In eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian separatists are claiming independence based on a victory in a hastily organized referendum. Now, they’re resisting a nationwide presidential election that’s scheduled for May 25.
With Russian troops still massed near the border, Ukrainian and international mediators are trying to find a solution for the crisis.
There are some very different visions of the future for the volatile region.
One is expressed by Serhiy Taruta, a Ukrainian billionaire who’s been appointed governor of the Donetsk region by the government in Kiev. The day after pro-Russian separatists declared their People’s Republic of Donetsk, he held a press conference to talk about his vision. It didn’t include independence.
“Russia’s not in a hurry to take over the Donetsk region, knowing that there are economic problems here,” he said. “That’s why there’s no alternative for economic stability other than having the region remain part of Ukraine. Donetsk isn’t capable of living independently, even for two weeks.”
Taruta knows that his region relies heavily on subsidies from the central government.
The coal mines and metal works that once made this region prosperous are running on Soviet-era equipment and inefficient processes.
But some in the region believe that there are other options.
“The first option is joining with Russia,” says Kirill Cherkashin, a political science professor at Donetsk National University and a supporter of the independence movement. “Or they could unite with the Luhansk Republic, or become a part of New Russia, which would combine eight more Ukrainian regions.”
Luhansk is a neighboring region where separatists also held a referendum and declared independence.
What Does Russia Say?
New Russia is an old term that separatists use for a region of present-day Ukraine that stretches from the east to the border with Moldova.
The area has many Russian speakers, and there have been pro-Russian demonstrations in some of the provinces.
Cherkashin says the area has enormous economic potential that could be developed with Russia’s help.
But that help may not be on the way.
Russia said that the independence referenda should be respected, but it still hasn’t recognized the regions as independent states, much less talked about annexing them as it did with Crimea.
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs in Moscow, says that separatist hopes that Russia will annex the region are probably wishful thinking.
“It’s too costly in terms of just taking financial economic responsibility. It will need a lot of investment and a lot of social costs, which [the] Russian budget is unlikely to be willing to take just now,” he says.
Lukyanov says the best strategy, from Russia’s point of view, would be to force the government in Kiev to negotiate a federation agreement with the separatists that would give the eastern region strong local powers, which he says would guarantee that Ukrainian statehood would be balanced.
“On the other hand,” he says, “it will guarantee that inside Ukrainian politics, it will be quite a powerful and important pro-Russian force.”
Ukrainian leaders and international mediators held a roundtable discussion on the crisis on Wednesday in Kiev. The separatists were not invited, but acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov said the government wanted to hear what the eastern region had to say.
“We do want to listen, but if people want to be heard, they shouldn’t shoot, they shouldn’t rob and they shouldn’t occupy buildings,” he says. “We are open for dialogue.”
It wasn’t much of an opening, but it could be the first indication that Kiev might be willing to talk with the separatists.