Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Cultural Faultline in Ukraine

The recently ended anti-government demonstrations against the government of President Yanukovych in Ukraine points out the existence of a major religious and cultural fault line that runs through Eastern Europe. Europe is divided by religion into three cultural zones: a Catholic zone in southern Europe and Ireland, a Protestant zone in northern and Western Europe, and an Orthodox zone in Eastern Europe. The differences between Orthodox Christians on one hand and both Catholic and Protestant Christians on the other are much greater than those between Catholics and Protestants. This is primarily due to two causes. First, the split between the Orthodox and the Catholics predates that between Catholics and Protestants by nearly five centuries: the former occurred in 1054 and the latter in 1517. Second, democracy has been present in Western and Central Europe much longer than it has in Eastern Europe, so Christian denomination no longer serves as quite the marker for political differences in Western and Central Europe that it does in Eastern Europe.

Ukraine is divided both on religious and national grounds. Western Ukraine is predominantly composed of ethnic Ukrainians who are Catholics; eastern Ukraine is predominantly composed of ethnic Ukrainians who are Orthodox and ethnic Russians. Although it is true that pockets of all three groups exist in both areas. Thus, the majority Catholics in the West are culturally oriented towards their fellow Catholics in Poland and Hungary. Both of these countries are today successful democracies and their populations were on the front lines fighting for freedom during the Cold War. In the East the Orthodox are oriented towards Russia. I want to emphasis that these differences are not due to theological differences between Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism but rather due to cultural orientations. The border between Orthodoxy and Catholicism/Protestantism runs horizontally through Eastern Europe and then vertically through the former Yugoslavia and Ukraine. Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and Croatia are all mainly Catholic or mixed Catholic and Protestant. Bosnia, and Macedonia feature a three-way religious split among Catholics, Orthodox, and Muslims. Albania and Kosovo are predominantly Muslim but have Catholic minorities and even a small Orthodox Serb minority in the case of Kosovo. Greece, Serbia, Romania, Moldova, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Belarus and Russia are Orthodox. Ukraine is divided between Catholics and Orthodox.

So, the big question that those in the European Union and Washington should be asking is "Will Ukraine split on religious lines like Yugoslavia did in the 1990s?" This is hard to answer with any certainty. What is clear is that many Ukrainians do not want to become another Belarus--a satellite of Russia. They do not want a return of Communism or even just Putin's brand of authoritarianism. Ethnic Russians and Orthodox Ukrainians do not seem quite so worried about this prospect.  Journalist Anne Applebaum argues here that the standoff is mainly one of political orientation rather than of ethnicity or religious denomination.

What is also clear is that Ukraine is much closer to Russia than Yugoslavia was and that Washington, Paris and London were unable to keep Ukraine out of the Soviet Union in the early 1920s. Russia was also much weaker in the early 1990s when Yugoslavia broke up than it is today due to rising oil and natural gas prices and a process of consolidation of post-Communist rule under Putin that escaped Yeltsin. The United States is also much weaker now than it was in the 1990s. This is due to over a decade of not very productive warfare in the Greater Middle East. If Ukraine is to be kept out of Moscow's orbit it will be largely up to Brussels to do so. Is Brussels united enough and strong enough to do so? It was not in the case of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, which drove Washington to intervene starting in 1995. Just as Washington has used the time since then to overreach abroad, Europe has used the time to overreach internally by creating a common monetary zone without the proper political infrastructure to back it up. Now the Eurozone is on the edge of collapse financially with division running geographically with southern Europe, France and Ireland in dire financial straits and Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands doing much better.

Here is an article by Stephen F. Cohen in The Nation that basically echoes by analysis while taking the American media to task for not reporting it. I'm not a big fan of Cohen's: in the late 1980s he was an apologist for Gorbachev and quite critical of Yeltsin, because he wanted a more liberal Soviet Union and not an independent democratic Russia.

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