Petro Poroshenko's Fatal Flaw

Ukraine's new president has a big problem—he is still ignoring many of the needs and aspirations of eastern Ukraine. 

ODESSA–Despite the election of a successor to President Yanukovych, the regime change that took place on February 22, 2014 continues to haunt Ukrainians. To this day, some argue that Yanukovych’s ouster was a popular uprising, while others say it was simply an illegal coup.

In their struggle for power, both camps undermined the legitimacy of governmental authority whenever it served their interests to do so. In January, supporters of the Maidan movement in western Ukraine rebelled against central authorities in Kiev. They occupied government buildings, terrorized the officials appointed by Kiev, and demanded that local security forces swear allegiance to regional “people’s governments.”

After Yanukovych’s removal, it became the turn of the opponents of the Maidan. Local representatives from the east and the south convened in Kharkov and assumed all political authority until “legitimate political authority” in Kiev was restored. The Crimean delegation took the lead, seeing an opportunity to restore the autonomy that Kiev had largely taken away from them in 1998. But when the interim government in Kiev told them they could not hold a referendum on autonomy within Ukraine, and tried to replace those in charge of local security forces, the Crimean parliament declared independence and changed the wording of the referendum—altering the language from “staying within Ukraine” to “joining Russia.”

The Donbass followed a similar scenario. In March, local authorities in Lugansk asked Kiev to ensure the rights of Russian speakers and disarm its militias. When the interim government ignored these requests, those most impatient and distrustful of Kiev occupied government buildings in Donetsk, Lugansk and Kharkov, and organized a referendum on creating local republics that stopped short of asking to join Russia. In many areas in the region, a majority of those who voted were overwhelmingly in favor of regional sovereignty.

Even at this point, had Kiev been willing to discuss regional sovereignty within Ukraine, perhaps an accommodation that avoided bloodshed might have been reached. Instead, the interim government responded with an “antiterrorist operation” that has produced streams of refugees, but few successes. When President Poroshenko made it known that he intended to visit Donetsk to propose his peace plan, Kiev’s appointed governor for the region, Sergei Taruta, warned that for his own safety, he should not make plans to come any time soon.

But Poroshenko’s inauguration speech, which was widely touted as a road map to peace, suffers from a fatal flaw—he is still ignoring the eight predominantly Russian-speaking regions of the country—the Other Ukraine, as I call it. Instead, he is still talking to the supporters of the Maidan, located mainly in western and central Ukraine, telling them what they want to hear: that all of Ukraine’s problems come from Russia; that eastern and southern Ukrainians are the dupes of Russian propaganda; and that the Ukrainian armed forces are on the verge of mopping up the last handful of terrorists, after which the country will “live a new life” unified and prosperous. No doubt this is what most Western governments want to hear as well.

Unfortunately, these are mostly comforting fictions. While some volunteers and supplies appear to be crossing the porous border from Russia, most local Ukrainian military commanders and journalists acknowledge that the vast majority of insurgents are untrained locals who have staunch support among the population. As one Ukrainian fighter remarked to a reporter of the Sunday Times of London, “We are behind enemy lines here; everyone is against us: the police, the army, the people . . . We trust no one."

With its military campaign, the government has shown that it is willing to fight for territory, but is it also willing to fight for the loyalty of the people living on that territory? From day one, activists in the Other Ukraine have made it clear that they want just two things. First, constitutional guarantees that their culture, language and religion will be respected in their own country. Second, regional autonomy, which they often call federalism, so that whatever political upheavals may occur in the future cannot negate those rights. Both demands can be summed up in one phrase—limiting the impact of the next Maidan. This point is crucial because the last two Maidans overthrew national governments that people in the Other Ukraine thought they had legitimately elected.

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