Ukraine’s leader must tread carefully over plans for permanent peace as he gears up for parliamentary elections.
President Petro Poroshenko has signed a cease-fire in Ukraine’s east, providing breathing space to mold a resolution to five months of fighting. Having stepped back from a pledge to defeat the pro-Russian insurgency by the Oct. 26 ballot, he now needs a diplomatic win he can sell to voters.
That puts Poroshenko in a bind. On one hand, Ukrainians want a lasting peace that enables the new administration to follow through on promises made during the protests that swept Viktor Yanukovych from power. On the other, bowing to President Vladimir Putin’s demands as bargaining starts over the status of Ukraine’s east risks alienating voters and bolstering rivals.
Poroshenko “is walking a fine line, because he can’t give too many concessions, particularly with an election in the offing,” Amanda Paul, an analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, said by e-mail. That’s all the more difficult because “Putin wants to ensure he’ll walk away from this, in his eyes and that of Russian society, the winner, with Moscow having a strong foothold.”
As fighting of varying intensity tests the truce signed Sept. 5 for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, conflict-resolution talks may resume in the Belarusian capital of Minsk this week. Before that, the two sides have begun laying out their positions.
Ukraine will grant special status to about a third of the two regions, according to Yuri Lutsenko, an aide to Poroshenko. A bill will be submitted to lawmakers this week, military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters Sept. 10.
The separatists have other ideas. They’re demanding the full territory, known as Donbas, Russia’s Interfax news service reported Sept. 9, citing Andrei Purgin, first deputy prime minister of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk.
“A significant part of the electorate will be very sensitive to territorial concessions,” Yuriy Yakymenko head of the political department at the Kiev-based Razumkov Center, said Sept. 9 by phone. “Would concessions be seen as giving up? That would be used by radical forces who support the idea of war until victory.”
Russia, whose annexation in March of Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea was a precursor to the eastern unrest, has its own demands. Putin has suggested Ukraine switch to a federal system of governance that would give Donetsk and Luhansk a veto over major state decisions.
Russia, blamed by the U.S. and the European Union for fueling the conflict, opposes talk of a possible Ukrainian bid for membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and has questioned attempts at political and economic integration with Europe through an EU association agreement.
Yanukovych’s rejection of the EU pact was the trigger for the street uprising that toppled him as Ukrainians wearing ribbons with the 28-member bloc’s symbol demanded a new government that adhered to European democratic standards.
Those who joined the protests, which began toward the end of last year, want Ukraine to push on with that European path, not go backward, according to Iryna Ligor, a 47-year-old speech defectologist at a kindergarten. She said she may not back Poroshenko’s party in the election if he changes course.
“I hope he understands that people rose up in November because of the EU,” Ligor said in Kiev. “Otherwise, what was the point of it all? We’re watching what he’s doing.”
It’s not just voters who may rebel over concessions to Russia. The settlement over Donbas also risks dividing Ukraine’s rulers as the truce immediately brought to the surface tensions within the administration.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk dismissed Putin’s peace plan that presaged the truce as “window dressing for the international community,” saying in an e-mailed statement that it’s a ploy to duck U.S. and EU sanctions. Poroshenko hit back by saying he “won’t allow” politicians to “play at war.”
In a sign of tensions among the country’s rulers, talks to form a joint platform for the election broke down yesterday. Yatsenyuk opted to run on the People’s Front list along with Oleksandr Turchynov, the speaker of parliament and former interim president, the Interfax news service reported. The Udar party of Kiev Mayor Vitali Klitschko, the ex-boxing world champion, will join Poroshenko’s alliance, it said on its website.
The president’s Petro Poroshenko Bloc is the most popular with 21.5 percent backing, a survey by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology showed. Next is the Radical Party of Oleg Liashko, a firebrand politician and Poroshenko critic who says he sponsors volunteer battalions fighting the rebels.
Liashko’s group has 7.6 percent, according to the Aug. 23-Sept. 2 poll of 2,040 voters in all regions of the country except Crimea and Luhansk. That’s more than Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front with 3.7 percent, the data showed. The survey has a margin of error of 1.4 to 2.8 percentage points.
Poroshenko is in a “delicate position” and faces considerable hurdles to sell a potential peace deal to the electorate, according to Otilia Dhand, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence in London.
“If he promises Russia what it wants, he risks the voters will turn to the Radical Party,” Dhand said Sept. 11 by phone. “If he tries to implement an agreement that potentially gives Donbas veto power over foreign-policy decisions, then it might not take too long before there’s a million people on the streets of Kiev and elsewhere again.”