First published in the Moscow Times on March 19, 2014.
It is all too easy to interpret the results of the Crimean referendum as a rejection of Ukraine. Given the large voter turnout, it appears that the vast majority of ethnic Russians, ethnic Ukrainians, and even Crimean Tatars voted for secession. But it is probably more appropriate to view it as a rejection of the current government in Kiev, which Crimeans of all stripes view as having been imposed illegitimately by the Maidan.
Their response is the product of fear and anger. Fear of the ultimate intentions of those whom they deem usurpers and what they might do with the unchecked power they now wield, and anger at the betrayal by the previous government, led by Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, which has left them at the mercy of these people.
This fear has become so outsized throughout the East and South of the country, that crowds in major cities have even gone so far as to storm government buildings and raise the Russian flag over them. For them this flag has become a symbol of a cultural and emotional allegiance they will not relinquish. For now, at least, most of these people are not asking to leave Ukraine, but they are demanding that their voices be heard.
The most urgent task of the government in Kiev is therefore to calm their fears and take steps to promote national unity. Here are a few of the most obvious:
(1) It should publicly embrace the idea of federalism. It needs to get ahead of this rising issue so that it can be guided into a productive and civil discussion.
(2) To build credibility with people in the East and South, it should invite some of the more popular and competent governors, that it removed simply because they were holdovers from the last administration, to join the national government. It should also stop saying that it intends to replace 90 percent of local officials, which simply breeds chaos.
(3) It should take the important symbolic step of making Russian Ukraine's second official language. No other single gesture will do more to calm tensions in the East and South. Speaker/Acting Oleksandr Turchynov coyly sidestepped the issue by refusing to sign the inflammatory repeal of the 2012 language law and putting the issue in abeyance until a parliamentary commission comes up with new proposals. This legal limbo, however, has only heightened people's anxiety. It is time to accept the reality that Ukraine is bilingual.
(4) It should create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission , tasked with providing a comprehensive assessment of how the peaceful protests on the Maidan degenerated into lawlessness and violence. There are two vastly different narratives about how and why this happened, and both sides must be heard. If composed of individuals seen as truly independent, the process could do much to promote the healing that Ukraine so badly needs.
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