KYIV – The Lviv Oblast Council and Ternopil City Council voted on January 27 to submit appeals to the Verkhovna Rada, expressing their opposition to the establishment of local self-governance for the occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

Their appeals argue that approving the constitutional amendments – which besides conditions for decentralization would also set the foundation for the Donbas “specific procedures of local self-governance,” also commonly called “special status” – would bring Russian-backed terrorists to power in a legalized autonomous enclave that will be used by Moscow to further subvert independence.

“For the defense of the interests of Ukraine and Ukrainians, we call upon you to take the historic decision of not voting, under any circumstance, for the constitutional amendments for the Donbas special status, or whatever you call it,” stated the appeal of the Lviv Oblast Council, as reported by the UNIAN news agency. “Beneath the beautiful veneer of words is hidden its true, cruel and Satanic essence hidden from society – to legalize the occupiers, whose boots are stomping upon the holy land of Ukraine.”

Their appeals join a growing chorus of pro-Western Ukrainians who oppose the establishment of Donbas local self-governance – widely considered to be de facto autonomy – which is being actively pursued by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at the behest of Western governments.

They are led by French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who have urged Mr. Poroshenko to approve local self-governance as part of the Normandy format negotiations involving Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The legislation establishing Donbas self-governance requires only a simple majority vote after the amendment consisting of a single line is approved. (The relevant line in the amendment reads: “The specifics of realizing local self-governance in certain districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts are determined by a separate law.”)

The legislation would grant amnesty to most of the armed terrorists, allowing them to join the local police force. Those qualified could be appointed as prosecutors and judges. Local authorities would be empowered to conclude economic agreements with their counterparts in neighboring Russia, all the while receiving subsidies from Kyiv. Meanwhile, elected officials could not be removed before their terms are up.

Besides the conditions for local self-governance established in the Minsk accords, Russian negotiators led by Putin confidante Boris Gryzlov are currently striving to ensure that the self-governance is permanent, rather than expiring in 2017, as called for in the Minsk accords, said Mykhailo Basarab, a Kyiv political consultant.

They are also trying to create quotas in the Verkhovna Rada for deputies representing the occupied territories, as well as enable them to veto any measures towards European Union and NATO integration, he said.

“Putin isn’t interested in the Donbas as a chunk of Ukrainian territory, especially after half of it has become a humanitarian catastrophe,” Mr. Basarab said. “Putin wants to use it to influence all of Ukraine, ensuring it remains a colony of the Russian empire.”

The pro-Western opposition to Donbas local self-governance gained momentum in mid-August of last year when 31 intellectuals published an open letter to the president and Parliament calling for a moratorium on all constitutional amendments, including the single line that creates local self-governance.

A little more than two weeks later, Parliament approved the first reading of the amendments, drawing a fierce protest from the Svoboda party during which a grenade was thrown, killing four National Guardsmen and injuring about 140.

The party blamed the attack on the government and went on to success in the October 2015 local elections, securing factions in the Kyiv and Lviv councils. Its members were also targeted with arrests, which they alleged was a campaign of political persecution.

The January appeals by the Lviv Oblast and Ternopil city councils come from the region of Ukraine that is most loyal to the West.

“But even though western Ukraine is loyal to the EU and NATO and hopeful for entry, that doesn’t entail their automatic approval of Western diplomatic initiatives, particularly those that make concessions to Russian aggression in Donbas,” noted Mr. Basarab.

The similar wording of the Lviv and Ternopil appeals led analysts to believe they were coordinated by those parties opposed to the president, largely owing to his handling of the Donbas war. They include Self-Reliance, Svoboda, Oleh Liashko’s Radical Party, Batkivshchyna, Ukrop and Civic Position.

The deputies representing these forces make up 65 percent of the Lviv Oblast Council and 74 percent of the Ternopil City Council.

In the view of Petro Oleshchuk, a political science lecturer at Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv, the January appeals were a coordinated political attack on the president, which at the same time has the support of Halychyna residents.

Even Ukraine’s Western allies don’t have a unanimous position on local self-governance, which is why it’s no surprise that opposition from pro-Western Ukrainians has been swelling, he said. The Lviv and Ternopil councils “are not basing their position on the EU but their own view that this is dangerous,” Mr. Oleshchuk said.

Indeed, the Ternopil City Council’s appeal criticizes Mr. Hollande and Ms. Merkel for “trying to force the international community to recognize the pseudo-states, the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, that are fully controlled by the Kremlin.”

“Understanding the importance of approving constitutional amendments for decentralization, the need for which we understand best at the local level, we call on you – in the defense of the interests of Ukraine and Ukrainians – not to vote for constitutional amendments on the special status of Donbas, under any circumstances, no matter what it’s called,” the appeal said.

Such appeals aren’t likely to emerge in central Ukraine, where the Poroshenko Bloc controls the majority of the local councils, Mr. Oleshchuk said. In the Halychyna region, however, “any politician supporting compromise and special status would be committing political suicide,” he added.

Before the constitutional amendments can be voted on however, the president needs to organize local elections in the Donbas, a move that will likely draw violent opposition, in the view of both Messrs. Oleshchuk and Basarab.

Although very few European leaders have voiced opposition to Donbas self-governance, a growing number are acknowledging that the first step of elections can’t be taken yet.

“It is unrealistic to demand elections when the only ones enjoying freedom of movement and access aren’t Ukrainian political parties, Ukrainian media or the Ukrainian people, but Russia-supplied tanks,” Lithuanian Foreign Affairs Minister Linas Linkevicius underscored in an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal on January 27.

This view was echoed by Tamara Olexy, the president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America.

“One is mistaken if they believe free elections can currently be held in Donetsk and Luhansk. There can be no free elections in the Donbas as long as Russian-sponsored terrorists and their tanks roam the streets, heavy artillery remains in the area and the border remains open. Control must be returned to Ukraine, including Crimea, which is illegally occupied by Russia, and OSCE international observers must be given unfettered access to monitor the situation,” she said in a statement to The Ukrainian Weekly.

Diaspora leaders did not go as far as the Halychyna councils did in opposing the establishment of Donbas self-governance whether or not Russia upholds its end of the Minsk accords.

Ms. Olexy said: “In theory I am not against the concept of ‘special status.’ However, given the ongoing war in Ukraine, I strongly oppose giving special status to the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, as this undermines Ukraine’s territorial integrity, especially given demands from the West about elections. How can decentralization take place before de-escalation? There must be some logical sequence to the 13-point plan of the Minsk agreements.”

Only 23 percent of Ukrainians support the self-governance as it’s currently proposed, according to a poll conducted in November 2015 by the Razumkov Center, a leading, Western-financed think tank in Kyiv.

Ms. Olexy commented: “The semantics of what ‘special status’ would entail for the occupied territories will be worked out as part of the reconciliation process reintegrating the occupied territories with Ukraine’s proposed European style of self-governance. I take more issue with allowing a foreign government to dictate changes to Ukraine’s Constitution without a national mandate. The specifics of Ukraine’s Constitution are for Ukrainians to decide, not foreign occupiers.”

In a brief statement to The Weekly, Eugene Czolij, president of the Ukrainian World Congress, said: “The Ukrainian World Congress continues to support the governing authorities, the armed forces and the people of Ukraine in their efforts to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity against Russian aggression, including through the Minsk Agreements, with the support of the international community.”

Ukrainian Canadian Congress President Paul Grod did not respond to repeated inquiries from The Weekly regarding the UCC position on local self-governance for the Donbas.


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