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What people in southeast Ukraine really think of Novorossiya

- May 25, 2015

A map of the historical region of Novorossiya. (Laris Karklis/The Washington Post)
Novorossiya is frozen. Last week Oleg Tsarev, leader of the ‘parliament’ that ostensibly united the eastern Ukraine separatist entities, the Donetsk Peoples Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk Peoples Republic (LPR), announced the project was now on hold. The reason Tsarev gave was that Novorossiya was incompatible with the Minsk II Accords, the principles agreed by the ‘Normandy Four’ — French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin – in February to end the crisis in eastern Ukraine. His statement and similar ones by others may signal that rebel leaders have been encouraged to consolidate around territory they now control rather than launching a new offensive to grab more. Time will tell. What it does reveal is belated recognition on the part of separatists and perhaps the Kremlin that Novorossiya as a geopolitical project to break Ukraine has fallen well short of its objective.
Tracing the origins of Novorossiya as a contemporary geopolitical re-imagining of Ukraine takes one to the murky world of relations between Kremlin forces and a spectrum of Russian nationalists. In a recent article, Marlene Laruelle outlined the three colors of Russian nationalism behind Novorossiya: a red Novorossiya preoccupied with reasserting Russia as a neo-Soviet great power, a white Novorossiya concerned with reviving and extending reactionary Orthodox ideals, and a brown Novorossiya driven by Russian ultra-nationalist fantasies and practices. What these power connected networks produced was an opportunistic geopolitical gambit on the heels of the Crimean annexation in March 2014 to detach southeast Ukraine from Kiev’s control.
The envisioned territory stretched from Odesa to Donetsk to Kharkiv, uniting eight southeast oblasts into a singular space. Pro-Russian nationalists in these areas launched a series of anti-Maidan protests as occasions for the seizure of local public buildings and proclamation of counter-coup regimes to the perceived EuroMaidan coup in Kiev. These moves, however, garnered uneven public support and manifestly failed in the two strategic locations of Odesa and Kharkiv. Only in the oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk did they take hold, and not everywhere there. From the outset, therefore, there was a manifest gap between the aspirational greater Novorossiya and the lesser Novorossiya formed around the DPR and LPR. Putin famously amplified the project in his annual Direct Line television extravaganza in the pivotal month of April 2014 when he reminded everyone that the Novorossiya oblasts “were not part of Ukraine back then” in the tsarist days.
Behind Putin’s remarks were three operating assumptions: that modern southeast Ukraine and historic Novorossiya were equivalent spaces, that this was home to a distinct interest group (“ethnic Russians and Russian speakers”), and that this group was uniformly threatened by Maidan events in Kiev. Putin does not endorse separatism, instead stating that the “key issue is providing guarantees to these people.” Putin’s three assumptions about this region and “these people,” however, proved to be incorrect. Our research reveals what people in most of southeast Ukraine really think of Novorossiya.
Our comparative project funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation examines post-Maidan attitudes in Ukraine, as well as in Crimea now annexed to Russia, and in the Russian-supported de facto states of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria.  In December 2014, we organized simultaneous public opinion surveys in these regions and surveyed in 6 of the 8 oblasts of southeast Ukraine (hereafter SE6). We judged it impossible to do reliable survey work in war afflicted Donetsk and Luhansk, instead contracting with the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) to administer a randomized face-to-face survey to 2003 persons in Odesa, Mykolaiv, Kherson, Zaporizhia, Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv. We asked a series of questions about Novorossiya.
The first was whether respondents thought Novorossiya was a myth or historic fact. Implicitly this is a question that sought to get at whether they viewed the newly hyped imaginary as legitimate or not. Over half (52 percent) of the SE6 sample deem it a myth but 24 percent considered it a ‘historic fact’ with a further 22 percent giving a ‘hard to say’ response.  (Much higher ratios, about three-quarters, in Crimea and in the Russian-backed de facto republics view it as a historic fact). To determine whether seeing Novorossiya as “historic fact’ might be an endorsement of separatism, we asked directly if the concept could be the basis for separatism of the sub-sample of 970 in the SE6 who saw it in these terms or who gave a ‘hard to say’ answer to the myth-or-fact question.  Only 14 percent of this sub-sample agreed with this possibility but importantly 38 percent choose ‘hard to say’ indicating that the question was likely a sensitive one for them. Endorsing or considering the basis for separatism, we should appreciate, is profoundly politically incorrect in most contexts where a legitimate government remains in firm control.
We then posed a question to respondents about the use of the Novorossiya moniker giving them two declarative choices as well as the usual ‘hard to say’ and refuse options: (i) “it is Russian political technology to break up Ukraine” or (ii) “it is the manifestation of the fight of the population of southeast Ukraine for independence.” Only 18 percent in SE6 were willing to choose this latter option (for the graph comparison to Crimea see our earlier post here). Barely over half the population (51 percent) in SE6 viewed Novorossiya as Russian political technology, in effect a geopolitical scam manufactured by Russian power circles. This split opinion is hardly a resounding affirmation of the worldview of Kiev and many Western observers, suggesting the term and its genealogy resonated with some even if they did not say so explicitly.
Since Putin presumed that ethnicity and language was a major cleavage in southeast Ukraine, we examined this belief by sorting our 2003 respondents into four self-declared ethnicity and language categories: Ukrainians speaking only Ukrainian at home (22.6 percent), Ukrainians speaking Russian at home (40.7 percent), Ukrainians speaking both languages (17.4 percent) and those who self-declared as ethnic Russians (11 percent).
Figure 1 reveals how these groups answered the latter Novorossiya question.  Little difference is seen within the Ukrainian population regardless of their home language with over half ascribing the term’s appearance to the manipulations of Russian political technologists. However, the ethnic Russian minority (highest in Kharkiv and Odesa) shows a split with only a small minority attributing it to Russian propaganda. The high ‘don’t know’ answer (38 percent) is typical of responses to sensitive questions by minority populations in conflict zones as we have observed elsewhere in our surveys of the former Soviet peoples.
Finally, Figure 2 disaggregates the results by geographic region. What is significant here is the degree to which Odesa and Kharkiv stand out as divided oblasts and cities. Making the not unreasonable assumption that many of those refusing or answering ‘don’t know’ are avoiding revealing politically incorrect sentiments, these results demonstrate that SE Ukraine 6 is not uniform in its rejection of the Novorossiya project. It does have some support, potentially significant in Odesa and Kharkiv where there have been violent destabilizing events in recent months.
While Putin may have been glib in his assumptions about the region, we would be equally glib if we concluded that all in the region have definitely rejected separatism, or that it does not hold attractions for some. Some oblasts in southeast Ukraine are deeply divided, and we should acknowledge that. Indeed, we can identify four distinct zones in contested Ukraine today: annexed Crimea, rebel held Donbas, the divided oblasts of Kharkiv and Odesa, and the rest which are fairly solidly pro-Ukraine. A profound economic and legitimacy crisis is still unfolding in Ukraine and likely to place even greater stress on its institutions and people. Majority sentiment in Crimea is deeply alienated from Ukraine, and supportive of its annexation by Russia irrespective of legality.
Greater Novorossiya may be dead but a lesser Novorossiya lives on in the form of the Russian dependencies DPR and LPR. These appear to be fashioning themselves as de facto states, though they are very distinct from the other post-Soviet de facto states we have studied in depth. While some speculate about a deal ‘giving up’ Novorossiya for acknowledgement of Crimea’s annexation, the grim reality is that there is no easy territorial fix to the multiple crises afflicting Ukraine. They were a long time in the making and they will take a long time to resolve.
Gerard Toal (Gearóid Ó Tuathail) is Director of the Government & International Affairs program at Virginia Tech’s National Capital Region campus in Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia. John O’Loughlin is College Professor of Distinction and Professor of Geography at the University of Colorado, Boulder.