WASHINGTON — A top official at the U.S. State Department was recently heard using an epithet when referring to the European Union because of its indecision over Ukraine. Since then, the protests in Kiev, the capital city, have spiraled out of control, and the government has responded with a brutal crackdown. More than two dozen people were killed, including 10 policemen and a Ukrainian journalist.
In the aftermath of the violence, Vice President Biden spent more than an hour on the phone with Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich, urging him to de-escalate the situation and step aside for a caretaker government until free and fair elections can be held. In the meantime, three foreign ministers from the E.U. are headed to Ukraine to confer with Yanukovich and protest leaders, and no one on the U.S. side is badmouthing their efforts.
Indeed, American officials are relieved to share the burden of a problem that is becoming all too familiar across the globe, a trend toward ethnic secession. Ukraine is the latest and most violent manifestation of people’s inclination to sort by ethnicity, and to break away from a government they don’t accept.
A similar dynamic is underway in another part of the world that is perhaps more familiar to Americans than Ukraine, and that’s Scotland, which votes on September 18 whether to break away from the United Kingdom. Polls show that a third of Scotland’s population of 5.3 million supports independence, a sizeable number but far short of a majority. British Prime Minister David Cameron has warned that a vote to leave the U.K. would forfeit Scotland’s right to continue to use the British pound.
Cameron is playing hard ball because a Scottish vote to secede could set the stage for a vote in 2017 on whether England leaves the E.U. Cameron has promised to hold such a vote if he is reelected next year. These are a lot of ifs, beginning with the uphill fight of Scottish secessionists to build a majority, but voices that support what has been dubbed ethno-nationalism are growing louder and gaining traction.
Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia have been through the process, and Belgium is trying to quell a long history of differences between its Flemish, Dutch-speaking population and the French-speaking Walloons.
In America, we’re proud of the fact that we’re moving toward greater diversity, and bringing more voices into government. But before we get too smug, let’s not forget the Civil War. President Lincoln was willing to go to war to preserve the union. In 1861, the differences between North and South were more cultural than ethnic, but preserving the United States meant an uneasy union between an agrarian, slave-holding South, and an industrial north built on the backs of European immigrants.
Ukraine is a nation of 45 million, and according to polls, their sentiments are pretty evenly divided between Russia and the West. The Eastern part of Ukraine is Russian speaking; the Western part is closer to Poland and would like to align with the E.U. Yanukovich is Russian speaking and when Russian President Putin threatens to cut off natural gas to Ukraine if they move toward the E.U., Yanukovich has to pay attention.
U.S. officials say they abandoned Cold War thinking about “spheres of influence” a long time ago, and they just want what the people of Ukraine want for themselves, that it’s the people’s choice. That sounds good, but the Obama administration isn’t that altruistic. Ukraine is a pawn in a bigger fight: Ukraine moving away from Russia would be a win for Obama and a loss for Putin. What it means for the population is more bloodshed if the diplomats and politicians fail to find agreement.
U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.