The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ukrainians are fighting in the streets over a new constitution

<br/> Smoke rises from the parliament building in Kiev as activists from radical Ukrainian parties, including the nationalist Svoboda, clash with police. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images)

Clashes between protesters and police in the Ukrainian capital on Monday were the worst since President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February 2014 and a new government was installed. One National Guard officer was killed when a grenade exploded near parliament. The protest was organized by nationalists opposed to planned constitutional changes that would give more autonomy to the regions in eastern Ukraine now controlled by Russian-backed separatists.

The Interior Ministry said more than 120 people were hospitalized, most of them police officers, but also a French reporter and several Ukrainian journalists. About 30 people were arrested, including the suspected grenade thrower.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk condemned the violence, saying the right-wing protesters were “worse” than the separatists because they were destroying the country from within “under the guise of patriotism.”

The 450-seat parliament approved the proposal by President Petro Poroshenko, with 265 lawmakers voting in favor. But three parties from the government coalition voted against it, and Poroshenko will need at least 300 votes to prevail in the second reading.

In an address to the nation, the president blamed the clashes on nationalistic forces, calling their actions a “stab in the back” and “anti-Ukrainian." He said Ukraine would lose the support of its Western allies if the constitutional changes were not approved. “There would have been a real possibility of us being left alone with the aggressor,” he said. His opponents in parliament consider the proposal a concession to Russia.

“This is not a road to peace and not a road to decentralization,” said former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the leader of the Fatherland party. “This is the diametrically opposite process, which will lead to the loss of new territories.”

[The Ukraine crisis]

Under the proposed changes, the governors of those Ukrainian regions who are currently appointed by the president will be replaced by prefects who will be nominated by the government and appointed by the president. Power would shift from governors and the central government to elected regional councils.

Many opponents of Poroshenko's proposal say they support the idea of decentralization but not in the form envisioned by him.The most controversial measure has to do with “a special order of governance” granted to parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions now controlled by separatists. Under an amendment, this "special order of governance" would be enshrined in the constitution. The details would be determined by a separate law.

The measure — which would give those regions more self-governance rights, including forming their own police — was approved by parliament last year. But it can go into effect only after elections in those regions, which are to be conducted according to Ukrainian laws by Ukrainian authorities, under international oversight. The separatists, however, are planning their own elections in October. This suggests that the measure is unlikely to be implemented in the near future.

The separatists have rejected the proposed reform, deeming it insufficient. They demand that they be included in the discussion of the draft, and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that it  doesn’t comply with the Minsk cease-fire agreement because the separatists were not consulted.

Opponents in Kiev, on the other hand, objected to European pressure when the proposal came up for a vote in July. Changes in the draft concerning the Donetsk and Luhansk regions were made the night before the voting occurred and after the speaker of parliament, Volodymyr Hroysman, talked on the phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande. Merkel and Hollande told Hroysman that they “would welcome” it if “political parties would unite on proceeding forward with the constitutional reform,” a statement of the German government read.

“The amendment appeared after the conversation with Merkel and Hollande,” Oksana Syroid, the deputy speaker of parliament from the Self-Reliance party, who voted against the reform, told The Washington Post. She said the discussion of the amendment in parliament was “poor and manipulated.” She said she appreciates the position of Ukraine's Western allies but said their help shouldn’t interfere with the nation's sovereignty. “The constitutional reform is not the subject of debate with other countries,” she said.

[Maps: How Ukraine became Ukraine]

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was in parliament during the July vote and welcomed the measures. A Ukrainian deputy, Leonid Emets, from Tymoshenko's party, claimed that Nuland met the deputies before the voting and tried to persuade them that the reform would demonstrate Ukraine's will to stick to the Minsk agreement.

Decentralization of power and constitutional changes are part of the Minsk agreement negotiated with the help of Germany and France in February. The agreement also includes the withdrawal of foreign (Russian) troops from Ukrainian territory and Ukraine's regaining control of its borders, neither of which has happened. The opponents of the constitutional changes fear that Moscow would exploit the measures without fulfilling its end of the agreement — and that this would give Russia influence over Ukrainian policies through the separatist-controlled territories. “Russia started the war to force the change of the constitution, so this reform is also a part of the war,” Syroid says.

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