Petro Poroshenko is rather like a typical Ukrainian president: a year and a half after being sworn into office, he sees his approval shrinking to just over 25% with merely 5% of Ukrainians expressing strong approval of his job. Sitting Ukrainian presidents are never popular, and this one came in with the implausible mandate of eradicating corruption and promises of a quick victory in the east. Instead the Donbass insurgency took a firm hold and Ukrainians saw their lot worsen drastically. With another winter of intermittent central heating looming ahead, they voted late October in local elections:
Less than two years after Ukraine’s “revolution of dignity,” local elections on Sunday handed power in the south and east to former supporters of the ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych,. The vote also created sizable ultranationalist factions in a number of local legislatures, including in the capital. The election proved voters’ growing mistrust of the political class, which was only partially reshaped by the revolution, and revealed a disappointed nation that still is divided along an east-west line.
The vote was an important milestone for Ukraine. President Petro Poroshenko has vowed to decentralize the country by giving cities and communities more political and budgetary powers. Ukraine is scrapping its system of regional governors appointed from Kiev and giving authority to local legislatures, an attempt to shift from a Soviet-style supercentralized state to a European [ho-hum! — EOTS] nation managed from the bottom up. It’s a good idea. But unless oligarchs and corrupt local bosses are kept out, the country risks getting a version of medieval feudal disunity instead of European self-government. The elections made that risk palpable.
In Kharkiv, a former Yanukovych backer with a criminal past, won the mayoral election by a landslide. In Dnipropetrovsk, two politicians who don’t support Poroshenko will compete in a runoff for the mayoral race. In Odessa, where former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili [Saakashvili is a long story, — EOTS] was appointed as governor to turn the region into a showcase of Western-style reforms, Saakashvili’s candidate was defeated by a wide margin.
In the Ukrainian-speaking west, Svoboda radically improved its performance, coming in first in a few regions and second in critically important Lviv, Ukraine’s cultural capital. The ultranationalist party also won a surprising 10 percent of the vote in Kiev [this is not the first time they got into “surprising” double digits in the capital, — EOTS] . These results raise concerns there could be a nationalist rebellion against Poroshenko if he’s seen as too soft on the separatists in the east.
One of the loveliest aspects of Ukrainian life is tremendous amount of regional diversity. However, the local color does not translate into a of bottom-up system of governance wished for above. Ukrainian history has been all about stamping out every last vestige of self-rule and earning for a Leviathan. Take it from the horse’s mouth: The now widely unpopular Prime Minister and former Maidan leader Arseny Yatsenuk, who was sold to the westerners as a “technocrat” in the aftermath of the Yanukovich ouster, once praised Putin for “saving Russia” and talked of his countrymen’s love of a strong hand (yes, it’s in Ukrainian):
The regional bosses of the south-east might had belonged to a single party two years ago, but that party got… regionalized. With Party of regions out of power and central government imploding, there doesn’t appear to be a single national party. So much so that Poroshenko’s, in an attempt to hold onto power in the eastern city of Dnepropetrovsk, arrested the contender in mayoral run offs.
Characteristically, it’s not just the south-east that’s going through a centrifuge. Andriy Sadovy, the mayor of Lviv who moved on into the second tour of the election with just under 50% of the vote, is a candidate from Samopomosh, another regional party. Sadovy is a strong proponent of federalization, which can mean a lot of things, but in Donbass it is, evidently, defacto independence with an ability to vote in Ukrainian elections. The idea of federalization was floated for quite a while, and many ordinary Ukrainians understand federalization as a breakdown.
Western Ukrainian, or Galician, separatism does exist. Galicia is the politically influential westernmost tip of the country comprised of Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk (named after a Marxist Ukrainian 19th century writer) and Ternopil regions. Separatists there play a double game. The local cultural elite forms organizations that purport to promote the local history and culture. Then they talk of their expectations. For instance, the newly formed Ukrainian Galician Party states in its manifesto that it would like to change Ukraine into its own regional image, but that their project will have to work in Galicia first. Hmm… plausible denaibility.
And here’s European Galician Assembly talking of its goals:
We cannot build our future out of emptiness. We are obligated to use all most helpful qualities of our people to realize our earnings for a beautiful tomorrow. European tomorrow.
On the local history angle: Ukrainian Galician Assembly rejects Russian version of history. Instead of celebrating the victory in Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), they commemorate the allied victory in WW2 with a day of mourning. In WW2 Galician Ukrainian Insurgent Army, or the UPA, fought on the side of the Nazis. Here the slaughterers of Jews and Poles are referred to as a “National-liberation movement” on account of them also being opposed to Russia. Incidentally Sadovy is very much a creature of Galician political culture; here’s him peddling WW2 revisionism to Deutsche Welle
In one remarkable video the founder of European Galician Assembly counters charges of separatism and warns that judging by the mood of youth in his area, it’s Kiev that’s playing with fire. If Kiev fails to live up to expectations, his region might have no choice but to go its separate way. He also acknowledges accusations of being a Putin plant.
If Ukraine is to fall apart, there will be takers for it’s splinters. Russia would stand to be the biggest winner, naturally. Poland has interest in Galicia, it’s historical eastern territory. The entire region was ethnically cleansed of Poles by Stalin at the end of WW2; Lviv was once the second most important Polish city. Prior to Stalin’s expulsion, hundreds of thousands ethnic Poles were massacred by the UPA in Volynya and Galicia. Polish-Ukrainian territorial disputes date back to before there was Ukraine, and with Polish nationalists firmly in control in Warsaw, things can get interesting.
Hungary, Romania and Slovakia also have territorial claims inside Ukraine, and Hungary is a nation to watch. Hungarian Prime Minister VIctor Orban is quite chummy with Putin; he’s been critical of the West’s sanctions on Russia and suspended gas supplies to Ukraine in 2014. Ukrainians accused Hungary of destabilizing their country when:
Budapest has announced that it has handed out Hungarian citizenship papers to 94,000 people in Transcarpathia in Western Ukraine in expedited fashion, an action that creates yet another challenge for Kyiv and may very well have been coordinated with Moscow.
The Hungarian official responsible for nationality policy says that this is part of a broader effort to boost the size of the country’s population and points out that two-thirds of the more than 710,000 new Hungarians are from Transylvania in Romania and 17 percent are from the Voevodina in Serbia and only 14 percent are from Transcarpathia.
With Germany taking on more than it can handle, the whole European project may tear at the seams and long-forgotten ethnic disputes can all of a sudden heat up. Will Ukraine be allowed to fall apart?