KIEV, Ukraine — Though it often appears that more divides this expansive Slavic nation than unites it, an orange-hued wave of jubilation temporarily washed away all differences last week, as a Ukrainian club called the “Miners” ascended the heights of European soccer for the first time.
Shakhtar Donetsk, as the team is officially known, and which is owned by steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov, defeated German side Werner Bremen to seize the UEFA Cup, Europe's second most prized club trophy, in front of a crowd 55,000 in Istanbul — including many wearing the team’s trademark orange jersey.
In Kiev, which can sometimes feel politically and culturally a million miles from Shakhtar’s home base in the industrial east, the euphoria was overwhelming and sincere. When midfielder Jadson, one of five Brazilians playing on the team, squeezed a shot by Bremen’s goalkeeper in overtime, viewers in bars, restaurants and living rooms across the capital erupted in ecstasy.
“Ukraine!” they bellowed. It was the country's first in a major European club championship, and a matter of pan-national pride.
The joy, however, was just a temporary respite from a division in this land of 46 million that, though at times overstated, is nevertheless very real. And as the country struggles to extricate itself from its economic morass, and prepares for crucial presidential elections in January next year, the differences among the various regions will come to play an increasingly significant role.
Ukraine is a land with a surfeit of histories. In the south, Russian empress Catherine the Great wrested Crimea from a Tartar khanate in the late 18th century. It remained part of Russia’s administrative realm until Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev bequeathed the territory to Ukraine in the 1950s as a symbol of Slavic unity.
The western portion of the country belonged in recent times to the Austro-Hungarian empire and Poland, but was annexed to the Soviet Union after the second world war. There the Ukrainian language dominates, and Ukrainian ethnic identity runs strong.
In the east, however, the situation is reversed. Russia historically controlled this region, and the two far eastern provinces — Donetsk and Luhansk — are geographically part of the larger Don river basin, or Donbass, which bleeds into western Russia.
The proximity to Mother Russia is palpable. Large portions of the population speak Russian as a first language, and it remains the preferred means of communication throughout the area. Although Ukrainian is the country’s official language, Russian often is recognized as an official “regional” tongue. In a Donetsk restaurant, order in Ukrainian and you will invariably be answered in Russian — often accompanied by a dirty look.
The east is also distinct economically. Heavy industry — metal and chemical production — are concentrated there, and a rich vein of coal ripples across the Donbass. Tellingly, Donetsk’s other soccer club is called the “Metallurgists.” Towns are gritty and poor, like those in America’s rust belt, and often beholden to a single factory serving as the primary employer.
Culture and geography translate into politics. Ukraine’s east is a bastion of the Party of Regions (POR), whose candidate Viktor Yanukovich opposed the more pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko in 2004 elections that culminated in the Orange Revolution.
Although only a small minority in the east seems to support breaking away and joining Russia, many are drawn to POR’s platform of closer ties with Russia. According to a 2006 survey conducted by the independent Razumkov Center in Kiev, identification with the Ukrainian state and feelings of Ukrainian patriotism — though still reasonably high — are much lower than in the rest of the country, excepting Crimea.
Many also criticize the president, who they say needlessly antagonizes Moscow by pursuing NATO membership and laying the bulk of the blame for Ukraine’s bloody heritage during the Soviet Union at Russia’s door. “Yushchenko came to power and became enemies with Russia, which is only 30 kilometers away, and is friends with America, which is way the hell on the other side of the world,” Nikolai Dragny, a steel worker in the eastern port of Mariupol, said recently.
Nonetheless, the potential for conflict remains low, said Yuri Yakymenko of the Razumkov center. People in the east and west are united by the same concern: getting through the crisis and providing for themselves and their families. “There is an overriding desire to live in a stable atmosphere,” Yakymenko said.
More on Ukraine: