KYIV - Ukraine's parliamentary election campaign has deepened the country's already sharp divide between its pro-European western regions and the pro-Russian east, harming efforts to create a single national identity for this ex-Soviet republic, political experts said Thursday.

They accused political parties of playing up the split in order to court voters before the March 26 election, and cautioned that it was a risky move.

The divisions are "becoming even more threatening, even more serious," said Yuriy Yakymenko, a political analyst with Kiev's Razumkov think-tank.

Different parts of Ukraine fell under different empires throughout the land's history, causing a historical and linguistic divide that has remained since independence in 1991, experts said. The Russian-speaking East continues to look toward Moscow, while the Ukrainian-speaking West dreams of shaking off Russian influence and joining the European Union.

The differences were thrust into the spotlight during the bitterly contested 2004 presidential election. The Orange Revolution protests, which broke out after the fraud-marred vote, were fueled mostly by Ukrainians from western and central regions. The industrial east and the Crimea overwhelmingly supported Yushchenko's Kremlin-backed rival, Viktor Yanukovych.

Next week's parliamentary elections pit the same main political players against each other. Opinion polls predict Yanukovych's party will be the biggest vote getter, but that no party will win a majority. Some analysts have said the most likely scenario is a grand coalition between Yushchenko and Yanukovych.

Supporters say that could help unite the country; critics say it would return power to many people that the Orange Revolution leaders had pledged to jail. Both sides would find it a hard sell to their supporters.
Pollsters said that many Ukrainians report feeling more in common with people across the border either to the east in Russia or the west in Poland than they do with their own compatriots across the country. By focusing on issues such as language and Ukraine's geopolitical direction, politicians are deepening the animosity, said analyst Valeriy Khmelko.
"There is almost an idea of 'this is my guy' and 'this is my enemy,'" Yakymenko said.

Yanukovych's Party of the Regions and a number of smaller parties have called for making Russian a second state language, something that is strongly opposed by Yushchenko and his former Orange Revolution allies. Pollsters said the debate divides right down geographical lines.

According to analyst Valeriy Khmelko, 98 percent of western Ukrainians will always prefer to speak Ukrainian, compared with only 5 percent of eastern Ukrainians.

"I wouldn't like to see the language of our fathers and ancestors disappear in my lifetime or yours," Yushchenko told students in the eastern city of Kharkiv on Friday, according to the Unian news agency. "Who are we? Ukraine or Little Russia? We must know and respect the Ukrainian language - that's our first commandment."

Analysts said that some of the division is linked to ethnicity, but much of it is cultural - and some of it is influenced from across the border.

"Russian intellectuals and society are still crying about their lost empire," said Yuriy Ruban, director of the National Institute of Strategic Investigations. "And look at what kind of productions they are broadcasting into Ukraine, what myths they are imposing on us."

Russia broadcasts news programs in Ukraine. In the run-up to the election, the broadcasts have suggested overtly that the Ukrainian government is not acting in the interests of its own people and is trying to distance them from their Slavic brothers, the Russians.

The experts said there was some room for encouragement. Some 76 percent ofUkrainians describe themselves as patriots, Yakymenko said.
By Mara D. Bellaby, AP Worldstream


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