Futa Ito: Does Ukraine Need a “National” Identity?

Futa Ito is a student in the Russian and European Studies Master’s Programme in International Relations, University of Tampere.

This response paper summarizes, discusses, and evaluates an article “A Divided Nation? Reconsidering the Role of Identity Politics in the Ukraine Crisis” which was written by Tatiana Zhurzhenko and published in 2014. After summarizing the article, I will evaluate it by outlining its strength and weaknesses, and conclude by arguing that in order to build a well-functioning state, Ukrainians should fully appreciate the diversified culture and history of the country.

The author’s central argument is that the Ukraine crisis occurred mainly because the country has failed to establish a strong national identity, and its identity has been misused and manipulated for identity politics by internal actors (politicians in Ukraine) and external actors (Russia).

As a consequence, Zhurzhenko argues, the Ukrainian identity has been reified, crystalized, and polarized between pro-West and pro-Russia, and people have come to perceive Ukraine as a hopelessly divided nation. Yet, back in 1991 the country managed its independence with its weak, fluid and ambiguous national identity.

Zhurzhenko concludes the article by arguing that Ukraine is having an ever-greater chance of building a strong national identity precisely because of this crisis, but constructing one doesn’t necessarily lead to a reconciliation and unification between divided groups and bring stability to the region, but could polarize the country even further.

To some extent the author is successful in making me feel that identity as a political tool (or category of practice) has an important role in understanding the crisis, it seems that there are three shortcomings on the article.

First, the author might confuse readers with what she means by the term ‘identity’. As the term is significantly rich in its meanings, the author could have broken it down with clear definitions, for example ethnic identity, civic identity and value-based identity.

Second, contrary to the author’s strong focus on the Russian propaganda through media, education, and culture, western “propaganda” in Ukraine was significantly ignored in the article. Whether intentionally or not, I believe that the European Union (the EU) and the United States as external stakeholders have also influenced on identity building in Ukraine.

Third, in my opinion, the article should have put more quantitative research in order to better include Ukrainian people’s opinions on the issue so that the paper could have more credibility in its argumentation.

While I agree with the author that approaches of balancing and engaging internally and externally are required for Ukraine, I strongly doubt that a national identity is necessary in the first place, especially in this globalized world, in order for Ukraine to be a well-functioning state, to stabilize, and to achieve such long-awaited goals as better safety situation, stronger economy and more accountable and responsible government.

Ukrainians could accomplish these objectives not by unifying and building the solid national identity, but by maintaining its ambiguity and appreciating its diversified culture and history between East and West. I believe that the most important matter does not lie in how Ukraine can make a strong national identity, but rather lies in how Ukraine manages to be an inclusive and tolerant country.

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