Residents walk past barbed wire at a checkpoint manned by pro-Russian armed separatist militants in Mariupol, on June 9, 2014. Ukraine launched delicate dual-track diplomatic negotiations with Russia today aimed at averting a debilitating gas cut and ending a bloody separatist insurgency by the end of the week. AFP PHOTO / DANIEL MIHAILESCU
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s inaugural speech on June 7 focused, not surprisingly, on healing Ukraine’s internal divisions and ending the separatist fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk. He laid out ideas—government decentralization, a guarantee of Russian language use, respect for regional characteristics and early elections—that could appeal to many in Ukraine’s east. He also reaffirmed Ukraine’s choice to draw closer to the European Union.
The president has promised an early visit to Donetsk. That would present the ideal venue to lay out his thinking in detail. He might elaborate these ideas and add a few others.
Government decentralization is needed. Political power in Ukraine has long been overly concentrated in Kyiv. Delegating some authority to regional and local governments makes sense in terms of more effective and efficient government—as well as governance that is more accountable to the citizens. It would be useful for Poroshenko to put forward concrete proposals for decentralization, which may require constitutional reform. One obvious measure to consider is to make oblast governors popularly elected as opposed to appointed by the president. It would also be sensible to transfer some budget authority to regional governments.
The president said that he would guarantee free usage of Russian language in the east. The Rada’s hasty vote on Feb. 22 to strike down the 2012 language law that gave official status to Russian in certain regions caused great concern among Russian speakers, even though it was subsequently vetoed. Poroshenko now can articulate how he would guarantee Russian’s use without fear of discrimination or penalty.
The May 25 presidential election gave Poroshenko a strong democratic mandate, something that even Moscow appears to be acknowledging, albeit slowly. Early Rada elections would revalidate the democratic legitimacy of the parliamentary body as well. If elections took place in Donetsk and Luhansk, they could select deputies representing those oblasts’ current mood, interests and concerns.
Kyiv’s foreign policy is of interest to many Ukrainians—and potentially controversial. Many in the east do not want deeper ties with NATO. How far Ukraine wishes to take its relationship with the Alliance is a decision for Kyiv and NATO. Poroshenko appears interested in cooperation but has ruled out moving toward membership.
That is a sensible policy for three reasons. Continue reading