Current events escalating in Crimea clearly highlight the polarization among political leaders and activists in Ukraine. Developments reflect conflicting visions of the country’s diplomatic ties and regional identities, whether as part of the future European Union or else linked to Russia and the legacy of Commonwealth of Independent States.
But how much do the recent events reflect cultural cleavages among ordinary people living in Ukrainian society?
Cross-national survey evidence to examine Ukrainian public opinion is available from the World Values Survey. This study, which now includes more than 90 countries, is a global investigation of socio-cultural and political change. The survey started with the first wave in 1981 and the 6th wave contains surveys from around 60 countries with data gathered from 2010-2014. The World Values Survey (WVS) is a non-profit, academic survey program representing the largest exploration into human values and cultural change around the world.
In 2011, during the period when President Viktor Yanukovych was in power for the Party of Regions, the 6th wave study conducted a representative survey of 1,500 Ukrainians, almost equally divided by the language spoken at home into Russian and Ukrainian speakers. For convenience these are labelled ‘East’ and ‘West’ Ukrainians. For comparison, the World Values Survey also conducted a similar survey of public opinion in the neighboring states of Poland (#966) in 2012 and Russia (#2,500) in 2011.
The comparison allows us to see how far Eastern and Western Ukrainians share similar cultural values with each other on many issues, such as support for democracy or confidence in government, or whether they are closer to the values found in each neighboring state.
Attitudes towards democracy
First, do Ukrainians differ in their attitudes towards democracy? Are Western Ukrainians more enthusiastic for reforms strengthening political rights and civil liberties, while Eastern Ukrainians hanker for the strong state and stability of their authoritarian past?
One way to examine attitudes is through using a 0-10 point scale, where respondents were asked to assess the importance of living in a country which is democratic. Figure 1 illustrates the results showing that there are indeed some modest differences; Western Ukrainians rated the importance of democracy marginally higher than those living in the East. Western Ukrainians are therefore located a bit closer to political attitudes found in Poland, while Eastern Ukrainians express values which are slightly closer to Russian attitudes. But the gaps within Ukraine were extremely modest.
For another measure, people were also asked to use a similar 0-10 point scale to express their satisfaction with the performance of democracy in their own country.
Here Ukrainians in both regions proved somewhat critical of how democracy worked in practice, fairly close to the opinions of most Russians, while by contrast Poles proved more satisfied with how democracy worked.
[Figure 2 about here]
Another way that political attitudes and values can be measured concerns public reactions to statements describing several alternative forms of rule. Respondents were asked in the survey whether they thought it was good or bad to have a strong leader ‘who does not have to bother with parliaments or elections’, a way of tapping into approval of authoritarian rule without mentioning the ‘d’ word.
Here it appears from Figure 2 that Ukrainians overwhelmingly agree with the desire for strong leadership – and in this both Eastern and Western regions are strikingly similar to Russians.
Almost three quarters of Ukrainians and Russians approve of the idea of strong political leadership, perhaps expressing frustration with the process and outcome of elections.
Only citizens in Poland display a stronger commitment to the principles and procedures of liberal democracy by strongly rejecting this form of rule.
Nevertheless public opinion is not wholly clear and consistent; when people were asked whether they approve of having a democratic political system, it appears that public opinion favors this form of government in all the societies under comparison. This pattern is also found elsewhere around the world, where the principles of democracy are widely endorsed, even among citizens living under one party states and authoritarian regimes.
Finally, what about trust and confidence in their government and parliament? Here again there are some modest contrasts between Western and Eastern Ukrainians, following the expected direction. In 2011, those living in Eastern Ukraine expressed slightly more confidence and trust (+8% points) in the government of President Victor Yanukovych (Party of Regions) than those living in Western Ukraine. This reflects the map of votes cast in the January 17th 2010 presidential contest. On the other hand, only around one fifth of Ukrainians expressed ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot of confidence’ in both their government and parliament, compared with far more Russian confidence in President Putin.
Overall what emerges are the striking cultural similarities rather than differences found in political values among the publics living in Eastern and Western Ukraine. On issues such as relatively strong endorsement of democratic values and ideals, and simultaneous lack of satisfaction with the way that democracy works,
Ukrainians in both regions display the typical characteristics of ‘critical citizens’ found in many parts of the world. Similarly the Ukrainians are not alone in the tensions observed between seeking strong leaders and yet also approving of democracy.
And the low confidence in core political institutions is also far from unique to this country.
Admittedly there are some small but important contrasts between Western and Eastern Ukrainians, notably in voting support for the Party of the Regions and in confidence in the government of President Yanukovych. Other explorations of the data suggest that indeed Eastern Ukrainians have more confidence in CIS than those living in the East.
But the political attitudes which are shared among all Ukrainians are far more evident from this comparison than the values which differ.
Not surprisingly, although language divides, there are many other aspects of Ukrainian culture and historical traditions which have been shared over the centuries. Even if the leaders and activists are sharply divided, this evidence suggest that the cultural differences within Ukraine remains fairly modest.
This post was originally published on the Electoral Integrity Project website.
Pippa Norris is Laureate Research Fellow and Professor of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney and McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics, Harvard University. Follow @PippaN15.