A Nation-State or a State-Nation?

16 november 2008

Alexei Miller – leading researcher at the Institute of Scientific Information for Social Sciences at the Russian Academy of Sciences, and is a professor at the Central European University in Budapest. He holds a doctorate in History.

Resume: Nobody knows what may happen if the Ukrainian policy continues developing along the nation-state course. For the more than eight million people who consider themselves to be Russians, the important thing is not the change to Ukrainian identity, but the loss of living comfortably in case they maintain their Russian identity.

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 demoses.

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 time.

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 Lviv.

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 attractiveness.


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 problems.


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 groups.

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 language;
  • ‘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 course.

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 crisis.

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.

Last updated 16 november 2008, 17:14

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