Is Yushchenko’s Top Aide Backing Ruthenian Separatist Movement?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 212

The leaders of Subcarpathian Ruthenians (pidkarpatski rusyny) have urged Kyiv to grant autonomous status to their native area, Ukraine’s westernmost Transcarpathian Region. There was no official reaction from the Ukrainian government, but several parties accused them of separatism; and a criminal investigation has been launched. Ukrainian nationalist parties see Moscow’s hand behind the Ruthenian movement. The party of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko suspects Viktor Baloha, the head of President Viktor Yushchenko’s secretariat and a native of the Transcarpathian Region, of supporting this movement.

Although Ruthenians are recognized as a separate ethnic group in neighboring countries such as Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland, Kyiv does not recognize them. Ukrainian nationalists, who see Ukraine as a monocultural and monolingual nation-state, dismiss Ruthenians as nothing more than an old name for Ukrainians. Only slightly more than 10,000 of Transcarpathia’s more than one million residents identified themselves as Ruthenians in the last Ukrainian census in 2001. Ruthenian movement leaders claim that some 800,000 Ruthenians reside in Transcarpathia.

Ruthenia was granted an autonomous status within Czechoslovakia in 1938. After Hitler divided Czechoslovakia, the region briefly became an independent Carpatho-Ukraine. It was then occupied by Hungary, and Stalin annexed it to Soviet Ukraine during World War II. The majority of Transcarpathians voted for the region’s autonomous status within Ukraine in a referendum in 1991, but the Ukrainian constitution of 1996 granted autonomous status only to Crimea. The leaders of the Ruthenians insist that Transcarpathia’s autonomy should be restored and based on Ruthenian identity.

On October 25 in the Transcarpathian Region of Mukacheve, 109 delegates gathered together at the Second European Congress of Subcarpathian Ruthenians where they adopted a memorandum calling for the restoration of Ruthenian autonomy. According to the memorandum, if Kyiv refuses to negotiate with the movement’s leaders to restore the Ruthenian autonomy of 1938, the autonomy will be restored unilaterally as of December 1, 2008. The Reverend Dimitri Sidor, the leader of the soim, Ruthenia’s unrecognized assembly, addressed the gathering, denouncing what he described as discrimination against Ruthenians in both the Soviet Union and independent Ukraine. The gathering made loud statements such as warnings against “occupation” of Transcarpathia by “the [Ukrainian] nationalist terrorist organizations” (Kommersant Ukraine, October 27). Also, an “interim Ruthenian government” was appointed (, October 27).

Ukrainian nationalists promptly accused the Ruthenian leaders of separatism and Moscow of backing the gathering in Mukacheve. Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party (NU) issued a statement saying that “anti-Ukrainian provocations in Crimea, Donbass, Transcarpathia, and other regions of Ukraine have been the links of one chain aimed at destabilizing Ukraine” (Ukrainska Pravda, October 27). The radical nationalist Freedom party urged prosecution of the organizers of the Mukacheve gathering. According to Freedom, “a well-developed network of agents provocateurs” managed “directly from the Kremlin” was behind the gathering. “Transcarpathia and Crimea are the weak spots exploited by the Kremlin in order to subjugate Ukraine,” Freedom said in a statement (UNIAN, October 27).

Certain links to Russia would be hard to deny. The Mukacheve gathering was reportedly guarded by youngsters from Rodina, a pro-Moscow group, who arrived in Mukacheve from southern Ukraine. Sidor is a priest of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, and while the Ukrainian mainstream media tend to ignore him, he is often interviewed by Russian journalists (, October 28; Zerkalo Nedeli, November 1).

Prosecutors in the Transcarpathian Region have launched a criminal case against the Reverend Sidor and another leader of the Ruthenian movement, Transcarpathian council deputy Yevhen Zhupan, suspecting them of encroaching on Ukraine’s territorial integrity (Ukrainski Novyny, October 30). Questioned by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), Sidor and Zhupan denied the accusations (Kommersant-Ukraine, October 30). Sidor also denied the statement by the Bloc of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (BYT) that Baloha was behind the Ruthenian movement (Ukrainska Pravda, October 27).

Tymoshenko’s allies, who apparently hold Baloha responsible for her rift with Yushchenko, are pointing at Baloha. Oleksandr Solontay, a Transcarpathian council deputy representing the BYT, said that the Ruthenian movement had been revived after the 2006 election, when Baloha’s allies formed a majority in the council. (, October 28). In March 2007 the Transcarpathian council voted 71 to 8 in favor of recognizing Ruthenian ethnicity, which was not officially recognized nationwide.

Hennady Moskal, a former governor of Transcarpathia and one of the leaders of the People’s Self-Defense group led by Interior Minister Yury Lutsenko, suggested that Baloha may be using the Ruthenian issue as a bargaining chip in talks on his own political future. Moskal recalled that the Mukacheve gathering coincided with rumors of Baloha’s imminent dismissal (Ukrainska Pravda, October 27). Zerkalo Nedeli, an influential weekly that also dislikes Baloha, noted that preparations for the Ruthenian gathering were launched when the NU refused to forge an alliance with Baloha’s United Center party for the forthcoming early parliamentary election (Zerkalo Nedeli, November 1).