Ukraine's government is running out of options for restoring its control of eastern regions
Many government and police buildings are still held by pro-Russian protesters
Constitutional reforms are still being thrashed out
CNN looks as possible scenarios that could unfold between now and the May 25 elections
Ukraine’s young government is running out of viable options for restoring its control of eastern regions and preserving the country’s territorial integrity. Government and police buildings in more than a dozen places are still held by pro-Russian protesters, sometimes led by masked and well-armed men in uniform. The response from Kiev to this assault has been inconsistent and hesitant.
Amid a war of words between Washington and Moscow, the “agreement” reached in Geneva last week for resolving the crisis looks dead in the water. Russia and Ukraine accuse each other of bad faith, and on the ground there is a growing sense of stalemate, interrupted by episodes of violence that only harden views.
Just one month before the Ukrainian presidential election, constitutional reforms that might mollify the pro-Russian protesters are still being thrashed out.
The Geneva agreement called on the protesters to relinquish the buildings they hold and promised amnesty for those who do. But the immediate answer from behind the barricades was defiant.
As one of the leaders of the occupation in Donetsk put it to CNN, “We have not come this far just to leave without our demands being met. It is the Kiev government that is illegitimate. They have to give up the buildings they have seized.” There was a similar response from protest leaders in the southern city of Mariupol.
So how might events in Ukraine unfold between now and the May 25 elections? Here are some of the scenarios that could play out, but events are moving swiftly and unpredictably.
Peace breaks out
The Geneva agreement offered what U.S. President Barack Obama called “a glimmer of hope.” But John Kerry, his top diplomat, cautioned after the talks: “None of us leave here with the sense that the job is done because the words are on the paper.”
The job of implementing the agreement has fallen to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) which already has about 100 monitors in eastern Ukraine and is tasked with negotiating the surrender of occupied buildings.
In Kerry’s words, “what is vital is that the OSCE needs to get to work immediately to de-escalate the security situation in Luhansk, in Donetsk, in Slavyansk and all the other towns that have been destabilized.”
But the OSCE monitors have no powers of enforcement - and the visceral hatred of the pro-Russian groups for both the U.S. and Europe makes their task a daunting one. CNN met a team of observers in Slavyansk on Monday after they’d spent two hours with the self-declared mayor. They confined themselves to a brief statement that gave no indication of progress, and the Organization later acknowledged problems in gaining access to the town.
Put simply, the occupiers don’t see themselves as behaving illegally. Denis Pushilin, who’s become the political voice of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic,” turned the tables on Kiev, saying the government (or junta, as pro-Russian groups prefer to call it) had come to power through a coup and was itself illegally occupying public buildings. Pushilin insisted that plans for a local referendum on Donetsk’s future – organized by the protesters – would proceed. We heard the same message in Slavyansk, Luhansk and Mariupol.
Much hinges on what sort of constitutional reform emerges. Kerry said Thursday that the Ukrainian government had gone “to extraordinary lengths to address regional demands for more autonomy, for local self-government, for the protection of minority rights.” Visiting Donetsk recently, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk promised far-reaching devolution to the regions, including greater control over their finances. But Russia wants more - a guarantee that Ukraine won’t join NATO and direct elections in the regions to both legislative and executive office. One of the most centralized states on earth is demanding sweeping decentralization next door.
As William Partlett, a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of Law, writes in the magazine Jurist: “The ‘framers’ of the new Ukrainian constitution therefore are likely not to just be Ukrainians-and the bargaining is just as likely to take place in Geneva rather than Kiev.”
The government’s attitude toward a referendum has been ambivalent. Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov has said he is “not against” a national referendum on the country’s form of government, perhaps in tandem with the presidential vote.
But the protesters say they will accept nothing less than a regional referendum that gives Donetsk and other eastern regions the option to secede from Ukraine. They have set up committees in Luhansk and Donetsk to plan a vote on May 11, though how it would be organized in an area with a population of more than 6.5 million people is open to question. Few of the protesters have any government experience: 32-year old Pushilin is a former security guard turned businessman and Irina Voropayeva, the spokeswoman in Mariupol, a housewife. And whether it would be seen as free and fair, without an independent election body or international observers, is questionable.
The irony is that several polls conducted by Ukrainian NGOs in recent months suggest the supporters of unification with Russia are in a minority. The Institute for Social Studies and Political Analysis in Donetsk reported in March that two-thirds of re