First published in The National Interest as "Petro Poroshenko's Fatal Flaw" on June 17, 2014. The views expressed here do not reflect those of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.
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."[tag]
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.
How did the newly elected president respond to these demands in his inaugural speech?
On the language issue, Poroshenko reaffirmed the policy that has led to the current breakdown. Citing Article 10 of the Ukrainian constitution, he ignored the problem at its heart, which is that granting official status to only one language, when half the country prefers to speak another language, is discriminatory. Current law interprets Article 10 as allowing Russian speakers the right to use their language only in regions where is it officially designated as native by at least 10 percent of the population. Ukrainian speakers, on the other hand, can insist on the use of Ukrainian throughout the entire country.
To understand the absurdity of this, consider that Russian is, by a wide margin, the language of choice in education, commerce and entertainment. A 2012 study found that over 60 percent of newspapers, 83 percent of journals, 87 percent of books, and 44 percent of television programs in Ukraine are solely in Russian (compared to 28 percent solely in Ukrainian). Russian is also the preferred language on web sites in Ukraine (79 percent), followed by Ukrainian (10.7 percent), then English (10.2 percent). Add to this that only one of the country's ten largest cities (Lviv) is predominantly Ukrainian speaking, and it becomes apparent that any attempt to designate only certain regions as Russian speaking would restrict the rights of Russian speakers.
It has been said that Ukrainian is truly the minority language in Ukraine, and therefore, deserves state support. But state support through incentives for using a language, which almost everyone in Ukraine supports, is very different from the current constitutionally enshrined discrimination. A common-sense solution, adopted by countries with much smaller minority populations, is bilingualism. Without recognition of a citizen's right to use his native language anywhere in his own country, those who choose to speak Russian will inevitably, and legally, be relegated to second-class citizenship.
On the issue of local autonomy, Poroshenko pointedly misstated the meaning and intent of federalism. Federalism is a constitutional framework within which regions can assume greater authority within a single nation-state. By enshrining these regional rights and obligations in the constitution, regions can gain a voice in national government and, most importantly for the Other Ukraine, obtain certain safeguards that protect them from the vagaries of political change in Kiev.
By contrast, extensive administrative and economic decentralization of the kind Poroshenko is talking about is philosophically incompatible with a unitary state (which is precisely why under it, Ukraine has evolved into one of the most-centralized countries in Europe). Pursuing decentralization within this incompatible framework will merely multiply institutional contradictions and frictions.
More importantly, Poroshenko's blanket rejection of federalism sends a message to eastern and southern Ukrainians that their heritage and concerns will never be treated as equal (contrary to what Ukraine's first president, Leonid Kravchuk, solemnly promised in his famous campaign flyer of 1991). Poroshenko seems to believe that, if given true local autonomy, some regions will want to leave Ukraine. Perhaps so, but if the ties that bind them to Ukraine are so weak, then nothing short of brute force will ever succeed in keeping these regions within a unitary Ukrainian state.