Protesters in Lviv Raise the Stakes in Ukraine's Crisis
As the standoff in Independence Square continues in Kiev, the western part of Ukraine has added a more serious element to the country's internal struggle. On Wednesday, several administration buildings were taken over by protesters in the west, including in Khmelnytskyi, Ivano-Frankivsk, Uzhhorod and Ternopil. Meanwhile, demonstrators from an opposition group called People's Rada in Lviv, the largest and most important city in the west, said on Wednesday that they want to declare independence from Ukraine.
Though the declaration may be little more than symbolic, it presents an important new dynamic to the political evolution in Ukraine and also underscores Lviv's traditional significance to the country. Indeed, Lviv's history — both as a hub for national movements and for its distinction from the eastern part of the country as a truly European city — has been crucial in the history of Ukraine. But Lviv's own evolution is a complicated one influenced by numerous powers, all of which play a large part in shaping Lviv's opposition to the government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and its latest attempt to break free of this rule.
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Lviv was, from the 16th to the 18th century, part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, when it was known as Lwow. The partition of the commonwealth at the end of the 18th century placed it under the control of Habsburg Austria, and the city was then referred to as Lemberg. Following World War I, it went back to Poland, then the Soviets took over after World War II and renamed it Lvov. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine became an independent state, giving the city its current name of Lviv.
This dizzying complexity of political shifts, name changes and accompanying cultural influences is reflected throughout the city and can been seen in several key landmarks in central Lviv. The Lviv Opera House, set in a Baroque and neo-Renaissance style and ornately decorated with Corinthian columns and figures of muses atop a triangular roof, was built by the Austrians. Opposite the opera house is a monument to Adam Mickiewicz, the 19th century poet who wrote in Polish and is equally celebrated in Poland. Nearby is another monument — this one a large, daunting statue of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine's foremost literary hero.
Shevchenko not only made Ukrainian into a literary language (before his time, it was mainly used by rural peasants), he also was a staunch nationalist, and his poems created a strong sense of national identity in Ukraine where little existed beforehand. It was in Lviv — not Kiev — that Ukraine's national movement was strongest, both in its emergence in the late 19th century and during the final years of the Soviet Union that produced Ukrainian independence in 1991. Now it is in Lviv where opposition to Yanukovich — who hails from the eastern Donbass region, which is politically and culturally at odds with western Ukraine — is strongest.
It is not only in the city's monuments where such cultural influences are felt. Littered throughout central Lviv are numerous small and charming cafes that can easily be confused for those in Vienna. Small art galleries abound in the city, as well as niche museums like the pub museum, postal museum and museum of the history of religion. The outdoor book market in front of the regal Dormition Church reminds one of Paris (in fact, Lviv is nicknamed "The Little Paris of Ukraine"), and certain parts of the city have a colorful, bohemian air akin to that of Krakow. It is such features that give Lviv a varied — though distinctly European — cultural feel.
In Lviv's Vysokyi Zamok Park lies a hill whose top is a lookout point over the entire city. The panoramic view shows the beautiful classical architecture of the city center, but it also reveals the bleak Soviet-style apartment blocks and factories on the city's outskirts. Lviv, in the far west of Ukraine, was able to avoid Soviet rule longer than any other part of the country, but it eventually succumbed after World War II. While the Soviet architecture seen throughout most of Ukraine's large eastern cities is noticeably absent in central Lviv, the view shows the city was not able to escape this fate completely.
Due to its history and location, the city now fiercely guards its Ukrainian culture and European heritage, which set it apart from other parts of Ukraine. Questions asked in Russian are answered in Ukrainian. Ukrainian flags are prevalent across the city, including a large one from the park's vantage point (seemingly as a reminder of who is in control now). Lviv is the most Ukrainian of Ukraine's big cities and the most supportive of Ukraine's integration with the European Union.
This is where influences from the West — Poland, Austria and Europe in general — are the strongest and influence from Russia is the weakest. And Wednesday's events show that the ties that bind Lviv to the rest of Ukraine — or at least those parts supportive of Yanukovich — are rapidly thinning. If these political forces manage to consolidate control in the western periphery with European support, Lviv will have drawn a red line that Kiev's backers in Russia will not be able to ignore.