Prague, 11 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko issued a stern warning to politicians in Ukraine's industrial east yesterday: Give up any idea of splitting from the rest of the country, or get ready for a fight.
The main purpose of the president's trip was to present the new regional governor, Vadim Chuprun. But Yushchenko did more than that.
On a visit to the mainly Russian-speaking city of Donetsk, he described pro-separatism politicians as "sick" and said they would answer in court for what he called "the nonsense they have been spreading."
The Ukrainian leader also called for an end to corruption, business clans and the shadowy economic activities characteristic of that part of the country.
"I do not want to see corrupt authorities," he said. "I do not want to know the price for [obtaining the position of] Donetsk regional police chief because nobody will pay that price. There will be a police chief who will serve several million people here, people who are currently dispirited."
Donetsk and other the Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine broadly backed Yushchenko's pro-Russian opponent Viktor Yanukovych in the presidential contest late last year. Several Russian-speaking regions threatened in December to organize a referendum on partition if Yushchenko became president, but later backed down.
Serhiy Harmash is publisher of "Ostrov," an independent Internet magazine in Donetsk. He tells RFE/RL that local officials were surprised by the harsh tone of Yushchenko's two-hour address.
"The local elite was shocked. Everybody hoped that the president, as a politician, would come to seek some kind of compromise with Donetsk," Harmash says. "But it was just the opposite -- Yushchenko came not to look for a compromise but to put forward his own conditions."
But, Harmash says, such tough tactics might just work. He said the officials attending Yushchenko's speech appeared intimidated by his threat that they would no longer be able to dictate their own rules to the rest of the country.
"Yushchenko stated very clearly, and even said openly, that he would take strong measures to prevent any kind of separatism." -- Serhiy Harmash, "Ostrov" publisher
During the meeting, Yushchenko also openly questioned the legality of a number of privatization deals in the Donetsk region, and indicated that if local business clans refuse to answer to Kyiv, they might be stripped of both their power and their money.
Harmash says Yushchenko left the local functionaries with few options.
"Yushchenko stated very clearly, and even said openly, that he would take strong measures to prevent any kind of separatism," Harmash says. "And not only separatism, but also any moves toward the federalization [of Ukraine]. Legal actions will be taken against such moves. So no one is going to dare encourage separatist feelings. Appealing to coal miners will also not work. You have some grounds for doing something like that. The president said yesterday that the money the state allocates for coal miners find its way into the pockets of local mining officials. So, [Yushchenko]] has his own capacity for appealing to coal miners."
Oleksandr Lytvynenko, an analyst with the Rozumkov Center, an independent think thank in Kyiv, agrees that the general population in eastern Ukraine is tired of the political dealings of local officials. He says there is no inherent civil conflict between eastern Ukraine and Kyiv. Recent tensions, he says, are only a result of the presidential election.
"What we have is not a civil conflict; just elections. The new president (Yushchenko) was elected, and the elections were recognized as being legitimate," Lytvynenko says. "And it is difficult to believe that supporters of former [candidate] Yanukovych and even his compatriots from Donetsk would choose to stay in the opposition only on principle."
Even Yanukovich himself, Lytvynenko says, has recently taken a more conciliatory attitude toward Yushchenko, and has suggested he is willing to cooperate with the new administration.