Ukraine's parliament on August 31 voted to initially back a bill, proposed by President Petro Poroshenko pursuant to Kyiv’s obligations under February's Minsk cease-fire, that offers greater autonomy to local government, including in areas controlled by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The controversial vote prompted demonstrations, including by nationalists gathered outside the legislature, that turned deadly when a grenade was hurled into the ranks of riot police guarding the building. President Petro Poroshenko called the violence a "stab in the back" and vowed that the "anti-Ukrainian act" would not go unpunished.
RFE/RL explains the controversial legislation at the heart of the dispute and what to expect next.
What was the immediate cause of the clashes in front of the Ukrainian parliament on August 31?
Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, had just preliminarily approved amendments to the country's constitution on decentralization. (More on that below.) The plan is controversial -- especially on the nationalist far right, many of whose adherents had gathered outside the parliament building with truncheons, pipes, and other weapons -- because some see it as acceding to the demands of Russian-backed aggression in eastern Ukraine.
So have they changed the Ukrainian Constitution?
Not yet. As elsewhere, in Ukraine the process for amending the constitution differs from that of regular legislation. In the case of the decentralization clauses, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko submitted draft legislation to parliament and the deputies approved it. Next, in July, the Ukrainian Constitutional Court ruled that the proposed changes complied with the country's laws and constitution.
The August 31 vote was the next step in the process, requiring a majority of deputies for approval. However, the constitution remains unchanged until after a second reading, not yet scheduled, which requires a two-thirds vote for passage.
OK, but what is decentralization anyway?
Decentralization implies the transfer of a significant amount of power and budgetary funds from the state to the local level. In Ukraine's case, the country would be reorganized in favor of a three-tiered administrative and territorial structure -- 27 regions, 120-150 districts, and 1,500-1,800 communities. Each would have its own budget and its own set of responsibilities.
At the same time, a community's decisions would not necessarily be subject to district authority, and a district's decisions would not necessarily be subject to regional authority. For example, if a community wanted to fix a road, it could make the decision on its own and pay for it from its own budget, without waiting for approval from any higher authority.
That sounds fine, doesn't it?
To some. But other experts and parliamentarians criticize certain points of the amendments. For instance, prefects, suggested by the Cabinet of Ministers and approved by the president, would head the regions. That is the case under the current constitution, too, but the amendments would hand considerably more power to those prefects. For instance, if a prefect thought that a local government was breaking the law, he or she could suspend them.
The Ukrainian president would hold the same power -- he or she could suspend officials or entire local governments if necessary. This, critics complain, could encourage corruption and abuse of power.
So that’s why demonstrators clashed with police?
Still no. There is a controversial line in the constitutional amendment that many were upset about. It says the following: "The specifics of executing local governance in certain administrative units of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts are defined by a separate law." This law already exists. It states that after elections in territory currently controlled by Russian-backed separatists, local elected authorities can create their own militias and grant amnesty to those who participated in warfare in Donbas, as Donetsk and Luhansk are sometimes collectively called.
Laws in Ukraine can be changed. The rub lies in the fact that after the approval of the amendments, they become part of the constitution, which can make them more difficult to modify. Many Ukrainians, among them former political prisoner Stepan Khmara, believe that the new amendments would legitimize a "Russian enclave" in Ukraine, leading to further destabilization and even complete deterioration of the Ukrainian state.
Will this really happen?
Possibly. However, some conditions would have to be met first. The law on Donbas enters into force only after a complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory -- presumably including Crimea, which is part of Ukraine despite its forcible annexation by Russia in March 2014. Another precondition of the law is that Ukraine must be in control of all of its borders, including the part of the Ukrainian-Russian border that is now controlled by separatists.
Next, elections in the occupied territories must take place according to the Ukrainian Constitution and its laws; only then may newly elected officials -- separatist or otherwise -- be granted the rights described by the law. The law also expires after three years. One year has already passed, and the government may or may not renew the law.
Why did Ukraine get into this decentralization business anyway?
Decentralization is part of the second Minsk agreement that Ukraine signed with Russia, Germany, and France in February. The document demands that Ukraine change its constitution by the end of 2015 so as to include "decentralization, which must take into account the specifics of certain territories in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts."
The Ukrainian government must also adopt a permanent law that grants "special status to certain regions in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts." However, the Minsk agreement does not specify precisely what "special status" is. It may turn out that the Ukrainian Constitution must contain the phrase with the government free to interpret it as it sees fit.
What do the separatists think about that?
They have rejected the Ukrainian moves. First, they complain that the administrative units listed for special status do not include all of the territories they desire. Second, the self-styled officials of the pro-Russian "Donetsk People's Republic" and "Luhansk People's Republic" say the Ukrainian government has not agreed with them on election procedure in territories they currently control -- particularly mandatory monitoring by independent international institutions, such as the OSCE. Third, they oppose the preconditions for gaining special status.