by Dr. Kataryna Wolczuk
In 1991 Ukraine emerged as an independent country with strong regional differences. The reconciling of these differences has since represented one of the most profound challenges that Ukraine has faced and failed to address. A lack of effective and systematic efforts to tackle regional diversity has repeatedly presented grave ramifications for Ukraine’s political cohesion and territorial integrity. Rather than diminish, over the last two decades this regional diversity has metamorphosed into a political confrontation, albeit with a changing configuration of parties and elites. As a result, the political contest in today’s Ukraine is still fought along geographical lines, rather than being focused on the problems that plague the country as a whole - such as living standards and corruption - despite their top ranking in public opinion surveys in all its regions.
In political terms, the Ukrainian regions display considerable differences in three respects 1) the interpretation of the role of Russia and Ukrainian nationalism in history; 2) the position of Russian language and culture in post-Soviet Ukraine; and 3) relations with Moscow in post-Soviet times, especially participation in Russia-led integration projects. The process of reconciling these differences has been hampered by their political exploitation by political and economic elites in the country’s East.
The patterns of this exploitation are well rehearsed. Eastern Ukrainian elites, most recently represented by ex-president Yanukovych and the Party of Region, tend to first play the ‘nationalist card’ against any political opponents and, failing that, resort to the ‘separatist scenario’. These tendencies started in the early 1990s, when eastern elites used anti-nationalist rethoric against president Kravchuk to apply pressure on the authorities in Kiev. When subsequently, in the mid-1990s, the eastern Ukrainian elites - represented by Leonid Kuchma - won competition for power and resources on a national level they became less inclined to provoke protest on a regional level.
Then again, when Kuchma’s anointed successor, Yanukovych, faced accusations of electoral fraud in November 2004, the question of separatism and federalism in eastern Ukraine was immediately reopened. During the disputed presidential elections in November 2004, a conference of ‘eastern Ukrainian leaders in Donbas’ called for a referendum on the federalisation of Ukraine. While Yevhen Kushnariov, the head of the presidential administration of the east Ukrainian oblast of Kharkiv, made the most radical statements, the event was actually dominated by political elites from Donetsk, Yanukovych’s native city. The presence of some prominent Russian politicians was also highly significant. The conference attempted to revive the old and vague ideas of autonomy for eastern or south-eastern regions of Ukraine, dating back to the early twentieth century. While claiming the historical legitimacy of the demands, the initiative was a direct response to the electoral protests in Kyiv. Calls for vaguely defined ‘separatism’ were made to counteract the effects of the mass demonstrations in the capital challenging Yanukovych’s victory. This strategy was then successfully replicated by the Party of Regions by focusing on the status of the Russian language during the parliamentary elections in 2006. Yet another conference promoting separatism was organised in the Donbas region in February 2008 after the Party of Regions lost control of the government as a result of the parliamentary elections in 2007. The non-transparent relations between the capital and regions and the unresolved issue of the status of the Russian and Ukrainian languages in Ukraine combined to make the latter into convenient vehicles for political bargaining.
Despite alarmist media coverage in 2004, there were no signs at the time that Ukraine was vulnerable to direct confrontation between supporters of Yushchenko and Yanukovych or that there was mass support for separatism in the East. Even though the electorates differed in their preferences, there was no noticeable support for separation at the popular level. No doubt, people’s expectations of socio-economic welfare and prosperity have since been dashed, but this does not nowadays simply translate into a desire to join Russia, as confirmed by public opinion surveys in March 2014. Incidentally, questions on secession from Ukraine had seemed so irrelevant over the past decade that they had up to then been omitted from public opinion surveys.
The Maidan and the ousting of Yanukovych have triggered yet another wave of vague separatist demands, but this time marked by physical violence and the takeover of government buildings by militants. With Russia’s support for outright separatism in its western neighbour, for the first time centrifugal tendencies have taken on a violent turn. As a result, the regional dimension has acquired a geopolitical dimension too.
So far, the continuation of this political contestation along regional lines is self-sustaining due to a simple logic: the exploiting of regional differences to retain control of national politics. When eastern Ukrainian elites control the key institutions in the capital, presidency, government and parliament, they do support and indeed install a highly centralised system, as was evident during Yanukovych’s stay in power, whether as prime minister (during 2000s) or president (2010-2014). Consequently, when eastern Ukrainian elites are in power, the potential for conflict is rendered dormant.
However, once out of power at the national level, these same Eastern elites begin to propagate centrifugal tendencies, claiming more power to the regions on an ad hoc basis. At the same time, they avoid specifying any clear political programme for decentralisation or federalisation, be they in or out of power, indicating that the primary objective so far has not been to address the ‘regional dimension’ in a transparent and durable way, but to use it for gaining control of the political and economic levers of power at the national level: for many politicians at the regional and local levels, their support for some kind of ‘separatistism’ is underpinned by fears of the disruptive effects of the ‘reformist agenda’ for the highly opaque, clannish and corrupted ways in which regional and local politics have been conducted in Ukraine in general and under the Party of Regions in particular.
The periodical re/de-activations of the autonomist agenda have revealed not only how easily regional differences could be exploited, but also the explicit and long-standing support of Russian politicians for such initiatives. It is not easy to disrupt the cycle by political and judicial means: despite Kyiv’s threats to bring perpetrators to justice for undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity, no court case had previously been initiated against any regional official. Undoubtedly, any prosecution would have been fraught with difficulties and have carried a risk of fuelling further anti-centre sentiments in eastern Ukraine. It is unlikely to be different today, in 2014, although the ongoing prosecution of the presidential candidate from the Party of Regions, Oleg Tsariov, for supporting separatist tendencies may indicate a greater determination this time around.
Regional differences in Ukraine cannot be negated. But they can be downplayed or amplified, as observed by Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak. The differences were clearly downplayed during the 1999 presidential elections, when both western and eastern Ukraine voted for Leonid Kuchma. In contrast, the differences were amplified during the 1994 and 2004 presidential elections; spring of 2014 is witnessing the most disruptive episode of amplification – this time with Russia’s active involvement in fuelling separatist tendencies and violence.
Thus, the latest developments indicate that it is high time for Ukraine to diffuse the ‘regional dimension’ of its explosive potential and prevent the ‘failed state’ scenario favoured by Russia. This is best achieved through systematic and comprehensive decentralisation - including devolution of budgetary resources - aimed at removing regional concerns from a bargaining process complicated by high geopolitical stakes. There is no shortage of outstanding Ukrainian and international experts with a deep understanding of the flaws within the current system. What is needed is sufficient political will and determination to, at last, break this apparently never-ending, highly disruptive cycle of centrifugal tendencies.