state rhetoric so far. The RP supports the idea of a sizable
expansion of the powers of regions, and it has even called for
federalization during past crises, which the Orange forces regard
as a manifestation of separatism. Still, there is every reason to
believe that the idea of a federation has situational rather than
fundamental importance for the Regions Party.

All of this testifies to a realistic possibility for
reformatting the entire Ukrainian political scene that would help
put a brake on the dangerous tendencies of 2007, yet the tough
political standoff and the deep political mistrust existing between
various political forces increase the chances for the further
deepening of the political crisis, and the international situation
is conducive to this.

Another important destabilizing factor is the specific career of
Yushchenko’s main opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko. It is impossible for
anyone to guarantee that she will observe democratic methods of
policymaking if she gets full power. Such apprehensions were
validated once again in March 2008 when the BYT succeeded in
removing Kyiv Mayor Leonid Chernovetsky from office with glaring
encroachments on democratic procedures. The BYT has a general
tactic of undermining the positions of mayors of the largest cities
if they are not its allies.

Meanwhile, Stepan says that when chances are weak for
federalization due to the irredentist factor, Ukraine could use the
experience of Scandinavian countries where the absence of
federation is made up for by very broad rights for municipalities.
However, the new mayoral election in Kyiv that reinstalled
Chernovetsky in office dealt a painful blow to the BYT.

The RP’s democratic conduct is also a cause for doubt. Strictly
speaking, Ukraine does not have any major political force that
could guarantee its commitment to democracy today.

All political forces struggling around mechanisms for adopting a
new Constitution and establishing its principles are mostly driven
by political considerations at the moment. Remarkably, debates on
the preferable form of state structure ignore the question of a
possible type of federation, and neither BYT nor RP talk about
state-nation motives when discussing the advantages of a
parliamentary republic.

Thus we can see that many of Stepan’s forecasts and warnings
have come true over the three years that have elapsed since the
publication of his article. However, two important notes should be
added to his analysis.

First, Stepan did not take enough account of the heterogeneity
of the population in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions as
regards their self-identity (although compared to other
researchers, he paid more attention to the differences in positions
of the ‘Russian-speaking Ukrainians’ and ‘Russians’).

Second, it has proven difficult to remain moderate in the
Ukrainization policy. Stepan recommended a moderate policy in the
nation-state spirit as he described a possible successful strategy
for Ukraine. He believed that the construction of a nation-state is
impossible, while the choice of a state-nation model is compounded
by foreign policy factors. This political construct worked fairly
well in conditions of a relatively centralized system during the
presidencies of Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, but it turned
out to be rather fragile. Amid an escalating struggle for power,
Yushchenko’s weakening presidential power sacrificed this moderate

If the political mobilization of Ukraine’s ethnic Russians
evolves into the emergence of a Russian party, Kyiv will face a
difficult problem: meeting demands to increase the status of the
Russian language and other measures in the state-nation vein will
highly impede the process of the soft Ukrainization of
Russian-speaking Ukrainians that has been going on quite
successfully until now. On the other hand, continued Ukrainization
in the nation-state mode will increase the feeling of discomfort
among more than eight million Russians, thus facilitating the
growth of irredentism.
The situation brings two problems to the foreground.

First, how and when will the crisis of power be eliminated and
which configuration of political forces will arise in its wake?
There is no doubt that the nation-state policy will be maintained,
but it is not clear whether the new ruling coalition will continue
to intensify it or if they will try to revert to the previous
moderate course. For the time being, there seems to be little
chance that Ukraine will see an early end to the political

Second, will it be possible to revert to the previous policies
by the time the crisis ends? Or has the political breakdown of 2007
and 2008 launched processes that will write off Stepan’s strategy
as a missed opportunity? No one can answer these questions with
assuredness today.