Monday, December 29, 2008

Getting Real about the Threat of Rusyn Separatism in Ukraine

On 1 December RT the Russian 24 news network gave backhand recognition to the seventeenth anniversary of the Ukrainian independence referendum by announcing the unilateral establishment of an autonomous Rusyn state in Transcarpathia, the western-most region of Ukraine. The story was not really that new.  On 25 October the "Second World Rusyn Congress" had announced its intentions to proclaim an autonomous government on 1 December if the Ukrainian state did not bow to their demands for the creation of an autonomous Republic in Transcarpathia.   Three weeks later on 22 December STRATFOR, the private intelligence firm, issued a report following up on the announcement suggesting that Rusyn (Ruthenian in the text) separatism provided a perfect wedge through which Russia could undermine Ukrainian sovereignty.  The well respected expert on Soviet nationalities, Paul Goble, has also chimed in noting that the main Druzhba gas pipeline, flows through Transcarpathia, although he also notes that Russian support of Rusyn separatists is not universally supported within the Russian foreign policy elite. (Hat tip Taras Kuzio) 

For anyone not familiar with the ins and outs of Europe's smaller ethnic groups, STRATFOR's report is alarming, especially coming on the heals of this summer's crisis in South Ossetia. Moreover, in a world where Putin has shown a strong desire to reassert control over other former Soviet republics,  it can seem entirely plausible that yet another ethnic group one has never heard of before will provide similar leverage in Ukraine to that offered by the Ossetians and the Abkhazians in Georgia.   Despite Russian attempts to make Rusyn separatism seem a serious threat to Ukraine, people would be well advised to be skeptical about the level of support for separatism among the Rusyns of Transcarpathia as well as Russia's ability to manipulate the situation, however strategically advantageous it might seem.  

The first problem with such analogies, is that unlike the Ossetians and Abkhazians, the Rusyns never had the advantage of being declared a distinct nationality in the Soviet Union and have their territory granted any nominal autonomous status.  In fact, from the moment of annexation at the end of World War II  Soviet policy towards the Rusyns of Transcarpathia was to classify them as Ukrainians. a decision that is generally understood to have been widely accepted by the Rusyns in the area.  Indeed, the American scholar Paul Magocsi, who is the main expert on and advocate for the Rusyns, maintained in his first major book that Rusyns had accepted Ukrainian identity.   Beyond that, unlike South Ossetia and Abkhazia, or even Eastern Ukraine Transcarpathia is not territorially contiguous with Russia so the prospect of sending in Russian troops into the region is highly unlikely, especially since doing so would involve violating Ukrainian airspace, or alternatively gaining assistance from Poland, Slovakia, Hungary or Romania, none of which have a particularly friendly attitude towards the Russian military.

That said, there are just enough inconsistencies within the situation in Transcarpathia to give the threat of Rusyn separatism some plausibility.  Glastnost and perestroika created conditions where interest in Rusyn distinctiveness in Transcarpathia has revived, something that coincided with Paul Magocsi's efforts to promote Rusyn pride among its immigrant population in America and Canada.  Yet, exactly what that means politically remains unclear because no one has been concerned enough to investigate it empirically which has left something of a half full glass for people to analyze according to their own preferences.  Even so estimates based on what little empirical data is available suggests that only about 10% of Transcarpathia's million inhabitants identify strongly as Rusyns.  So the Rusyn separatists that Russia has been calling attention have a long way to go to convince their compatriots to take their cause as something worthy of their support.  As it stands, the main body of the World Congress of Rusyns has condemned the separatists.

If anything Russian support for the Rusyn separatists comes off as a farcical replay of events prior to World War I when the circumstances of living under Hungarian assimilationist policies and tensions between immigrant communities from Transcarpathia and Greek Catholic priests from Galicia created a degree of sympathy for Russia -- Some communities in the United States even went so far as to convert to Russian Orthodoxy, a decision some sought to encourage with modest success back in the homeland.  Soon Russian nationalists, were seeking to make use of that opening.  Russian scholars began taking an interest in the region and just before World War I Russian agents did their best to promoting pro-Russian sentiment.  Their success, however, was marginal, and there is little to suggest that this time Russian nationalists will be any more successful this time.  Indeed, rather than setting the stage for the collapse of Ukraine at the hands of Russia as STRATFOR suggests, these events may finally put the issue of Rusyn loyalty to Ukraine to rest.


Anonymous said...

As much as Paul Magoczi tries to shield himself from this most current form of virulent "rusynism", he must be viewed skeptically at best, and be seen as the true egoist that he is.
Although he has been called out in public several times to come clean and explain the historical definitions of "Ruthenian" vis a vis "Rusyn" he has never done so.

In the final analyses, Magoczi's only contribution to east european history will be viewed as that of prolific gatherer of sources and informaition; not one of a great
synthesizer or a historical

vhliv said...

Dear Anonymous, I've become so used to not seeing comments, I missed yours until yesterday. Congratulations on being the very first person to comment on my blog.

As for Magocsi's reputation as an historian I have been asked to review several books of including his two volume collection of articles about the Rusyns.
I agree that his Galicia Bibliography will perhaps be his longest lasting contribution. I found it most useful doing my own research. That said, I did not mention him here in order to endorse his scholarship. Rather, for better of for worse he is the most important writer on things Rusyn in English and it does matter that even as he believes Rusyns to be a distinct nationality, he has been consistent in maintaining that since the end of WWII Rusyns have accepted the idea of being Ukrainians.

I say that as someone who feared that were some Rusyns to begin talking differently, he might change his tune, it is reassuring that he has not and disowning of the separatists discussed in my original post was endorsed by him.

Anonymous said...

I too am one who fears that Magocsi's stance on Rusyn separatism is subject to his own personal whims & desires. Because the current "burst" of Rusyn separatism is clearly being financed & directed from Moscow, Magocsi seems astute enough to distance himself from these currents. The whole problem with Magocsi's views on Rusyn separatism, either historically or politically, is that his opinions are unclear, shaky & are too often subject to change. To put it bluntly, Magocsi too often talks from both sides of his mouth, simultaneously.

CWC said...

Magocsi is clearly a historical thinker, but the problem is that he basically assembled a story in an opportunistic way. All nations emerged from some type of regional identity. It just happened later in eastern Europe because of the feudal and imperial histories. For Ukrainians, Rusyny was the old way of thinking of themselves. Rus' peoples extended outside the borders of modern Ukraine, mixed with others, yada yada....they identified themselves by religion, not ethnicity or nationality. In Poland (PL-Commonwealth) and Austria, the Uniates/Greek Catholics were 2nd class citizens at best. Their intelligentsia essentially was built up through Austrian reforms that benefitted the clergy. Naturally by the late 19/early 20xx, these factors play into nationalist ideas (inspired through "springtime of nations," Shevchenko, etc.) and this concept of "krayu" becomes "Ukraine." They begin to think of themselves this way and the message is spread throughout Galicia (including the Carpathian region) by clergy and teachers. Of course, the Polish government and the Russians begin interfering with that, and some of the "Rusyny" in Transcarpathia and the Lemko region feel "Russian"/"Little Russian"/"Just Lemko"/"Rus'nak", whatever. Anything but Ukrainian. They were influenced to stand in place, not to become part of the national transformation - and it didn't help that you had thousands of them in the US coal mining regions, etc., who were attending "Carpatho-Russian" churches organized under Moscow patriarchate, or that the Polish government in the interwar period formed a separate apostolic administration to "keep them under Poland's thumb." Remember that the Polish government was oppressing and disenfranchising them, so these ideas that the eventual expulsions in 1944-1947 were "the fault of the Ukrainian nationalists" imply that it really wasn't the fault of the Polish state ( seems something like Stockholm syndrome?) The identity became fractured, and the enmity and misunderstanding is still in place. This Transcarpathia area is unique because of its territorial history with Hungary, Czechoslovakia, etc. But instead of some of these groups (including Magocsi/Consortium) displaying loyalty and solidarity with Ukraine, they choose this time to demand nationality status. Of course, they've been doing that for a while, but they certainly didn't see it as inappropriate to continue and even step up these efforts while Ukraine is in turmoil. At best it's a lack of self-awareness and diplomatic savvy, but I doubt that. It's more likely that there's no overt connections to Russian-backed separatist movements, but would they mind if Ukraine fell in the first place or was denied membership to the EU? Hmm. What's the objective by doing this right now? We can be darn sure the objective is not merely to "protect or advance their culture." There are clearly strong political undertones.