On February 25, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada (national parliament) chairman and acting head of state, Oleksandr Turchynov, appointed Oleh Makhnitsky as acting general prosecutor, with instructions to “rebuff separatist tendencies” in parts of south-eastern Ukraine and Crimea. According to Turchynov as he introduced the appointment, separatists are those who “detest Ukraine and seek to dismantle it, taking advantage of a power vacuum in Kyiv.” Makhnitsky (nominated by the Svoboda Party to this post) has ordered oblast-level prosecutors particularly in the south-east to investigate any local politicians who openly call for separatism (www.iportal.rada.gov.ua, RFE/RL, February 25).
Following the collapse of Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency and government, their replacement by pro-Europe authorities (see EDM, February 19), the Russophone nomenklatura in parts of Ukraine’s south-east has distanced itself from the central authorities in Kyiv. This demarcation process is incipient and tentative at this point, but draws encouragement from Moscow and has gathered some momentum in Crimea. On February 22, senior representatives of four south-eastern oblasts and Crimea held a congress in Kharkiv, claiming more powers for those territories from Kyiv (see EDM, February 25).
Many Rada deputies from the Party of Regions (in power until February 21) are now aligned with the interim authorities, forming a de facto a new majority that has approved the appointments of the state security service chairman, internal affairs minister, and general prosecutor (filled by nominees of the UDAR, Batkivshchina, and Svoboda parties, respectively). This signifies that at least the rump Party of Regions is on board to counteract centrifugal tendencies in areas where this party retains influence.
However, Kyiv’s writ does not seem to run in those problematic areas at this stage. The central authorities are temporary, and not yet consolidated. Russia contests the new authorities’ legitimacy, while some local authorities in Ukraine’s south-east share that view or adopt a wait-and-see attitude. Ukraine’s internal security and law enforcement systems are severely debilitated after three months of violent civil strife (see accompanying article).
In such circumstances, “Maidan self-defense” groups have emerged as a restraining factor in key south-eastern administrative centers, where oblast- or city-level authorities have backed centrifugal tendencies or may be expected to do so. Local Maidan self-defense groups went into action literally hours after the conclusion of the Kharkiv inter-regional congress; and they continue impacting the political scene far more effectively than their small numbers might suggest. Unlike their colleagues in Kyiv, the Maidan groups in the south-east do not carry combat equipment in public view.
Since February 22, a Euro-Maidan group occupies a part of the Kharkiv oblast’s state administration building. From that base it keeps watch on the activities of oblast governor Mikhaylo Dobkin and Kharkiv city mayor Hennady Kernes, the hosts of the inter-regional congress just held there. Dobkin has announced his intention to run for president of Ukraine in the elections expected to be held in May. He claims that “a total attack is under way against the rights of the Russian-speaking population, laws are being adopted that threaten all those who do not accept fascism" (Interfax-Ukraine, February 23, 24; Channel 5 TV, February 25).
Also since February 22, a Euro-Maidan group keeps a tight watch on the Dnipropetrovsk oblast administration building and oblast council. The governor and the council chairman participated in the Kharkiv congress and proposed afterward to set up a “Dnipropetrovsk people’s militia” as a counterweight to the central authorities. The Euro-Maidan group and its supporters inside those bodies of power seem on the verge of removing those two leaders (Interfax-Ukraine, UNIAN, February 22-25).
In Luhansk (administrative center of the eponymous oblast, epicenter of a 2004 “federalization” initiative), the Euro-Maidan has set up of a parallel municipal council (Ukrayina TV, February 23). Elsewhere in the south-east, Euro-Maidan groups have ousted (and, in some cases, replaced) oblast- and city-level leaders in Mykolayiv, Khmelnytskyy, and Zaporizhzhya oblasts (UNIAN, Interfax-Ukraine, February 22–25).
Such actions are not being coordinated with Ukraine’s official (interim) leadership in Kyiv, nor are they backed by local units of the central law-enforcement agencies. In Kyiv as in some of the oblasts, the Euro-Maidan at this time operates as a parallel, if informal, power structure. In the south-east it lacks critical mass but it compensates through strong organization and intimidation. This contributes to restraining centrifugal initiatives on the part of local officials. Such initiatives also seem to lack a critical mass of support among the populace thus far.
Ukraine’s leaders in Kyiv define the challenge in the south-east as “separatism,” overemphasizing this term (see accompanying article). This word choice, however, can be counterproductive at this stage. It gives local pro-Russia politicians and Moscow enough scope for plausible deniability. They usually stop well short of calling for secession, leaving that to a narrow militant fringe. Instead, they couch the agenda as decentralization of powers from Kyiv to accommodate these territories’ interests. Even the February 22 Kharkiv inter-regional congress, heavy on Russian symbols and signaling a demarcation from the rest of Ukraine, was nevertheless careful to avoid radical demands.
Instead, pro-Russia politicians and their Moscow backers would suggest re-negotiating the terms on which these territories should remain within Ukraine. They claim that a redistribution of powers in their favor would “help keep the country together” (a favorite talking point). Such re-negotiation could prove a dangerous slippery slope for Ukraine; while those couching the issue in that way, can and do successfully plead innocence of separatism. As Lithuania’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Linas Linkevicius, has suggested for Ukraine after the Kharkiv congress (BNS, February 22), it is decisively important for Kyiv to ensure that its control over the administration and law enforcement is fully restored and remains unambiguously centralized.