Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko yesterday (1 July) proposed constitutional changes designed to give sweeping new powers to the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, but critically fails to address demands of pro-Russian fighters in the separatist east.
The Minsk agreement requires Ukraine to give decentralisation to the rebel-held regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, in Eastern Ukraine (see background). Point 11 of the Minsk agreement reads:
“Carrying out constitutional reform in Ukraine with a new constitution entering into force by the end of 2015 providing for decentralization as a key element (including a reference to the specificities of certain areas in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, agreed with the representatives of these areas), as well as adopting permanent legislation on the special status of certain areas of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions in line with measures as set out in the footnote until the end of 2015.”
Poroshenko’s new vision of the ex-Soviet state’s basic law trims presidential controls over the provinces and extends to local towns and councils the right to oversee how their tax revenues are spent.
But it also refuses to add to the constitution the semi-autonomous status demanded by insurgency leaders who control an industrial edge of Ukraine that is home to 3.5 million people and accounts for a tenth of its economic output.
The westward-leading leader – elected in the wake of the February 2014 ouster of Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych – said the amendments would decentralise power, but never turn Ukraine into the loose federation that Moscow has sought.
“Decentralisation would bring our political system closer to that of Europe,” Poroshenko said in a nationally televised address.
He argued the changes – still to be approved by parliament – would hand locally-elected administration leaders and councils “a vast amount of rights and financial resources that today are overseen by the president and the government.”
“Decentralisation safeguards us from authoritarianism and dictatorship,” said the 49-year-old former business baron.
“Decentralisation will be our civilised distinction from our neighbours in the Soviet camp,” he added in apparent reference to Russia and Belarus.
Militia-controlled parts of the mostly Russian-speaking Lugansk and Donetsk regions would like to see their semi-autonomous status spelled out in clearly-defined constitutional amendments that would be enormously difficult to overturn.
But Poroshenko’s draft only makes reference to an existing piece of legislation that gives insurgency leaders partial self-rule for an interim period of three years.
The rebels fear that the law could be revoked or suspended by Ukraine’s strongly pro-European parliament.
‘Shooting from all sides’
“This declaration was made for foreign consumption,” separatist leader Andrei Purgin told the official insurgency news site.
Kyiv’s Western allies have long pushed Poroshenko to loosen the central authorities’ dominant role in Ukrainians’ lives.
Washington believes regional rights would make politics more transparent and help break the corrupt bonds forged in the past two decades between decision-makers and tycoons.
But Moscow has argued that only a “federalised” Ukraine in which regions form their own diplomatic and trade relations with other nations can finally end a bloody insurgency that has claimed more than 6,500 lives in nearly 15 months.
Poroshenko fears such rights could see the two main separatist regions block Kyiv’s attempts to join the European Union and apply for eventual NATO membership.
The rebel-run parts of the war zone — now strewn with landmines and the smouldering remains of coal mines and steel mills — have cut all ties with Kyiv and receive humanitarian and diplomatic support from Moscow.
They and the Kremlin both fiercely deny the presence of Russians soldiers and arms on their lands.
But Purgin said Poroshenko’s proposal would hardly appease insurgency commanders, who stage periodic attacks aimed at expanding their holdings far past the heavily fortified frontline.
“The Ukrainian battalions know who they are really up against,” Purgin warned.
An AFP team in the frontline city of Gorlivka — home to nearly 300,000 people who depended on the local coal mine before the war — heard intense overnight shelling that forced the remaining residents to seek shelter in basements for the second consecutive week.
“We do not know who is doing the shooting. It comes from all sides”, said a 49-year-old resident who identified herself only as Alla out of security concerns.
If the rebels “decide to continue attacking, we will have a lot of victims. We need a peaceful solution”, she said.