As in the past five years, preserving its integrity remains an absolute priority for Ukraine. The key threat undoubtedly comes from Russia. Yet, Ukraine has internal challenges, too, that Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his team will have to face.
Nominally, Ukraine is a unitary state, which gives powerful leverage to the central authorities in governing the country. In reality, “omnipotent Kyiv” is more of a popular media cliché. Ukraine has undergone a shadow “federalization” driven by the local elites, that is, local clans and mafia. While Kyiv experiences permanent political turbulence, the status quo in some regions has remained unchanged for decades. As a result, every president is forced to arrange tacit mutual non-aggression pacts with regional barons, guaranteeing non-interference in local affairs in exchange for loyalty to the center. The Donbas clan offers the most illustrative case. Even Viktor Yushchenko was forced into a concordat with Donetsk, despite having defeated its main man, Viktor Yanukovych, in 2004.
After the Euromaidan, social appetite for government reset was extremely high both in Kyiv, and locally – especially in places where local elites actively supported the Yanukovych regime and flirted with separatism. Petro Poroshenko, too, was interested in restoring the disrupted chain-of-command by reinforcing it with loyal staff. But no offensive against regional elites ensued. It was impossible to fight both Russia’s aggression externally and entrenched local bosses internally.
Once they were granted their political “amnesty,” the local elites became bold enough to start openly terrorizing local communities. The murder of Kateryna Handziuk and dozens of other incidents were more than just an attack against civil society. They were a show of force, too. Local elites will probably flex their muscles before the new president as well, pushing him to a compromise in exchange for five years of relative calm. In practice, however, this strategy eventually hurts those governing in Kyiv. Petro Poroshenko’s presidency proves this.
How well Zelenskiy’s team manages to tame local barons and to bring real substance to the notional unitary order seems questionable right now. If the new administration opts to rely on spoiled local elites rather than the country’s frustrated civil society, the president will soon find himself “red carded.” The same goes for federalization, a concept promoted by pro-Russian forces. Many successful countries are federations. In Ukraine, however, this will effectively legitimize local clans and provide local bosses with even more political and economic clout. This, in turn, will set in motion processes that could eventually lead to the collapse of Ukraine as a state.
Luckily, Zelenskiy did not mention any plans to overhaul Ukraine’s unitary order in his campaign. But his statement that NATO membership should be decided via referendum is quite disturbing. This is in the spirit of his election campaign: even his platform was supposedly drafted together with “average people.” Yet, the widespread use of referenda risks serious negative consequences for Ukraine. In 2016, 52% supported the UK’s exit from the EU. In a 2019 YouGov poll, the proportion of Brexit supporters and opponents was 38% to 48%. A referendum is a necessary procedure in some cases, such as accession to the EU. But building domestic and foreign policy on referenda is impossible. If the country’s leadership is not convinced that its decisions will be legitimate in the eyes of the public, this immediately suggests a crisis of legitimacy for those in power. The solution to this problem is early elections, not referenda. Introducing local referenda would likely be even more destructive.
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This can easily turn into a technique that can be used like Russia did to legitimize occupation in the Donbas and Crimea. If the insurgents had a law on local referenda to use, it would be much harder for Ukraine to provide hard evidence Russia’s occupation to the world. Moreover, local referenda can be a powerful tool in the hands of local elites. Clearly, the new administration will not be able to abandon populism – nor could any of its predecessors. But “serving the people” needs to take place within the established institutional framework. Democratically elected authorities should not shift the burden of making government decisions onto its citizens, let alone promoting poorly thought-out legislative and constitutional changes.
The Donbas presents yet another red line for the future president. The new leadership is likely to face pressure from Russia and feel tempted to take unexpected steps with respect to the occupied parts of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts known as ORDiLO. There can and should be communication with ORDiLO residents through appeals, the press and even one-to-one contact, at crossing points along the line of contact. But any direct communication between Ukraine’s leadership with those in charge in DNR and LNR is unacceptable. First of all, this makes no sense, as the leaders of the “republics” are not legitimate in any shape or form. The “governments,” “parliaments,” “ministries” and “NGOs” in ORDiLO are just a mask sloppily thrown over these occupying forces’ entities. Most Ukrainians and the international community are aware of this today.
Secondly, for Kyiv to start any direct dialog with the occupied territories will affect Ukraine negatively. Among other things, Russia will use this to demolish the system of international sanctions, because that system is based on the recognition that Russia is an occupying force and the “republics” are illegitimate. One possible outcome might be that ORDiLO returns to Ukraine without Kyiv recovering any real control over the territory. This would essentially be capitulation in exchange for the illusion of a quick resolution.
Both direct talks and the restoration of economic ties with ORDiLO risk such an outcome. When it comes to pensions for the residents of the occupied parts of the Donbas, human rights organizations very much favor this idea. It is important to note, however, that many local pensioners already receive their pensions thanks to “pension tourism.” By tolerating this widespread quasi-legal practice, Ukraine’s authorities solve two important tasks in one move: they provide means for survival to a segment of Ukrainian citizens who have found themselves under occupation, while also keeping the payment of these pensions under control. This option is far from perfect, but Ukraine has no better option, for now. If it pays pensions through the occupation “authorities” – the only ones that exist in ORDiLO – it cannot guarantee that the money will reach the beneficiaries. What might be a nice gesture in theory could, in practice, turn into a new source of funding for the terrorists while withholding the benefits from those who have a right to them. Ukraine’s new leadership needs to understand that the only real solution to the problems cited by the residents of the occupied territory is to de-occupy ORDiLO while returning Ukraine’s sovereignty over them.
The Zelenskiy team’s position on humanitarian policy is the biggest concern. “Anything that can divide Ukrainians, including faith, language, territory, some historical leaders, should be left outside until we end the war,” Zelenskiy’s spokesperson Dmytro Razumkov said. Pro-Russian forces were using similar rhetoric just 15 years ago, accusing the initiators of ukrainianization of “creating artificial divides” and “speculating on secondary issues.” Obviously, this rhetoric finds resonance with the pro-Russian segment of society, and average folks irritated by the renaming of streets, language quotas in broadcasting, and so on. Still, the direction chosen in 2014 is impossible to change now, from the perspective of national interests.
It seems that the Zelenskiy team has realized that undermining the legal status of the Ukrainian language will be an act of political suicide for them. Equally unacceptable are overturning language quotas, slowing down decommunization, terminating support for Ukrainian filmmaking, and so on. While the effectiveness of some measures is debatable, their importance is not up for debate, simply because the cultivation of a national identity in Ukraine’s situation is a matter of both culture and national security. Such statements used to be seen as nationalist alarmism in the past. 2014 proved how real the threats were when Russia’s aggression unfolded in military, economic and humanitarian dimensions. This means that the humanitarian dimension of decolonization is strategically as important to Ukraine’s survival as military resistance and economic resilience.
Why part of Ukrainian society fails to understand this is a matter for some study. It’s difficult to say whether the new leadership and Zelenskiy himself recognize the importance of sticking to the current line. This is true for other areas, including policies regarding the occupied territories, attitudes towards Ukraine’s unitary nature, methods of governance, and more. The task of civil society and the responsible segment of the political establishment is to draw the lines that cannot be crossed.
The pro-Russian camp is undoubtedly drawing its own domestic policy roadmap for Zelenskiy. But the “tug-o-war for the president” is hardly a new phenomenon in Ukrainian politics.
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Signals for the President
Volodymyr Vasylenko, JD, lawyer and professor
Ukraine has never overcome its many divisions. No Ukrainian president or government has conducted a consistent Ukrainocentric humanitarian policy. If the new president wants to be successful, he should focus on this and conduct policies that reflect the fact that Ukraine has to develop systemic measures to counter Russia’s hybrid war. He should also remember that this is not just about armed aggression. Russia is carrying out its hybrid war in four non-physical areas: language and culture, information and propaganda, historical memory, and religion. The goal of its war is to destroy Ukrainian identity and statehood.
The only way to counter this is through a strong, consistent Ukrainocentric humanitarian policy. This is not Ukraine’s invention. Every successful European state conducts nation-centric domestic and foreign policy. If Ukraine wants to be successful, it should prioritize national interests in every area, from humanitarian to economic and so on. Being centered on the nation is the development standard in every successful European state. Ukrainocentrism is the norm whose violation has led to the losses Ukraine has been facing over the years and may continue to face in the future.
Below are 10 red lines that cannot be crossed under any circumstance. To ignore them will constitute a threat to Ukraine’s statehood. If any of these are crossed, there will be internal conflict, chaos and, finally, the destruction of the Ukrainian state:
1. Ukraine must not reject its European and Euro-Atlantic civilizational choice and its movement towards full membership in the EU and NATO.
2. Ukraine must not amend its Constitution or pass the laws rejecting its unitary order in any way.
3. Ukraine must not to introduce any national-cultural territorial autonomies.
4. Ukraine must not introduce a two-chamber legislature or a federal structure. It must also not be divided into several large administrative units that elect their leaders via regional referenda.
5. Ukraine must not grant special status to any regions.
6. Ukraine must not abolish the institution of presidency.
7. Ukraine must not elect the president through parliament rather than through nationwide elections.
8. Ukraine must not be turned into a parliamentary republic.
9. Ukraine must not introduce dual citizenship.
10. Ukraine must not take any actions undermining the status of Ukrainian as the only state language, such as granting Russian or other minority languages the status of state languages or any other official status.
An independent, successful and democratic Ukraine can only be Ukrainian. The Ukrainian language is the only tool for building that country. Experience shows that any attempts to create a multilingual or multicultural state have generally led to serious loss of territory. Ukraine has lost the regions where the local elite and the central government endorsed a complete purge of all things Ukrainian. Unless a Ukrainian Ukraine is built, it will simply turn into a part of Russkiy Mir.
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj