KIEV, Ukraine — First, Russia took over a chunk of their country. Now, to the astonishment of many Ukrainians, Moscow is telling them how to run the rest of their nation. The lectures do not sit well here.
Russia has been insisting that Ukraine adopt a federal form of government that would give regions nearly boundless authority. It’s a means to make the regions vulnerable to Russian interference, Ukrainians say, and eventually tear the country apart. And, they point out, Russia would never tolerate such a system itself.
“The issue of federalization is absolutely artificial,” said Yuriy Yakymenko, a political expert at the Razumkov think tank in Kiev. “It’s part of Russia’s plan to impose control over Ukraine and prevent it from integrating with Europe.”
Overall, 14 percent of Ukrainians support federalization, according to a poll released Saturday by the International Republican Institute, a U.S.-financed organization that supports democracy. Federalization was more popular in the south, 22 percent, and the east, 26 percent.
The poll, which included Crimea, was carried out from March 14 to 26 as Crimea was being annexed by Russia. The results contradict the assertions Russia has made to justify its annexation of Crimea and its threats to intervene in eastern Ukraine, instead finding widespread opposition to Russian incursion and a growing preference for ties to Europe rather than Russia.
Ukraine definitely needs decentralization, said Oleksiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Cities and villages want real self-government, he said. But federalization?
“This is an idea developed by the Kremlin,” he said, “as a tool to divide Ukraine and play one region against the other.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, however, was adamant when he explained the plan in a television interview in Moscow several days ago, saying federalization would give each region of Ukraine authority over its own “economics, finance, culture, language, education, foreign economy and cultural ties with neighboring countries or regions.”
He described recent events in Ukraine, where three months of demonstrations for good government resulted in the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing the country, as “the result of a deep crisis of national identity” caused by the inability to reconcile the interests of the various regions.
“Things cannot keep going on in this way,” Lavrov said. “We are convinced that deep constitutional reform is required. Frankly speaking, we do not see any other way for sustainable development of the Ukrainian state other than a federal state.”
A clearly irritated Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a rejoinder last week. “Instead of dictating its ultimatum-like terms to a sovereign and independent state, it should first pay attention to the catastrophic condition and complete lack of rights of its own national minorities, including Ukrainians,” the ministry told Russia.
Officially, Russia itself is a federation and the Russian constitution guarantees freedom of speech and assembly, but in practice the country is highly centralized and freedom is limited, Haran said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has steadily built a top-down system he calls the “vertical of power.” And Russia, which snapped up Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula after arranging a March 16 referendum in favor of annexation that violated Ukraine’s constitution, has shown no tolerance for separatism at home.
A declaration of independence by Russia’s southern region of Chechnya in 1991 led to two wars with Moscow that were fought with exceptional brutality and bloodshed. Although a Kremlin-installed strongman has extinguished most of the violence, Chechnya remains unpredictable. Last week, four Russian soldiers were killed and seven were wounded when their armored vehicle drove over an explosive device in Chechnya during what the Interior Ministry described as a reconnaissance mission.
And Islamist separatists have taken the struggle to neighboring Dagestan, where shootouts kill hundreds of police and militants every year.
Ukraine is tranquil by comparison. Although some pro-Russian crowds in eastern Ukrainian cities have clashed with pro-Ukrainian crowds since the fall of Yanukovych, Ukraine authorities say Russian agents provoked the disorder. But Russia has described what it calls “atrocities” against Russian-speakers, issuing warnings that suggest it is building a case to send troops into eastern Ukraine as it did in Crimea. The IRI poll released Saturday, however, found Ukraine’s Russian-speakers did not feel under threat. Even in the Russian-speaking east and south, including Crimea, 74 percent said they felt no threat.
The Ukrainian government was overly centralized during the Yanukovych years, Haran said. “He sent his own people to rule every region.” Local executives now are appointed by the president and prime minister.
The new Ukrainian government is working on changes to the constitution that are expected to result in decentralization, with executives elected locally. Volodymyr Hroisman, a deputy prime minister in charge of regional development, said last week that amendments would be made to the constitution this year, clearing the way for local elections next year.
Until February, the 36-year-old Hroisman was the mayor of the city of Vinnytsia, about 160 miles west of Kiev. Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers, he said, has put itself on the record in favor of self-government and giving local communities the financial resources to solve their own problems.
Lavrov said Russia had no intention of backing off.
“I am convinced that we must insist, not because we want this,” he said, “but because it is a request of the southern and eastern regions.”
A December poll by sociologists at Razumkov, however, found widespread opposition both to federalization and to any Ukrainian regions separating and joining Russia. Then, 15.8 percent (the March IRI poll found 14 percent) supported federalization, and only 7.5 percent were in favor of Ukraine’s southeastern regions jointing Russia. “People want the kind of self-government that will allow them to solve their own problems,” Yakymenko said.
Broadly speaking, decentralization is a good idea, according to Oleksiy Matsuka, an online journalist in eastern Donetsk — as long as the country takes up the fight against widespread corruption.
“When Yanukovych was in power, no one demanded federalization,” he said. “Yanukovych created more centralization. Strange. Once Yanukovych fled, his supporters started demanding decentralization. They want direct access to money, so they can steal it here.”