Ukraine is considering a change in the unitary state structure by holding a referendum on federalization. However, granting greater autonomy will seemingly not satisfy pro-Russian separatists who are demanding full independence
With the Kiev government's efforts unable to put an end to the violence in the rebellious east, Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko is prepared to put the question of federalization to a referendum as a way to end the crisis. Even though he opted for maintaining the unity of Ukraine, the change in state structure through introducing a referendum on decentralization is on the central government's agenda.
"I am ready to hold a referendum about the structure of the government, if you think it is necessary," Poroshenko said, speaking to a commission on constitutional reform on Monday. Poroshenko suggested the Ukrainian side could be flexible on certain issues, especially on the demand to federalize Ukraine. The decentralization of power is believed to allow for dialogue with Russian-backed separatists.
The unity of Ukraine has been severely tested by Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and ongoing fighting against pro-Russian separatists who demand greater independence from Ukraine. However, calls for decentralization of the government would not necessarily mean giving full autonomy to the rebel-held Donbass region.
The Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine parliament) passed a law granting self-rule to the rebel-held region last month in order to apply special administrative policies to the rebel-controlled parts of the country. The pro-Russian rebels and Moscow government rejected the special status law, which would only come into effect after the local elections take place, under the supervision of international observation, as they seek full independence rather than becoming a federal state within the central government.
Ukraine pledged more autonomy to the rebellious east in September 2014, introducing a bill on the separatists' autonomy under the special status law. The third point of the first 12-point protocol agreement signed on Sept. 5, 2015 stated, "Conduct decentralization of power, including through approval of the Law of Ukraine 'On temporary order of local self-government in certain districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions'," in order to grant special status to the local self-governments in some parts of the east of the country.
The self-proclaimed people's republics in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions have been seeking independence since they declared their autonomy in May, but the Ukrainian government has ruled out granting independence to the mainly Russian-speaking region. President Poroshenko has long rejected any possible federalization or secession of Ukrainian land, as the Minsk accords on the status of eastern Ukraine promises only granting "special status." Even if Ukraine becomes federalized, the Kiev government would never give up control over the local security forces and elections for governors. In the face of partial independence from the central government, the separatists want full independence from Kiev or union with Russia. A federal Ukrainian government and local self-government in the east would not serve their interest as they want to be the sole authority over the region where they have been battling government troops for almost one year.
As the heavy clashes continue unabated in eastern Ukraine, more than 5,358 people have been reportedly killed and 12,235 injured, according to U.N. figures released in early March. The death toll continues to rise. More than two million Ukrainians have been forcibly displaced due to worsening humanitarian conditions in rebel-held areas. The shaky Feb. 12 cease-fire agreement is generally holding in violence-stricken eastern Ukraine. However, breaches of the renewed Minsk Accord have been widely reported, demonstrating that the months-long crisis in Ukraine's east has yet to be resolved despite a series of mediating talks and peace efforts.