WASHINGTON — There is a real potential for Ukraine to split into two countries along ethnic lines, but there also is enough international and internal push against the idea that such an outcome as the result of the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovich is probably unlikely, several experts said Monday during a teleconference sponsored by the Wilson Center.
Over the weekend, Yanukovich was removed from power and opposition leader Olexandr Turchynov was appointed president of the interim government. Elections are expected to be held in the coming months, and Parliament has voted to release opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko from prison.
The unrest began in November when the former president rejected a trade agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia.
The panel of experts focused on the cultural divide between nationalist Ukrainians and ethnically Russian Ukrainians. In particular, they brought up a parliamentary decision Sunday to cancel a 2012 law that elevated Russian to an official state language in some eastern and southern regions of Ukraine.
These regions speak predominantly Russian and were important areas of support for Yanukovich, whose first language is Russian, not Ukrainian. Parliament’s decision returned the Russian language to unofficial status in these regions.
“The Russian speakers will see this as a nationalist threat,” said Professor Yuriy Matsiyevskyy from the Mohyla National University in Kiev. He said Russian President Vladimir Putin might see the repeal of the law as a signal that ethnically Russian Ukrainians need protection.
However, he said the U.S. has been sending “certain messages” to Russia that “an attack on the sovereign people of Ukraine would be a mistake.” Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 during a conflict over a separatist, ethnically-Russian region of the country.
The 2012 language law highlights the ethnic and cultural divide between eastern and western Ukraine that partially led to the recent protests. It allowed for the adoption of Russian as the official language in regions where at least 10 percent of the population speaks Russian.
Olexandr Bohomolov, director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the National Acadamy of Science in Kieve, said the law exacerbated the ethnic divide in the country.
The western half of the country, which unanimously opposed Yanukovich’s election in 2010, is composed mostly of nationalist Ukrainians who wish to distance themselves from Moscow in light of the tumultuous history between the two countries. The protests on the streets in Kiev became increasingly violent last week, after three weeks of steady opposition to Yanukovich.
“It’s not in the interests of Ukraine or of Russia or of Europe or the United States to see a country split,” National Security Adviser Susan Rice told NBC. “It’s in nobody’s interest to see violence return and the situation escalate.”
Tatiana Zhurzhenko, a political scientist from eastern Ukraine, said that she is “confident Ukraine will not split, even though there is currently strong public support for a division.”