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What Are Eastern Ukraine's (Legitimate) Grievances With Kyiv?

Ukraine's new president, Petro Poroshenko, will have to straighten out misperceptions and replace them with the conviction there is a positive interdependence between Ukraine's different regions.
Ukraine's new president, Petro Poroshenko, will have to straighten out misperceptions and replace them with the conviction there is a positive interdependence between Ukraine's different regions.
When Ukraine's President-elect Petro Poroshenko visits Donetsk after his inauguration next month, he is likely to get an earful of demands from eastern Ukrainians who are unhappy with Kyiv.

Here are five things to know about why many harbor grievances against the Ukrainian authorities and how Poroshenko might address them.

What are the main grievances?

There are plenty of people in eastern Ukraine who are angry with Kyiv, but whose anger stops short of wanting to secede. According to a May poll by the Pew Research Center in Ukraine, 70 percent of eastern Ukrainians want to keep the country intact, including 58 percent of Russian speakers.

However, this majority -- which has largely remained silent in the face of the separatist violence -- is far from happy with the status quo. Many want a new power-sharing arrangement with Kyiv to give local people a greater say in managing their own affairs, analysts say.

Ukraine specialist Orisya Lutsevych of London-based Chatham House says people in the east are fed up with the highly centralized nature of the state, where all local tax revenue goes to Kyiv before any is channeled back home.
"These grievances in Donbas are very similar to the ones across Ukraine at large," Lutsevych says. "People are suffering from mismanagement, corruption, and lack of economic opportunities."

The distrust is not about people in the east believing that their interests are only served when someone from their region holds power in Kyiv. Ukraine's worst corruption to date is widely believed to have taken place under deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, himself from the Donbas region, and it spared no one.

But Russian-leaning eastern Ukrainians do feel left out by the recent Euromaidan revolution in Kyiv, which was heavily supported by European-leaning western Ukraine. The trick for Poroshenko will be to assure them now that their voices will also be heard.

What can Poroshenko offer?

Poroshenko has spoken about the need for some degree of devolution of power to the regions and regards that as the way to end the crisis in the east peacefully.

That is in line with the national roundtable talks the Kyiv government has already been conducting since May 14, with meetings so far in Kyiv, the eastern city of Kharkiv, and the southern shipyard city of Mykolayiv.

The government's decentralization plan, which would require constitutional amendments, would give mayors and city councils a greater say in local spending priorities. It uses Poland as a model, where almost 40 percent of revenue from personal income taxes are kept in local coffers rather than being siphoned off to the central government and reapportioned to municipalities. Additionally, 6 percent of revenue from corporate taxes and all local property taxes are kept in local coffers.

What is not on offer is the "federalization" concept that has been mooted by Moscow and is favored by separatist leaders when they do not demand outright independence or annexation by Russia.

Andy Hunder, director of the Ukrainian Institute in London, says Kyiv fears that federalization -- something that is the norm in countries like Germany and the United States -- would fatally weaken the Ukrainian state due to Russian meddling. "Federalization has really been the game plan of the Kremlin," he says. "That would not allow, or would derail, any attempt by the Kyiv government to move the country closer to any European integration or potentially even any military bloc or alliances."

Another thing not on offer is negotiating directly with the separatists. The national roundtables have excluded them and Poroshenko has said he will continue Kyiv's military counteroffensive in the east.

What are some of the other grievances?

Another issue Poroshenko will likely have to address is eastern Ukraine's belief it is carrying more than its fair share of the weight in supporting the rest of the country economically.

That sense of regional injustice dates back to the days when eastern Ukraine was an industrial powerhouse of the Soviet Union but saw its earnings go to Moscow. Today, it is the site of Ukraine's major mining, steel, and defense industries and residents widely feel Kyiv has simply taken the place of the Soviet capital.

The argument is regularly fueled by pro-Russian and Russian media -- but is specious. It ignores the fact that Donetsk and Luhansk are the two most heavily subsidized regions in the country after Kyiv itself.

According to Ukrainian government figures, for example, in the first half of 2013, Donetsk received 9.25 billion hryvnyas ($762 million) more in subsidies than it contributed to the national budget and Luhansk received 5.07 billion hryvnyas ($418 million) more than it contributed.

"In terms of the perceptions that are trying to be created, that Donbas is really working for the whole of Ukraine, that is really not the case," the Ukrainian Institute's Hunder says. "It is really worth sitting down and seeing the mines that are heavily subsidized along with other industries."

Poroshenko's challenge will be to do the sitting down. He will have to straighten out the misperception and replace it with the conviction there is a positive interdependence between Ukraine's different regions.

What about the language issue?

Kyiv has sought to make that a nonissue after getting off to a bad start immediately after the Euromaidan's victory over Yanukovych. Shortly after Yanukovych was ousted in February, Ukraine's parliament voted to cancel the status of Russian as the country's second official language. The measure infuriated Russian-speakers in the east, even though acting President Oleksandr Turchynov refused to sign the measure.
INFOGRAPHIC: Ukrainians and the Russian Language

Since then, the Ukrainian government has worked hard to repair the damage. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has said that "no one will ever limit the Russian language and the right to speak it in Ukraine." He has also promised the government will not repeal a law that guarantees regions the right to declare a second official language when it is spoken by at least 10 percent of the population.

Still, the perceived threat to the Russian language has been a major rallying point for pro-Russians pushing a separatist agenda. It will be up to Poroshenko to put the issue to rest, and the fact that he himself comes from a Russian-speaking background could help.

What are Poroshenko's chances of success?

With armed separatists ramping up their fight -- including attacking the Donetsk airport on May 27 -- eastern Ukraine remains a powder keg. The government's vow to continue its own military counteroffensive means the two sides will continue to clash, forcing the population to choose sides.

But Poroshenko's chances of success are boosted by the recent choice of regional power broker and Ukraine's richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, to side with Kyiv against the separatists. Akhmetov, who owns the Donbas' mining and steel industries, had long sat on the fence in the crisis, but is now mobilizing public opinion against the separatists after they demanded he pay taxes to the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic or have his assets seized.

Still, the wild card in the game remains Moscow, which says it's ready for dialogue with Poroshenko but has also laid down rules for how he should solve the crisis. Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 27 called for an immediate end to the "punitive" military operation in the east and the establishment of a peaceful dialogue between Kyiv and representatives of the regions -- presumably a reference to the east's separatists.