Lately, Ukraine has been in the smoldering in the European news sections of (credible) news organizations such as the BBC and France24. The growing conflict there pits President Yanukovych, who abandoned a treaty bringing closer to the European Union, against an opposition movement seeking to topple a (what they perceive to be) totalitarian government. Over the last few days the conflict has grown increasingly violent with 26 deaths reported (including police and protesters). The BBC has dedicated a live updates page to the crisis.
Above and below are two maps you’ll need to understand the underlying social dynamics of the crisis. While it is always dangerous to attribute a complex phenomenon, like violent conflict, to a single factor – the anecdotal analysis here is compelling. Above, we see the percent of Russian speakers who self-identified in the last census (2001). Of the 48 million people counted in that census, 32.5 million (67.5%) identified themselves as Ukrainian speakers. 14.2 million (29.5%) identified themselves as Russian speakers.
As any Geographer will tell you, these populations are unlikely to be distributed evenly across the landscape. we see that the Russian-speaking population is heavily concentrated in the east. In some regions over 50% of the population identified themselves as Russian-speakers. In the city-region of Sevastopol (on the Black Sea) 340,000 of 377,000 people identified as Russian speakers. However, in the west, there are very few Russian speakers.
Now consider the map below of the results for the Presidential election in February 2010. President Yanukovych’s best showing was in areas where large numbers of Russian-speakers lived (the darkest blues). These maps notwithstanding, Ukrainian voters would consider more than the native language of a candidate (Yanukovych grew up speaking Russian) when deciding their ballot.
While Z Geography plans to, eventually, map other demographic and economic variables against these election results – the Russian/non-Russian language divide is notable. The divide highlights one of the important cleavages in Ukrainian political identities – language.
For other great perspectives on Ukrainian geopolitics, I urge you to read Geographic Travels original 2010 post and a more recent January 2014 post highlighting another facet of the conflict.