President Poroshko. Image Source: Demotix / Oleksandr Ratushniak
Ukraine’s presidential elections last Sunday, 25 May, produced a victor who said that he would take control over the troubled country. Billionaire Petro Poroshenko has promised to sell his chocolate making concern Roshen, to ‘focus on the well-being of the nation.’ Even with the best of intentions, this might be rather difficult.
One third of the voters in Ukraine’s eastern regions were not even aware of the May 25 elections taking place.
Having taken 56% of the vote with 55% voters’ turnover, the new president actually represents slightly more than 30% of Ukraine’s electorate. In the restive Donbas region, only 12% of the voters showed up, while near 2,000 polling sites remained closed. According to the official data, elections did not happen in 23 cities and six regions of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, which, together with the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic had formed a Novorossiya union in the south-east of the country last Saturday. The two regions represent 16% of the total population of Ukraine (without Crimea) and, in an open challenge to both Kyiv and Moscow, have recently voted for independence. One third of the voters in Ukraine’s eastern regions were not even aware of the 25 May elections taking place.
For a country where there are practically no households without a TV set, this may serve as a conspicuous measure of alienation. The main task for the president-elect is therefore clear: to heal the wounds separating Ukraine’s east from the rest of the country; to stop the ongoing civil war in the south-east; and to negotiate with the separatist leaders, for the sake of preserving territorial unity and sovereignty of Ukraine. Can he deliver? What will be his next steps as a leader?
A recipe for disaster
In a recent interview, Mr Poroshenko said that he saw no alternative to the continuation of what the government in Kyiv calls the anti-terrorist operation in the east. This means that the eastern cities blockaded by Ukraine’s National Guard and army units will continue suffering the consequences of the blockade. Ukrainian forces will endure further losses. The killing of 16 troops near the Blahodatne village on May 22 by the pro-Russia separatists is a bad enough omen for the still worse things to come. Of course, the separatists will die, too, creating a new martyrdom cult for those Russian nationalists in Ukraine who will survive.
This is a recipe for disaster. The 2 May killings of the pro-Russian demonstrators in Odessa, and the heavy fighting in Mariupol on Russia’s Victory Day (9 May) have allowed the Donbas separatists to rally scores of undecided around their new flag. Ukraine’s authorities responded by intensifying the anti-terrorist campaign in the east; and this escalation of the conflict has received the full blessing (and material support) of the West.
Russia is still being blamed for everything that happens in Ukraine
The Russian position
Russia is still being blamed for everything that happens in Ukraine; Ukraine’s own Russia-sympathising activists are represented as either criminals paid for by the Kremlin or Moscow’s mindless puppets. At any rate, behind Ukraine’s official, and Ukraine-sympathetic Western presentations, one idea seems to be reigning supreme: if forces loyal to the government in Kyiv were to be successful in killing all the ‘terrorists’ in the east, the rest of the population would fall docile. Presumably, this strategy also posits that a freshly pacified eastern Ukrainian population would then embrace whatever initiatives, aimed at the progressive squeezing of the Russian language and culture from Ukraine’s soil, the new Poroshenko government would offer.
Should we then be surprised that Donbas locals continue to fight?
Should we then be surprised that Donbas locals continue to fight? The Western press has not yet produced a single material fact to confirm that Russian Special Forces are active in Ukraine. The occasional Cossack or Chechen volunteers do not prove the existence of any Russian ‘master plan:’ had those men been sent on Moscow’s orders, it stands to reason they would not identify themselves as Russian citizens when questioned by CNN.
Meanwhile, anti-Russian nationalism in Ukraine is on the rise. Quite unfortunately for the country’s unity, it increasingly targets Ukraine’s own ethnic Russians and Russophones. For a country where Russians constitute close to 20% of the population, and Russophones double that number, any policy except full constitutional accommodation would be ruinous. However, this was not the path chosen after Ukraine’s independence. The monocultural, monolinguistic, assimilationist model was adopted instead.
In the city of Lviv, which used to boast 24 schools with the Russian language of instruction, only 5 remain today
Over the last quarter century, hundreds of Russian schools have been closed in all regions of Ukraine. By the turn of the century, the number of such schools was cut by more than one-third nationally, and to the point of virtual extinction in the country’s western regions. In the city of Lviv, which used to boast 24 schools with Russian language instruction, only five remain today. Not a single Russian school survived in Ivano-Frankivsk, Kyiv, Rivne, Vinnytsia, Volyn, and Ternopil oblasti, where more than 170,000 Russian-speaking Ukrainians lived at the time of the last census. For the Cherkasy, Chernihiv, Chernivtsi and Khmelnytsky regions, with an average population of 1.0m-1.3m each, only one Russian-language school exists per region.
The very first act of legislation after the February 2014 Maidan revolution was to cancel the law that gave non-Ukrainian languages restricted local rights. Although vetoed by interim President Turchynov, the legislation did its damage. Unfortunately, the Maidan politicians did not stop there, and invested significant efforts and resources in the demonisation of both Russia as a country, and Ukraine’s ethnic Russians as Moscow’s ‘fifth column.’
Crushing Donbas separatism by force will only start a guerilla war in Ukraine’s east
President Poroshenko’s first priority must be to normalise Kyiv’s relations with Donetsk and Luhansk, not Moscow. With each new killing, the situation grows worse, while the opposing sides find it more and more difficult to compromise. Only negotiations with whoever controls the situation on the ground can resolve this bitter conflict, not military action, for it is local separatists and not Vladimir Putin or anyone from his entourage who control the situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Crushing Donbas separatism by force will only start a guerilla war in Ukraine’s east, and, judging by all indications, it may eventually grow no less bloody than the one fought by Ukrainian nationalists against the Soviets 70 years ago.
Such a turn of events may still provoke a full-scale military intervention by Russia. While the Kremlin does fear Iran-style sanctions, and does not want to risk everything for yet another stretch of land across the border, events in Ukraine’s ‘Novorossiya’ may quickly snowball and force Putin’s hand even against his better judgment. This should be prevented.
While local opposition to the formal annexation by Russia in Crimea could be foreseen as minimal, it would not be negligible in Donbas
The Kremlin’s strategists are fully aware of the substantial differences between the Crimea and the Donbas regions. While most people in the Crimea were willing to join with Russia in one form or another, most people in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions supported a unified Ukraine not so long ago. While most people in the Crimea define themselves as Russians, most people in Ukraine’s east self-identify as Ukrainians. Moreover, while local opposition to the formal annexation by Russia in Crimea could be foreseen as minimal, it would not be negligible in Donbas. Finally, the punishment that Russia has suffered over Crimea is unpleasant; the sectoral sanctions that would follow the annexation of Donbas would be ruinous.
That is why Putin called on separatists to postpone a controversial move toward self-rule, even though he spoke in vain. The referendum proceeded as planned, with the reported turnout of near 70% (in reality, probably closer to 40% of the registered voters), of which the majority voted for separation. Russia or not Russia, vast numbers of people in the self-proclaimed People’s Republics do not want to be ruled by the authorities that continue treating them as criminals.
President Obama’s vision of ‘Russian-backed separatists seeking “to disenfranchise entire regions”’ is sorely off the mark.
For anyone with an understanding of ethno-political realities in Ukraine, President Obama’s vision of ‘Russian-backed separatists seeking “to disenfranchise entire regions”’ is sorely off the mark. It is not disenfranchisement that Donbas separatists seek but empowerment. They want the voice of Eastern Ukraine to be heard, and count. The profound mistake that the West has made, is still making, is working from the premise that the Ukrainians are one people, and all Ukraine’s troubles have their roots in Moscow. The root of Ukraine’s troubles is in Ukraine. Western Ukrainians and Eastern Ukrainians, Ukrainian-speakers and Russian-speakers in Ukraine are de facto two separate ethnic nations under the umbrella of one state. Ukraine’s problems can only be resolved if these two constituent parts of one political Ukrainian nation are acknowledged as such, and their rights are fully protected – in the East as well as in the West of the country.
The idea that a civil war in Ukraine can only be stopped by moving swiftly to a genuine dialogue between the authorities in Kyiv and supporters of federalisation in Ukraine’s east and south, is finally taking root. Such a dialogue must take place without prejudice or preconditions. It should precede the second round of the four-party talks between the US, Russia, Ukraine and the EU. Further changes to the existing Constitution of Ukraine should be expected to facilitate the centre-east dialogue, and in the implementation of its agreements.
The underlying message of both the Maidan and anti-Maidan movements is simple: Ukraine does not think with one mind.
Whether or not these changes will constitute a federal Ukraine or a unitary state with significant devolution of powers to the regions is less important than the fact that all voices from all regions must be heard. The underlying message of both the Maidan and anti-Maidan movements is simple: Ukraine does not think with one mind, and those who try to force on her geopolitical orientations and values shared by one half of the population, which are rejected by the other half, will sooner or later fail.