Popular Assessments of Ukraine's Relations with Russia and the European Union under Yanukovych

Article excerpt

Absract: Ukraine finds itself in a constant tug of war between the European Union and Russia. This article looks at how the Ukrainian population views its main foreign partners. It finds that opinions are divided along regional and generational lines. Historical factors and the role of the media are key in explaining the content of Ukrainian opinion. Overall, the public would support President Viktor Yanukovych's declared intention to maintain good relations with both sides, though his tilt toward Russia seems to have increased the popularity of closer relations with the EU. Young people (including those in the east) favor ties with Europe, and this preference may ultimately affect Ukrainian foreign relations.

Since the end of the 1950's, scholars have frequently analyzed the role of images, representations and perceived relationships in international relations, (1) In the 1970's, some researchers showed renewed interest in public opinion and its impact on foreign policy, (2) but few have studied this matter in the case of the former Soviet Union. Research works have been hampered notably by the fact that the Soviet populations were largely isolated from the rest of the world. Heavy censorship limited their access to information on international issues and to foreign sources of information. Soviet citizens were unable to travel abroad, and travel within the Soviet Union was highly restricted. Contact between Soviet citizens and citizens of the countries of the Soviet bloc and countries of Western Europe and North America was therefore limited. On the whole, the Soviet citizens' representations of the world were significantly influenced by official Soviet propaganda. In this regard, the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 represents a major turning point: the opening of borders, greater access to information, opportunities to travel abroad, and increased contact with foreigners (tourists, company managers, NGO representatives, journalists, etc.) are among the decisive factors that have contributed to change populations' relationship to the Other and perceptions of the world. 1991 marked the end of isolation and the progressive emergence of a public opinion on international affairs. Public attitudes on this topic are complex, sometimes volatile, and therefore difficult to measure. Nevertheless, it is worth trying to analyze it in the case of the post-Soviet countries.

Obviously, this article cannot be an exhaustive study of the issue, rather it has a more limited goal: it will focus on the case of Ukraine and on Ukrainian society's attitudes to the European Union and Russia since Viktor Yanukovych's election as president in 2010. Drawing on the results of opinion and sociological surveys carried out in Ukraine between 2009 and 2012 by several Ukrainian or foreign institutes or research centers, (3) this article will provide a brief overview of the recent evolution of popular perceptions of Ukraine's relations with Russia and the European Union and of Ukraine's policy toward these two international partners. The first section of this article will show that the population remains deeply divided on foreign policy priorities and particularly on the optimal model of regional integration for Ukraine's future-the European Union or the Customs Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The second section will analyze two of the key factors that may help to better understand why the population does not seem ready to make a clear choice between these two models of integration. It will show the effects that the burden of history and the role of the mass media have on the Ukrainian society's perceptions of the world and on the image of Ukraine's main international partners.

Ukrainian Society's Attitudes toward Russia and the European Union

After his election in February 2010, Viktor Yanukovych announced his intention to establish stable and strong relations with both Western and Russian partners of Ukraine. …