Ukraine clashes raise stakes in struggle to control the Donbas

Power games unmasked. Pro-Russian protesters gather outside the seized City Hall in in Mariupol, Ukraine. Anastasia Vlasova

It is the most serious conflagration since armed pro-Russian forces began taking control of official buildings in the Donbas. At least one anti-government protester is believed to have been shot dead by Ukranian national guard soldiers. Hundreds of pro-Russian supporters had been trying to persuade the troops to switch sides at their base in Mariupol on the Azov Sea coast south of Donetsk.

The Euromaidan revolution in Kiev showed just how quickly events can spiral out of control once government forces start killing their own people. It is possible that the shootings in Mariupol will polarise opinion and act as a tipping point further alienating public opinion in the Donbas against the Kiev authorities. Equally, despite its diplomatic isolation and the risk of further sanctions, Russia may conclude it has little to lose by intervening further in the region.

That last possibility may at least look a little further off after negotiators in Geneva managed to deliver agreements designed to quell the tension. How long those agreements will hold is, of course, tough to tell.

The Mariupol confrontation took place just a few hours after the Donetsk regional branch of Party of the Regions of Ukraine (PRU) held an extraordinary general meeting of its regional and local representatives at the Druzhba ice hockey stadium in central Donetsk. The aim was to unite the party around a clear official policy on the region’s relationship with Kiev. Standing in front of a stage that was adorned by the party’s key messages – “Strong Donbas”, “United Ukraine”, “Donbas without Weapons” – the delegates stood for the Ukrainian national anthem. But not one Ukrainian flag could be seen flying in the hall.

The congress concluded with a show of hands for a resolution demanding the decentralisation of powers from Kiev to the regions. The Party of the Regions in Donetsk wants a national referendum on making Russian a second official language throughout the country. It also wants the parliament in Kiev to amend the constitution (which would require at least 300 votes) to replace governors with directly elected heads of regional councils and to transfer power and budgets from regional and local state administrations to regional and local councils. The party also demands devolution of fiscal and education policy to the regions.

Seeking moderation

In addition the resolution called for a cessation of “illegal” attempts by the Kiev authorities to supress peaceful protestors and for the armed occupations of official buildings in the region by the pro-Russian movement to be ended in return for the granting of legal immunity to protesters. Notably the resolution does not refer to the federalisation of the country, which is also a Russian ambition, and omits the demand that the Kiev parliament give the regional council the right to stage a local referendum on the status of the region.

This attempt to unite PRU around a moderate position of decentralisation within a unitary Ukraine came a day after the largest company in the Donbas (and in the whole of Ukraine), the System Capital Management (SCM) conglomerate owned by local tycoon Rinat Akhmetov, issued a statement in support of a “united, indivisible and independent Ukraine” signed on behalf of the directors of its largest industrial holdings in the region. It echoed a similar statement made by Rinat Akhmetov himself a day earlier.

It is clear that the Party of the Regions and System Capital are trying to reassert their authority in the region in response to the escalation of pro-Russian action by articulating a moderate position which should elicit sympathy in Kiev. However, it remains to be seen whether the party and SCM currently control the Donbas. There is a widespread opinion among the Maidan revolutionaries that the regional elite in the Donbas have been contributing (along with Russia) to the destabilisation of east Ukraine for tactical reasons. It is surmised that the elite wish to use the threat of forging closer relations with Russia as a bargaining chip to curry favour in Kiev in particular to stave off the reprivatisation of assets and/or the lustration of officials associated with the deposed former government.

Internal destabilisation may also be seen as a means of securing the sympathy of Russia which is needed by the elite to retain its economic and political power in the region. Destabilisation might also be designed to cultivate fear among the region’s population which is therefore more willing to trust the elite to protect them from incursions either from Kiev and/or Russia than they would otherwise be.

However, it is equally plausible that the political and economic elites have lost control of events in the region and that the revolutionaries in Kiev ascribe too much power to them. In other words does the elite’s united policy for decentralisation within a unitary Ukraine chime with public opinion in the region?

Divided and volatile

Opinion polls can be read in multiple ways but a recent poll by the Democratic Initiatives Fund conducted in the second half of March suggests that only just over 50% of residents in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces were categorically against independence or unity with another country. This means that although the poll showed only 16% of residents of the two oblasts wanted independence and only 24% wanted to unite with another country, there is a large number of people who do not have a fixed opinion.

Given that an earlier poll for the International Republican Institute (IRI) showed that more than 70% of residents in four eastern regions, including Donetsk and Luhansk, were opposed to the new government in Kiev, the evidence suggests that public opinion is divided and volatile. Moreover, the internal divisions within PRU are sure to continue. The passing of the resolution at the congress was greeted with heckling and dissent from delegates many of whom want a referendum on federalism before the presidential elections.

Equally, it is possible that Akhemtov and his company are not as influential over its ranks of managers and employees as is commonly supposed. However, in the immediate future the question is whether the home grown pro-Russian movement, apparently supported by Russia, gains sympathy as a result of the clashes with Kiev’s forces. If so the result could see it sabotage any potential compromise between the Donbas and Kiev.

There are two dangerous antagonistic dynamics operating within the wider country: a new government in Kiev increasingly hostile to Russia and a movement in the Donbas which is increasingly hostile to Kiev.