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Analysis: Will Ukraine Split In Wake Of Divisive Ballot?

United we stand? Yushchenko and Yanukovych supporters square off this week in Kyiv As hundreds of thousands of people were demonstrating in Kyiv and many other Ukrainian cities for the seventh consecutive day against what they believe was massive electoral fraud that denied victory in the 21 November presidential runoff to opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's supporters counterattacked on 28 November by threatening to seek autonomy for Ukraine's eastern and southern regions if Yanukovych was not installed as president.

Ukraine's east-west economic, cultural, religious, ethnic, and linguistic division -- which was reflected in voter preferences in both the 31 October and 21 November rounds of the presidential election -- has become a major topic on the country's already-overheated political agenda.

The handling of this issue by both the authorities and the opposition will be of utmost importance to the country's political and social stability.

On 28 November, some 4,000 local councilors from 15 eastern and southern Ukrainian regions gathered in Severodonetsk in Donetsk Oblast to express their support for Yanukovych as the legally elected president and to condemn the pro-Yushchenko opposition for leading Ukraine toward a "territorial split and catastrophe." "If the [current] coup d'etat is being developed further and an illegitimate president comes to power, participants in the congress reserve themselves the right to 'adequate actions and self-defense,'" the congress said in a statement. The participants warned that they would hold a "referendum on a possible change of Ukraine's administrative-territorial system" on 12 December if the situation in Ukraine develops under "the worst-case scenario."

Moscow And Separatism

There was an apparent Russian hand behind this congress. The Severodonetsk gathering was attended by one of Russia's most influential politicians: Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov. It is unclear whether Luzhkov's visit to Severodonetsk was coordinated with the Kremlin, but his behavior and statements there were fully consistent with Yanukovych's Russian-inspired electoral platform, which calls on Ukrainians to abandon their aspirations for NATO and EU membership and promises to make Russian the second official language and introduce dual Ukrainian-Russian citizenship. Luzhkov brought with him the unambiguous message that Russia continues to stand beside Yanukovych in the current crisis in Ukraine. "On one hand, we see the Sabbath of witches who have been fattened up with oranges and who pretend that they represent the whole of the nation," Luzhkov told the congress in an apparent reference to the pro-Yushchenko "orange revolution" in Ukraine. "On the other, we see the peaceful power of constructive forces that has gathered in this hall."
Even if the threat of "separatist" plebiscites in eastern regions is nothing more than the Yanukovych camp's political bluff intended to counterbalance the pro-Yushchenko demonstrations in Kyiv and the west of the country, the move could boomerang on the prime minister

Also the same day, the Donetsk Oblast Council voted 155-1 to set a regional referendum for 5 December on introducing constitutional amendments that would ostensibly change Ukraine into a federal state and give Donetsk Oblast the status of a republic within that new federation. The Donetsk councilors justified their proposal by citing the postelection standoff, which, they said, "is threatening public security, the constitutional system [as well as] the life and heath of citizens." The Donetsk Oblast Council also affirmed that Yanukovych is the legally elected president and expressed its lack of confidence in the Verkhovna Rada, the national legislature that on 27 November passed a resolution declaring the presidential runoff flawed.

Yanukovych, who attended the congress in Severodonetsk, appeared to distance himself from the radical atmosphere during the gathering. "I appeal to you to avoid any radical measures," he told the gathering. "When the first drop of blood is spilled, we will not be able to stop it. And if this happens, it will be on the conscience of those people who provoked this situation." Yanukovych left the Severodonetsk meeting before the resolution on a possible referendum on regional autonomy was adopted. But his maneuvers did not convincingly erase the impression that he was personally embroiled in a scheme that threatened to undermine the territorial integrity of Ukraine as a "unified state," as proclaimed by the country's constitution.

Even if the threat of "separatist" plebiscites in eastern regions is nothing more than the Yanukovych camp's political bluff intended to counterbalance the pro-Yushchenko demonstrations in Kyiv and the west of the country, this move could boomerang on the prime minister and deprive him of any realistic chance of not only becoming president but also of pursuing any other political career in Kyiv. After all, a politician aspiring to become a nationwide leader should presumably avoid association with actions that threaten to splinter the country territorially for the sole purpose of satisfying his or her political ambitions.

Opposition Ultimatum

The pro-Yushchenko camp counterattacked immediately. The Committee of National Salvation (KNP), a body set up by Yushchenko's political backers and allies to coordinate the ongoing protest actions in Ukraine, delivered an ultimatum to incumbent President Leonid Kuchma on 28 November. The committee demanded that Kuchma take the following steps: sack Prime Minister Yanukovych for his alleged contributions to the falsification of the 21 November presidential ballot and participation in "separatist actions"; submit new candidates for Central Election Commission membership to the Verkhovna Rada; fire the governors of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv oblasts for initiating a "split of Ukraine"; and order the Prosecutor-General's Office to launch an immediate probe against "secessionists" in Ukraine. The Committee of National Salvation threatened to begin blocking Kuchma's travels in Ukraine if he failed to comply with the ultimatum within 24 hours.

Kuchma on 29 November condemned the calls for autonomy from Ukraine's eastern regions. But he also stressed that Ukraine's threatened split was initiated in the western part of the country, where local councilors have pledged allegiance to "people's president" Yushchenko and effectively refused to obey instructions and orders from the central government.

The Kuchma Card

Thus, ironically, the standoff in Ukraine is strengthening the position of President Kuchma as a "father of the nation" and an "arbitrator" who is ostensibly uninvolved on either side of the postelection confrontation. This situation has already revived speculation that Kuchma might be considering another run for the post of president if the Supreme Court strikes down the results of the 2004 presidential election, presumably leading to a repeat ballot. Under such a scenario, Yushchenko and Yanukovych, as the candidates already "used up" in the previous campaign, would have little chance against Kuchma, posing as he would as the guarantor of stability for a society polarized by the Yushchenko-Yanukovych rivalry.

However, regardless of who eventually becomes Ukraine's president, it is already evident that a radical readjustment of the way the country has been governed is in order. The adventurous policy of playing up the country's east against its west needs to be abandoned once and for all if Ukraine is to survive as a single state. And there must be a daring political compromise on the formation of a coalition government that might assure people in both eastern and western Ukraine that their interests are truly represented in Kyiv.

These appear to be the two greatest challenges facing Ukraine's political class once the current turmoil is eased and people begin to think about how to proceed with their everyday lives.

[Click here for more RFE/RL coverage and analysis of the disputed Ukrainian presidential election.]

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