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Is Federalism a Solution to South-East Ukraine's Identity Crisis?

"Is Donbass Ukraine?" mixed by Valentina Lukin.

“Is Donbass Ukraine?” mixed by Valentina Lukin.

Recent polls conducted by the Kiev International Sociology Institute reveal that the majority of the Ukrainian South-East does not want to join Russia. However, if a referendum is held about secession from Ukraine, it might show different results.

Last week the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic used the Facebook account of its “People's Governor” Pavel Gubarev to announce the formation of a Novorossya Federation of Donetsk and other Donbass regions in Eastern Ukraine. Gubarev has been detained by Ukraine's law enforcement authorities for the past month. The post, widely liked and shared, urged people to vote in a May 11 referendum for secession from Ukraine and unification with Russia and Belarus.

The Dobass region (comprising parts of Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, and Luhansk) has always had separatist tendencies, even before the most recent regime change in Kiev. The coal mining and energy center is one of the most densely populated and the most economically developed region in Ukraine. Many here feel that they feed the rest of Ukraine, a mood that has been fomented by the separatists.

So far, the separatists have been successful. In the second week of April, the Donetsk city hall was occupied, and an independent Luhansk’s republic was established soon after. Dnepropetrovsk is the only regional center whose leadership has successfully defied the separatists. Borys Filatov, who works in the Dnepropetrovsk governor's office, is followed by 30 thousand people on Facebook, and uses his account as a press platform. Recently he traveled to the eastern parts of Dnepropetrovsk Region to meet with coal miners and managers. Filatov says that the most important thing is “to preserve the integrity of my country, its sovereignty and independence. The rest is irrelevant.”

Due to inability of Donetsk’s officials to control the separatists, some Ukrainians there are turning to Dnepropetrovsk for leadership. In an ironic twist, pro-Ukrainian activists disseminate flyers in the Donetsk urging people to call for a referendum on joining the Dnepropetrovsk Region. 

According to the study cited in the begging of this article, more than 80% of Dnepropetrovsk’s population is against secession from Ukraine and unification with Russia. Only 27.5 % of Donetsk and 30.3% of Luhansk support secession. Some bloggers, however, noticed that in the study questions of secession from Ukraine and unification with Russia were combined into one. There was also no question on Ukrainian federalization. Elena Balabanova, who works in the Donetsk City Youth Center, sees the Donbass population being divided into four categories: pro-”Unified Ukraine,” pro-”Federalized Ukraine,” pro-Russia, and pro-independence. She says that “due to an incorrect formulation of the questions” the study is missing some of these categories, including the “federalists.”

Ukrainian federalists propose a federal republic, with two state languages — Russian and Ukrainian — which seems to be a crucial issue for many separatists in the Donbass region. One of these federalist activists, Da Dzi stresses that a united Ukraine, the way it existed for the past twenty years, is no longer possible. The only way to avoid bloodshed and keep Ukraine around at least in some form? “Constitutional reform, the formation of a Ukrainian Federation, and the transformation of the South-East into the Federative Republic of Novorossia.”

A Belorussian website offers a questionnaire that seems to do a better job in distinguishing between different opinion groups. This survey is conducted online in eight South-East Ukrainian regions. The organizers claim to check each IP address before allowing participants to choose between a united Ukraine, Russia, an independent republic, and Ukrainian federalization. This questionnaire attracts fewer residents from Dnepropetrovsk and the other five Novorossiya regions (about 10 thousand votes in each), but it is very popular in Donetsk (about 70 thousand votes) and Luhansk (about 30 thousand votes). There might be some selection bias inherent in this poll however – the plurality of online voters chose joining Russia. But federalization runs a distant third.

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