As the polls closed during last month’s snap presidential elections in Ukraine, violence broke out in the east of the country. Insurgents took over Donetsk airport and the government responded with airstrikes.
Eastern Ukraine has become a breeding ground for an armed insurgency. And if a comprehensive political settlement isn’t reached soon, Ukraine could descend into outright civil conflict. Western governments should make working with the Ukrainian authorities to pursue such an arrangement their top priority.
Until now, the West has prioritized holding a free and fair presidential election and is now celebrating a mission accomplished. As a senior American official put it, “It was a spectacular day for the people of Ukraine who went out in force to choose a new president and to say to their government and to the world that they want a future that is unified, that is democratic, that is prosperous and that is rooted in Europe.”
Without question, having a legitimate head of state is a positive development — all the more so since the president-elect, the oligarch Petro Poroshenko, won over 50 percent of the vote and therefore avoided a second-round runoff (always divisive in Ukraine) for the first time since 1991.
But Western pronouncements, particularly America’s, have misleadingly portrayed the violence as merely an unfortunate backdrop to otherwise successful elections, not as a symptom of an emerging rupture in the Ukrainian polity that could have profound consequences.
While noting the difficulties of voting in Donetsk and neighboring Lugansk, and praising the “courage and determination” of those who worked the polling stations there, a statement from Secretary of State John Kerry on the election did not even condemn the bloodshed, even though the death count in fierce battles between the Ukrainian military, backed by the newly formed (and poorly trained) National Guard, and armed insurgents had already reached triple digits.
Any government has the right to assert its writ on its own sovereign territory. But this “anti-terrorist operation” is being conducted in regions where the population was already overwhelmingly opposed to the government in Kiev. A mid-April poll found that over 70 percent of the population in both Donetsk and Lugansk consider that government “illegal.” A separate survey indicated that 80 percent believe it does not represent all of Ukraine.
The government’s assault on these regions has almost certainly hardened these views. As the Russian government’s first war in Chechnya or the Turkish government’s campaign against Kurdish separatists demonstrate, counterterrorism missions can be deeply counterproductive when the civilian population has as much or more sympathy for the alleged terrorists than it does for the military doing battle with them.
The Ukrainian government and its Western partners need to focus on three priorities that would do far more to stabilize and unite Ukraine than the recent presidential poll: an end to the “anti-terrorist operation” and a good-faith attempt at a negotiated settlement with separatists in the east; formation of a more inclusive government; and constitutional reform that decentralizes power.
Rather than escalate the assault on the insurgents, thus ensuring more killing of Ukrainians by Ukrainians, the government in Kiev needs to halt it and make a good-faith, high-profile effort at a negotiated solution. The crackdown should resume only if the government can credibly demonstrate to the local population that the separatists refuse to accept a reasonable compromise.
Second, the Ukrainian government must bring regional balance to a government that is currently dominated by representatives from western Ukraine: About two-thirds of ministerial-level and higher portfolios have gone to those regions, which represent only 12 percent of the population. The presidential elections demonstrated that the cabinet is not only regionally skewed, it’s also politically unrepresentative; the far-right Svoboda party, whose leader got less than 2 percent of the vote, has a third of the senior portfolios. Some of these should be allocated to southerners and easterners.
Finally, the constitutional reform package currently being negotiated and debated could transform Ukraine’s diversity into a source of strength. The drafting process must be treated as a top priority by the Ukrainian government and its Western partners. The country desperately needs a decentralized political system so that no Ukrainian feels that his or her way of life is threatened by a change in power in Kiev.
That can only happen through empowering regional governments with direct elections and far greater authority for decision-making on matters other than foreign and defense policy. Unfortunately, the current draft constitutional amendments don’t allow for direct election of governors.
At the same time, the Ukrainian government must avoid policies that aggravate regional divisions. Unfortunately, the United States and the European Union appear poised to assist Kiev in doing precisely that by pushing ahead with Ukraine’s rapid institutional integration into the West.
This agenda continues to be highly divisive in Ukraine. When asked in mid-April about which political and economic orientation — Russia, Europe or both — would be better for the country, Ukrainians were divided: In the west, 82 percent preferred Europe, only 2 percent preferred Russia and 9 percent favored both, while in the east only 16 percent preferred Europe versus 46 percent for Russia and 26 percent for both.
Ukraine’s presidential election was a positive step. But it has not come close to resolving the country’s multifaceted crisis or bridging its deep regional divides. It would be a strategic error for Western policy makers to soft-pedal the other, far more important steps needed to unify Ukraine, or to drive an agenda that pulls it further apart.
Samuel Charap is senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.