The Economist Looks at Decentralization Vote in Ukraine, Cites IRI Poll

The war in Ukraine’s east has come back to Kiev
The Economist

Igor Debrin, a 24-year-old conscript in Ukraine’s national guard, had a seemingly safe posting in Kiev, far from the country’s embattled eastern regions. On Monday, he was sent to keep watch outside Ukraine’s parliament, where a controversial vote to change the country’s constitution brought raucous protestors to the streets. By day’s end, parliament had passed the changes, but Mr Debrin lay dead, the victim of a grenade thrown by a nationalist demonstrator. More than 100 other soldiers and policemen were wounded. Another two national guardsmen died on Tuesday, succumbing to injuries sustained in the blast. They were the first killed in protests in Kiev since Ukraine’s Maidan revolution last year.

The trigger for the violence was a bill that would grant greater autonomy to separatist-held areas in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, has lobbied hard for the measures, which he says are a crucial step to fulfilling the peace deal signed in Minsk earlier this year. Ukraine’s western allies have pushed Kiev to unilaterally move forward with its end of the agreement. “We must show the world that Ukraine is a reliable partner,” says Hanna Hopko, head of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, and a supporter of the bill.

Opponents call the changes unacceptable concessions, especially as long as Russia and its separatist proxies fail to fully cease hostilities in the east. The protestors outside parliament gathered under the banners of Svoboda, a ultranationalist party that backed the Maidan revolution but has been marginalised since. But the man who threw the grenade is said to be a soldier from one of Ukraine’s volunteer battalions, a harrowing reminder of the problems posed by Ukraine’s growing number of traumatised war veterans.

While the clashes outside the parliament claimed the headlines, what happened inside may prove more consequential still for Ukraine’s future. The vote on the constitutional changes split an already fragile ruling coalition. Three of the five parties voted en masse against, and Mr Poroshenko had to rely on deputies from the Opposition Bloc party, the successor to the deposed ex-president Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, to achieve a simple majority. (Since the changes failed to receive a 300-vote “supermajority”, the bill will have to pass a second reading later this year.)

In an address to the nation, Mr Poroshenko insisted that the vote did not herald the end of the coalition. Yuri Lutsenko, the head of Mr Poroshenko’s parliamentary fraction, was less sanguine: “The coalition will live, the question is whether it will work.” By Tuesday, one junior partner in the coalition, Oleh Lyashko’s populist Radical Party, had already announced its exit. Balazs Jarabik of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace calls the vote a “milestone,” heralding an end to the “post-Maidan” political alignment.

Local elections set for late October have precipitated a rise of radical populism. The three junior coalition members are seen as trying to distance themselves from Mr Poroshenko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the prime minister, as Ukrainians have become increasingly frustrated with the government’s performance. According to recent polling by the International Republican Institute, a mere 3% of Ukrainians are “satisfied” with the pace of reforms. Mr Yatsenyuk’s party, which placed first in last year’s parliamentary elections, now polls below the 5% threshold required to enter parliament. Ukrainian politicians have rarely acted responsibly in the past; shifting alliances and switching sides is common. But doing so while under attack from Russia puts the Ukrainian state at existential risk.

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