Russia expressed “deep concern” today (2 July) over Ukraine’s plans to decentralise power as part of a peace deal with separatist rebels, underlining the gulf between Moscow and Kyiv as the conflict rumbles on despite a ceasefire.
Differing interpretations of a February peace agreement signed in Minsk, Belarus, to end the fighting in Ukraine’s eastern regions, have left the conflict in limbo, with more than 6,500 people killed since it broke out in April last year.
Adding to the tensions, negotiations broke down in Vienna this week over Russian gas supplies to Ukraine, leading to imports being halted at the border between the two ex-Soviet countries.
Ukraine and the West accuse Moscow of arming and supporting pro-Russian rebels fighting government troops. Moscow denies the charges.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Wednesday presented a blueprint to give Ukraine’s regions more powers and control over their budgets, one of 13 points in the Minsk deal that would allow the rebel-controlled regions a degree of self-governance.
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 said the moves would amount to a “vaccination” against federalisation, which Kyiv says would give the separatist-minded regions too much independence and allow them to block Ukraine’s shift towards joining the European mainstream.
Moscow has said it favours much more autonomy for the self-proclaimed people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, collectively known as the Donbass, although they should remain part of Ukraine.
Voicing Russia’s concern, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “The preparation of such laws without taking into consideration the opinions of the representatives of the Donbass can hardly be seen as the fulfilment of the Minsk agreements.”
Poroshenko pointedly described the Ukrainian plan as an alternative to “despotism”.
“Finally, decentralisation will become another civilisational difference from our post-Soviet neighbours,” he told reporters. “True self-government is impossible in an authoritarian state. Despotism admits neither independence of communities, nor freedom of its citizens.”
Alexander Zakharchenko, self-appointed head of the Donetsk region, complained he and his Lugansk counterpart Igor Plotnitsky had not been consulted over the changes.
“Neither I, nor my colleague Plotnitsky, gave agreement to Poroshenko’s proposed conception of constitutional reform,” he told the DAN rebel news agency.
Donetsk has called a local election for 18 October, a week before the rest of Ukraine, a move that would be “destructive”, Poroshenko was quoted by Interfax-Ukraine new agency as saying.
The leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine gave their support to a deal to end fighting in eastern Ukraine, following 17-hour long negotiations in the Belarussian capital Minsk on 12 February.
The four leaders committed to respecting Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, according to a joint declaration.
Western leaders are closely observing the implementation of the Minsk agreement.
On 2 March, European leaders said that they agreed that the OSCE needed a broader role as observers of the ceasefire, and weapons removal.
Ukraine has asked the EU to dispatch an EU-led Security and Defence (CSDP) mission to Donbas.