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As Pace Of Political Change Picks Up In Kyiv, Eastern Ukraine Balks

As this pro-government, pro-Russia rally in the Crimean city of Simferopol late last month indicates, there is still plenty of opposition to the Maidan protest movement in southern and eastern Ukraine.
While lawmakers in Kyiv were adopting resolutions and making appointments with breakneck speed, including dismissing President Viktor Yanukovych, a rump group of local officials and lawmakers from the formerly ruling Party of Regions met in the eastern city of Kharkiv for a hastily assembled congress.

The officials from all levels of government in the Russophone eastern and southern parts of Ukraine adopted a statement declaring that "illegal formations" had taken up arms against the legitimate government and were killing civilians and police. It called into question the legitimacy of the Verkhovna Rada, as the parliament in Kyiv is known, saying it "is working under conditions of terror and under the threat of weapons and murders."

Although the congress did not back open calls for secession -- advocating that separatism is a criminal offense in Ukraine -- the resolution said that "until constitutional order and legality are restored in the country…all local power is taken upon themselves by local organs of self-government."

The meeting -- and sizeable pro-Russia demonstrations in cities across the region on February 22 -- has aroused fears that Ukraine might collapse into two or more pieces under the weight of its current transformation. The congress was attended by a high-level Russian delegation headed by Duma Deputy and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Aleksei Pushkov and including the governors of four adjacent Russian regions.

Addressing the congress, Kharkiv Mayor Hennadiy Kernes flatly rejected accusations of separatism.

"I want to respond [to those who call me a separatist] here in this hall," he said. "I am for a single country. Kharkiv was part of Ukraine and it will remain part of Ukraine. I will stay until the end. I will work at my post. And I will work as long as I have the confidence of the people."

However, Ukraine's newly minted interior minister, Arsen Avakov, posted on Twitter just hours later that Kernes and Kharkiv Oblast Governor Mykhaylo Dobkin had left Ukraine and passed through the Goptovka border crossing into Russia.

Yanukovych Defiant

Yanukovych didn't attend the conference. But he gave a defiant TV interview in Kharkiv where he denied reports that he was resigning and called what was happening in the capital "a coup."

Ukrainian media reported that thousands of pro- and anti-Maidan demonstrators faced off outside the hall where the congress was held.

An anti-Maidan billboard outside the Crimean town of Belogorsk, one of many that have been posted throughout the region.
An anti-Maidan billboard outside the Crimean town of Belogorsk, one of many that have been posted throughout the region.

Andreas Umland, an associate professor of political science at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, says the congress is not in itself a cause for too much concern.

"I think it is just the last hurrah of the Party of Regions. Now that the Verkhovna Rada is basically the central government and the central parliament is fully against [President Viktor] Yanukovych -- as it looks now -- I don't think this is going to go anywhere."

New York University political science professor Mark Galeotti notes that the Kharkiv congress called primarily for increased autonomy within Ukraine and avoided openly separatist appeals. He suggests that the Yanukovych-connected elites of the region could be seeking to increase their leverage in dealing with a post-Yanukovych government.

"It depends on whether or not the new government in Kyiv -- whatever it ends up being -- seeks a war to the death and then pushes them into opposition," he says. "Or whether it accepts that, in the interests of national reconciliation and unity -- even if Yanukovych and a few other key figures go or even end up on trial -- they have to accept the pro-Yanukovych elites that were there [in the east and south]. Some form of autonomy, some sort of deal like that, might provide the basis by which they could reach some form of reconciliation."

However, Galeotti adds, such a deal would also increase Russia's leverage in Ukraine and that Moscow believes it has vital national-security interests in Ukraine which it cannot ignore. Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based in the Crimean city of Sevastopol and Moscow would oppose by all means any Ukrainian attempt to join NATO:

"The presence of the Russian delegation in the Kharkiv events was once again meant to show that whatever future Ukraine wants to build for itself, it has to factor Russian interests into that," says Galeotti.

Ukraine's Collapse 'Would Mean War'

Konstantin Zatulin, director of Russia's Institute of CIS Countries, told the Voice of America broadcaster earlier this week that, if there is a threat to Crimea's autonomy "Russia will have to react -- how precisely will depend on the situation."

He added that "informally Russia is the guarantor of Crimea's autonomy."

Russian opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov believes that Russia is playing a dangerous game by giving tacit encouragement to separatists in Ukraine:.

"The collapse of Ukraine would mean war," he says. "And people would flee that war, including to Russia. That's why what they are doing now, they don't even themselves imagine what the consequences will be. Today's witch hunt that they held in Kharkiv, and it was a real witch hunt, attests most of all to the fact that they are totally inadequate, that they don't understand anything that has happened. It is obvious that their resolutions are just hot air -- no one is going to carry them out."

RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Mikhail Sokolov contributed to this report from Moscow