Pew Poll: Ukrainians Remain Tolerant but Fearful in the Face of Russian Aggression

Kyiv, May 23, 2014. Ukraine remains tolerant of various ethnic groups but fearful of potential ethnic conflict, according to a poll conducted in Ukraine by the Pew Research Center, which polled Ukrainian citizens about their views on particular ethnic groups residing in Ukraine. A large majority of Ukrainians have positive views toward ethnic Ukrainians (96 percent), Jews (87 percent), and Russians (84 percent). The results of this poll directly contradict the Kremlin’s rhetoric about violent and racist Ukrainian nationalists targeting ethnic Russians and Jews in Ukraine.

The results of the research demonstrate that Ukraine’s ethnic groups live peacefully, without dislike or hatred between them. Ukrainians’ tolerance of other ethnic groups is evident in all regions of Ukraine, with 60 percent and 81 percent of residents of western and central Ukraine respectively expressing positive views of Russians. Russian-only speakers likewise have largely positive attitudes toward bilingual Russian-Ukrainian speakers (85 percent) and Ukrainian-only speakers (73 percent). These facts weaken the oft-repeated Kremlin rhetoric about an irreparably divided Ukraine, with bitter separations between Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers.

The polls also indicate that despite tolerance of and positive views toward other ethnic and linguistic groups, Ukrainians are increasingly worried about the chances of conflict between different groups within the country. Close to 73 percent of Ukrainian citizens think that ethnic conflict is a significant problem in Ukraine, a drastic increase from the 37 percent of Ukrainians who believed that ethnic tensions were a significant problem in 2009. Certainly, the annexation of Crimea and current Russian-supported separatist unrest in the Donbas region of Ukraine is stoking Ukrainians’ fears of an impending ethnic-based violent conflict. However, despite the Kremlin’s apocalyptic predictions about nationalist Ukrainians from the Galician region allegedly attacking ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers, Ukraine remains a remarkably tolerant country. Interestingly, the fact that such a tolerant country is now incredibly fearful of ethnic conflict likely reflects the Russian government’s interference in Ukrainian affairs and a deliberate campaign of disinformation intended to fuel strife.

The Kremlin’s favorite bogeyman, the Right Sector, which the Russian government claims threatens the lives of Russians and Russian-speakers, is not popular among Ukrainian citizens either in eastern or western Ukraine. Only 19 percent of Ukrainians think that the Right Sector is having a positive influence on Ukraine. In eastern Ukraine only 7 percent of Ukrainians have positive views of the group, while in western Ukraine 34 percent of Ukrainians think positively of the Ukrainian nationalist organization. Regardless of the Right Sector’s ideology and motivations and whether its notoriety is warranted, a large majority of Ukrainians both in the eastern and western regions of the country, whether primarily Russian or Ukrainian speaking, reject ethnic hatred and extremism.

The Pew Research Center’s poll on the status of ethnic and ideological divides in Ukraine only reveal the obvious to anybody who is familiar with the country and its people. This is not to say that there are not political differences within the country, or between various regions of the country. Certainly, legitimate political differences do exist. Almost 60 percent of western Ukrainians approve of the interim government in Kyiv while in eastern Ukraine only 24 percent do. These political differences are not driven by ethnic hatred or desire for separatism, but rather by legitimate political differences that are resolvable through the political process.

Ukrainians have always prided themselves on their tolerance and bilingualism in a diverse nation. Today’s ethnic divides and fears of conflict do not seem to be sown from within, as is demonstrated by tolerance of the country’s citizenry, regardless of ethnicity or language. Rather, it appears that external cynical support for armed separatism is increasing fears of ethnic violence that have no basis in the feelings of actual Ukrainians.

The Pew Research Center’s findings show that Ukrainians are most united in their distrust toward Russia in their country. About 87 percent of western Ukrainians and 58 percent of eastern Ukrainians view Russian influence on Ukraine negatively. It seems that the Kremlin hasn’t accepted that most Ukrainians, regardless of ethnicity, language or region, would rather negotiate their differences through political dialogue, and not under the barrels of Russian guns.