Nicolai Petro: Ukrainian officials are using this first military move as political tool to garner more public support, as groups labeled pro-Russian truly want federalism, not succession, in order to protect eastern Ukraine’s autonomy
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
Ukraine’s interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, has sent armed forces to retake government buildings that were seized by pro-Russian militants last week. This has been the first military action that the transitional government has ever taken, and there is concern that this will escalate the already unstable political situation in Ukraine.
Now joining us to discuss the situation is Nicolai Petro. Professor Nicolai Petro is a professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island. He has been in Ukraine since August as a visiting scholar and has observed the current crisis firsthand.
Thank you for joining us, Nicolai.
NICOLAI PETRO, PROF. POLITICS AND VISITING SCHOLAR, URI: Hello, Jessica.
DESVARIEUX: So, Nicolai, we know that the Ukrainian government has taken back an airfield that was seized by militants. How is the transitional government using this takeover to meet their own political goals? And can you give us a sense of how much support there is in Ukraine for these actions?
PETRO: The Ukrainian government at this point needs to show that it can deal with crises of this sort, which it faced before in Crimea and not dealt with very well. So now it’s facing the same test in another region of Ukraine, and it’s important to the constituencies that brought it to power that it prove its effectiveness in being able to deal with these sorts of challenges, particularly because the whole claim of the revolution was that this government would be more effective than its predecessor.
DESVARIEUX: What about support for these actions? I guess it depends on where you actually sit geographically, right?
PETRO: Yeah. In the West, support for the revolution has been high, between 70 and 80 percent. So they tend to view the developments in the eastern part of Ukraine as a secession, something illegal in their eyes, and a rebellion against a legitimate government. In the eastern parts of Ukraine, where 70 percent or so of the population view what happened in Kiev in February as an illegal coup, they see it as merely a challenge to an illegal authority, and therefore trying to reclaim certain rights for themselves that they fear they may have lost.
DESVARIEUX: Let’s turn and talk about Russia, ’cause Russia says that they aren’t the mastermind behind these takeovers and the calls for referendums to secede from Ukraine. How is the Russian government using this political crisis to meet their own objectives?
PETRO: Russia’s objective has been to try to stabilize Ukraine so that it can become again what it was before, which is one of Russia’s major trading partners. And in order to do that, it has challenged the authority of the central government, which is trying to turn the country toward the West and away from closer integration into the Eurasian Union, which Russia’s sponsoring.
On the other hand, what it is attempting to do in the eastern parts is to insist that they be given greater autonomy, because those are the regions that have instinctively closer ties and closer economic connections with Russia. And if they were given the autonomy they were asking for from Kiev, they would probably sponsor and strengthen those ties.
DESVARIEUX: And Russia’s really come out saying that they need to protect their compatriots in all of this. And I want to speak to specifics, though, on how the new Ukrainian government is in any way alienating ethnic Russians or Russian speakers in Ukraine. Can you speak to specific actions that they’ve taken?
PETRO: I think one of the current climate in the East, and to a lesser extent in the South, is not so much one of direct intimidation but fear of what might happen. So they’re sort of anticipating the worst in the future if the current government goes ahead with its reforms full-throttle. And the precedent they have that they’re thinking of is the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko after the Orange Revolution, when there was a government policy of so-called forced Ukrainianization. The current government, which took over in February, is composed of individuals who are even more radically oriented towards supporting Ukrainian and–Ukrainianization, I should say. And as a result, they’re fearful that what they lived through before in Yushchenko’s administration and which they thought they had defeated in getting–in supporting the campaign of Viktor Yushchenko, that might now be coming back even stronger.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. So give us a sense of, though, if Russians themselves are in any way influencing or instigating this divide, because from other interviews that we’ve had with you, Nicolai, and other guests that we’ve had on this program, they very much say that it’s so integrated, the Ukrainian culture, Russian culture. I mean, there’s no clear line.
PETRO: Yes. I think that’s right. And so it’s very easy–that means it’s really easy for both sides to claim–namely I’m saying–I mean the Kievan government, as well as Moscow–to claim that they are supporting the rights of all in insisting that there be equal treatment of all. The question is: who do people in the country actually believe has their interests at heart? And here I think we do have a difference of opinion region by region, although I don’t think there is strong support anywhere, except maybe in Crimea, for outright secession to Russia.
And in that sense I think it’s incorrect to describe the people that have been depicted in the media, in Western media as secessionists or pro-Russian. They’re really not. That’s an extreme option for them. Their first demand is actually federalism. So I think they’re most appropriately to be called Ukrainian federalists.
DESVARIEUX: So if they were to get what they want with this federalism, for you, what would that look like? Are we talking about what Quebec looks like to Canada? What’s your take?
PETRO: Well, that would be a good option, I think, an interesting one. But there really is no single formula for federalism. The one thing that defines a federal structure of government is a negotiated relationship between regions and the central government and the fact that that particular relationship is then enshrined in the Constitution. And that’s why, for the federalists in the East, they are reluctant to accept the offers from Kiev of simply greater autonomy, because they’re fearful that without that autonomy being enshrined in the Constitution, it may be rescinded at some later point, because these sorts of promises of greater local authority, respect for language rights, have been made repeatedly in the past and then not been fulfilled.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Nicolai Petro, joining us from Ukraine, thank you so much for being with us.
PETRO: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: And, of course, you can follow our stories @therealnews, and feel free to Tweet me questions or comments @Jessica_Reports.
Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.