The compromises Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has made to end the fighting in his country have taken shape, and they are dangerous to his political future. His increasingly nationalist electorate considers them little short of treachery.
The Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday passed Poroshenko’s bill on the special status of eastern areas held by pro-Russian rebels. It also ratified Ukraine’s association and free trade agreement with the European Union, although Ukraine now only intends to abolish customs duties on EU goods at the end of 2015. These concessions are less in some areas and more in others than Russian President Vladimir Putin squeezed from Poroshenko’s ill-fated predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, and they come at an enormous cost in human lives, lost trust and broken relationships between the two nations.
The special status law breaks with the Ukrainian government’s practice of calling the rebels “terrorists”. It describes them as “participants in the events in the territories of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions.” They are granted a broad amnesty, and Ukrainian organizations are banned from discriminating against them on the basis of their participation in the fighting.
The rebel-held areas are given full power to govern themselves for the three years that follow local elections scheduled for Nov. 9. That includes appointing their own police forces, prosecutors and judges. The local self-government will be allowed to cooperate with Russian authorities across the border “to deepen good neighborly relations,” and the law allows the region to conduct its business in Russian, while the rest of the country uses Ukrainian. The ministries in Kiev will only be able to participate in running the eastern areas if the local bodies deign to sign special agreements with them, yet the law promises Ukrainian budgetary funding to patch up the ravages of war and develop the semi-independent regions.
That, in effect, is Ukraine’s signature under the creation of a frozen conflict area. For Russia, that kind of buffer is the best: It’s not an unrecognized state with a murky status, but an officially recognized enclave within Ukraine. Kiev takes responsibility for it, but has little or no influence on what happens there. The law will probably stand for now, as long as Poroshenko and Putin manage to make the shaky cease-fire in eastern Ukraine stick.
This is a bitter pill for Ukrainians to swallow. “I wouldn’t have voted for this bill if I had been a legislator,” journalist Mustafa Nayyem, who is running for a parliament seat as part of Poroshenko’s electoral bloc, wrote on Facebook. “I see no value in compromises that can lead to another political split in Kiev, mutual accusations of treachery and a show-off patriotism contest.”
That’s a mild reaction by Kiev standards: “Poroshenko is giving up to Putin just enough Ukrainian interests to avoid getting beaten up by his own citizens,” Dmytro Gnap, another journalist, wrote on Facebook. Gnap, who was a prominent investigator of corruption under the Yanukovych regime, accuses Poroshenko of trying to shore up his personal power at any cost so he can run the country with the same corrupt officials who enriched themselves under the previous presidency.
Poroshenko’s bloc does indeed include odious figures implicated in the corruption of the old regime and, in a blatantly Yanukovych-style twist, Poroshenko’s son Aleksiy is running for a parliament seat with his father’s party. “The summit of nepotism,” Gnap fumed.
As for the idealists who joined the government after Yanukovych’s ouster, they have been losing faith and dropping out. Last week, Deputy Foreign Minister Danylo Lubkivsky resigned after he learned that Kiev had decided to put off implementing part of the EU trade agreement. He wrote that the delay sends “the wrong signal to everyone: the aggressor, allies, and, most importantly, Ukrainian citizens.”
The trade deal, which Yanukovych declined to sign last year and thus triggered the protests that ended his presidency, will for now operate as a set of unilateral EU concessions to prop up the Ukrainian economy. Ukrainian companies will be able to export duty-free to the EU within certain quotas, but EU goods will still be subject to duties as before. This is to please Russia, which claims it would lose about $3 billion a year in economic damage from transit imports.
More than 3,000 people lie dead; Russia is in deepening international isolation; Ukraine faces a 10 percent drop in economic output this year; and Poroshenko’s concessions will take a further toll on the impoverished nation. It is a Pyrrhic victory for Putin and makes no one happy: not even the Russian leader can be sure Ukraine will follow through on the compromises it has offered. That depends on the Oct. 26 parliamentary elections, from which Poroshenko may not emerge with a comfortable majority, as voters back populists and military commanders from the eastern war.
If Ukraine then returns to the political in-fighting and non-transparent dealings of the past, it will have a hard time persuading even its friends, the U.S. and the EU, to support it.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor. He is a Berlin-based writer, author of three novels and two nonfiction books.