Two Years Later: Why Was the Kremlin’s Project of Novorossiya Doomed to Failure?
Two years have passed since the Southeast of Ukraine flared up with pro-Russian protests. While some of them were weak and undistinguished, others resulted in the occupation of administrative buildings and proclamation of so-called “peoples republics”. The protests clearly followed a strategy that had been written in the Kremlinunder the name of “Great Novorossiya”. However, Putin’s dreams of Novorossiya have not materialized, and have restricted to self-proclaimed republics in Donbass. Instead of a “unified civilizational space in the South-East”, a fragmented picture of a heterogeneous region has emerged, with opposing values among inhabitants and fierce competition between local elites.
Since the spring of 2014, huge steps towards the Ukrainian national project have been taken in Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Kherson and Mykolaiv. Odessa has demonstrated its unique socio-cultural climate. Donbass has chosen the “Russian way”. Kharkiv, however, seems to be uncertain of its geopolitical choice. The “Russian Spring”, aiming to unify half of Ukraine under the flag of Novorossiya, has only intensified the crack on its delicate social and political substance.
The latest local elections, which were held in the fall of 2015, finally pronounced Novorossiya dead. If the previous decade in the South East was marked by total domination by pro-Russian candidates, the last voting demonstrated the success of Western-oriented politicians. They won the mayor’s races in such regional centres as Kherson, Mykolaiv and Dnipropetrovsk, while in Kryvyi Rih, the preferences split almost equally and the winner has not been determined yet.
The project of “Great Novorossiya” was doomed to fail in the bud for several reasons. First, the regions of the South East differ in their historical roots. Prior to Russian colonization, these lands had belonged to Sloboda Ukraine, Zaporozhian and Don Hosts, the Crimean Khanate and the Ottoman Empire. With the passage of time, due to ethnic cleansing, assimilation and migration of Russianfarmers and workers, the social structure of these areas was levelled to some extent and the historical continuity was interrupted. Nevertheless, in Zaporizhia, for instance, the Cossack myth will surely put to shame any historical hypotheses about the Russian roots of the city.
Rumours about the social homogeneity of the South-East are also quite exaggerated. Sometimes the difference within a single region could be impressive. In Lugansk oblast, the degree of loyalty toward the Ukrainian political nation changed dramatically from the agricultural north to the industrial south. This gap has increased dramatically since the beginning of the war. Odessa oblast is one more example of internal heterogeneity. Strongly pro-Ukrainian countryside in the north is tightly related to the central-west region of Podilia, while the southern region of Bessarabia conceals enormous potential for separatism.
Moreover, social differences between the different oblasts are so significant that any speculations about unity do not make a sense. For instance, in Kherson, Mykolaiv and Odessa oblasts, the share of traditionally pro-Ukrainian rural inhabitants is much higher than in industrial Donbass, approaching the figures of central Ukraine. The structure of the urban population is also extremely diverse. There are the diverse cosmopolitan port-city mix of Odessa, the highly educated technicians of Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk, and the miners of Lugansk and Donetsk, all present at the same time. Different occupations have formed separate patterns of political and social behaviour.
The political split only compounds at the elite level. On one hand, Odessa, due to its geographical position and economic ties, is known by the eternal rivalry between pro-Russian and pro-European politicians. The latest electoral battle between the western-oriented Sasha Borovik and the former “regional”, current mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov proved this trend once more. Dnipropetrovsk has also turned into an arena of political struggle between the declarative pro-European team of Ihor Kolomoyskyiand ex-allies of Victor Yanukovych. On the other hand, Kharkiv, which is currently dominated by Gennady Kernes, was characterized by the regular change of the local elites in the past.
At the same time, since the beginning of separatist riots, the political landscape of Donbass resembles sun-scorched steppe. The long-term monopoly of a single financial-industrial group led to the total control of the political agenda within the region. Handheld media were used to create any necessary mythologems to maintain their further domination. At the time of Victor Yanukovych, the elites of Donbass exerted an aggressive politics towards the regional neighbours. As a result, the influential politicians of Dnipropetrovsk, Odessa and Kharkiv got tired of Donetsk’s total dominance and did not miss the chance to take revenge, supporting unified Ukraine.
However, the main fault for the collapse of the south-eastern dreams lies with the Kremlin. Clumsy attempts to mobilize the region and the invisible wall of deaths in Donbass pushed the majority of South-East to move away from pro-Russian Donbass and fall in the embrace of the Ukrainian political nation. It does not mean the threat of separatism no longer exists. In spite of economic troubles and the failure of reforms, the centrifugal trend has still been real. Nevertheless, if would be no surprise if Odessa and Mykolaiv, Kharkiv and Dnepropetrovsk choose opposite directions, because the only thing that united them was Putin’s dream about Novorossiya, which has not stood the test of reality.
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