A number of recent public opinion polls in Ukraine reveal that regional differences toward Russia after the war in Georgia remain a factor but are not as extreme as some media reports present them to be.
A poll conducted from 19 to 22 August by the Taylor Nelson Sofrez Ukraine agency for the newspaper Zerkalo Tyzhnia showed that in the conflict in the Caucasus Ukrainian public opinion is divided between support for Georgia and for Russia. The poll questioned 1,200 people and has an error margin of not more than 3 percent (Zerkalo Tyzhnia, August 29, 2008).
Of those polled 44.3 percent replied that Russia’s actions in Georgia were “an act of aggression against an independent state,” while 41.4 percent believed it was a Russian “peacekeeping operation”; 14.3 percent did not know or could not answer the question.
Furthermore, a majority of Ukrainians (57.4 percent) believe that Russia’s “emotional reaction” to Georgian “provocations” was unjustified: 61.5 percent in Central Ukraine hold this view, 60 percent in Kyiv, 58 percent in the western regions, 56.3 percent in the east, and 53.5 percent in the south.
Russia is perceived as the aggressor in the conflict by 72.9 percent of western Ukrainians, 62.5 percent by respondents in the Kyiv region and by 58 percent of the residents of central Ukraine. In the southern regions 67.1 percent believed that Russia’s role was that of a peacekeeper while in the Eastern regions, 52.2 percent shared this view.
Only 26.3 percent of respondents believed that Russia used its armed forces to prevent Georgia from joining NATO.
Significantly, 60 percent of those polled in the 18 and 19 year-old age group believed that Russia was the aggressor while 52.3 of those over 60 years old believed in the “peacekeeping mission” of the Russian army.
Despite the views by the younger (18-19 year-old) respondents that Russia was the aggressor in Georgia, when asked about Ukrainian membership in NATO, only 23.7 percent in this age group agreed that Ukraine should join the alliance. Overall, 63 percent of those polled by Taylor Nelson were opposed to Ukraine joining NATO. Only 3.3 percent were undecided. Some 65 percent of NATO opponents were 60 or more years old (Zerkalo Tyzhnia, August 29).
When asked about the mission of the Russian Black Sea Feet in Ukraine, 44.1 percent replied that they were convinced that it played a role of guaranteeing peace and stability in Ukraine. Interestingly enough, this view is shared not only by those 60 years old and over (48.8 percent) but also by those 18-19 years old–47.4 percent. Some 33.5 percent of respondents in the traditionally anti-Russian western regions of the country shared this view.
Different views about the Russian Black Sea Fleet were, however, revealed in a public opinion poll conducted by the Ukrainian-based Institute for Strategic Research from August 21 to 26. Almost half of the respondents (48.9 percent) supported the removal of the Russian fleet from Ukrainian territory in 2017, the year the lease expires, while 32.7 percent of respondents disagreed with this view.
According to this poll, 73.1 percent agree that Ukraine should not return the Crimean port city of Sevastopol or the Crimean peninsula to Russia (www.ia-centr.ru/publications/2163/).
The Institute for Strategic Research poll asked the following question: “The Russian leadership has put forward the condition that in order for Russia to have good neighborly relations with Ukraine, Ukraine must renounce its intent to join NATO. What do you think, should Ukraine agree to this?” While 45.4 percent supported renouncing the goal of NATO membership, 33.6 percent replied negatively and 21 percent were unable to answer.
A third poll conducted by the Razumkov Sociological Center in Kyiv found that the majority of Ukrainians believed that the use of force in Georgia by both Russia and Georgia was illegal. Only 10.3 percent of those polled felt that the use of force by Georgia was legitimate while 60.5 percent did not (Ukrayinska Pravda, September 2).
The Taylor Nelson survey found that 47 percent of those questioned believed that an armed conflict with Russia was possible while 42 percent replied that such a scenario was not only possible, but probable. Unexpectedly, 44 percent of respondents in eastern Ukraine shared this view. The majority of younger Ukrainians believe that a war with Russia is possible while 60 percent of senior citizens aged 60 or over rejected this possibility.
When asked about the need to increase military preparedness in Ukraine, 37.9 percent (including 32.8 percent in eastern regions) were categorically for increasing the defense budget. A further 18.5 percent replied that they were “more for than against” greater defense spending (Zerkalo Tyzhnia, August 29).
The results of these polls would seem to indicate that the President of Ukraine, a firm advocate of Ukrainian membership in NATO and a strong supporter of Georgia, and the opposition Party of Regions are both out of touch with the views of the majority of the population. Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych’s call to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia will most likely be rejected by his core base of supporters in the eastern and southern regions while Yushchenko’s call for Ukrainian membership in NATO has not gained any support after the Russian-Georgian war.
Only the Yulia Tymoshenko bloc has benefited from recent events by refusing to endorse the president’s pro-Georgian stance and limiting itself to statements supporting Georgian territorial integrity and by taking a neutral view of future membership in NATO.
The greatest loser in the eyes of the Ukrainian public appears to be the Russian leadership, which failed to win overwhelming support from the allegedly “pro-Russian” eastern and southern regions of Ukraine for its actions in Georgia. And while the Putin-Medvedev policy appeals to elderly Ukrainians, many of whom might be nostalgic for the Soviet Union; younger Ukrainians by and large condemn the Kremlin’s aggressive actions as well as NATO membership. Apparently the up-and-coming Ukrainian elite will opt for neutrality for their country, while increasing efforts to join the EU, which is not seen as a traditional enemy but as a path to prosperity.