By Hugo Spaulding
Key Take-away: Far-right groups launched a violent riot on August 31 outside Ukraine’s parliament during its review of controversial constitutional amendments that would acknowledge the special status of separatist-held southeastern Ukraine. The riots demonstrate the growing challenge to stability that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko faces from the far-right, a threat that could present new vulnerabilities that the Kremlin may exploit.
A riot erupted outside Ukraine’s parliament building in Kyiv on August 31. The riot was perpetrated by far-right demonstrators opposed to constitutional amendments that would reference the special status of the separatist-held regions of southeastern Ukraine, put forth for an initial parliamentary vote on August 31. Demonstrators clashed with Ukrainian police and national guardsmen outside the parliamentary building. Protestors hurled flashbangs, smoke bombs, and at least one grenade into the lines of Ukrainian security forces protecting the building. At least three Ukrainian national guardsmen were killed in a grenade blast, and around 125 members of the security forces were injured in the riot. The suspect behind the grenade attack was on leave from the government’s “Anti-Terrorist Operation” (ATO) in the southeast, where he served as member of a volunteer special police battalion. Both the suspect and the battalion have links to the ultranationalist “Svoboda” (“Freedom”) party, whose flags were widespread among the protestors. Camouflaged members of the ultranationalist “Pravyi Sektor” (“Right Sector”) paramilitary group, another unit fighting alongside government forces in southeast Ukraine, also blockaded a road leading to the parliamentary building.
Ukraine’s interior minister placed the blame for the riot on “Svoboda” party head Oleh Tyahnybok, who was seen among the protestors along with a former party MP. Tyahnybok and his party blamed the Ukrainian government for provoking the riot both by supporting the constitutional amendments and, according to their account, by initiating the violence. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the riot a “stab in the back.” Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk called the demonstrators “worse” than the Russian-backed separatists in the southeast, suggesting that they were trying to open a “second front” in Ukraine’s war “under the guise of patriotism.” Even the leader of “Pravyi Sektor,” who called for a nationwide vote-of-no-confidence against the government during a July demonstration on Kyiv’s central square, acknowledged that the violence played into the hands of Ukraine’s enemies.
The amendments put forward by President Poroshenko would not grant the separatists in the southeastern Donbas region greater autonomy. Instead, the amendments on “decentralization” would grant greater fiscal powers to all local governments below the oblast (province) level. Poroshenko has described the amendments as a “vaccine” against the federalization that Russia has supported and that could grant oblasts the power to veto major domestic and foreign policy decisions made in Kyiv. The amendments would introduce a reference to the “peculiarities” of local governance in the separatist-held regions into the temporary “transitional provisions” of the constitution. They would state that the peculiarities of governance in occupied Donbas are determined by a separate special status law, which has already been passed, without defining them inside the constitution.
This special status law was passed in September 2014 in the wake of the first “Minsk” ceasefire agreement but was altered in March 2015 to prevent it from coming into effect before the withdrawal of “illegal armed groups” and the completion of internationally monitored elections in occupied Donbas. Accordingly, the amendments would not substantively alter Kyiv’s current relationship with separatist-held Donbas since the special status law is unlikely to come into effect in its current form. The amendments would however largely fulfill the clause of the February “Minsk II” ceasefire agreement, which mandates constitutional reform on the basis “decentralization.” That clause of the “Minsk II” agreement requires Kyiv to agree on the specifics of autonomy with the separatist leadership, a step Poroshenko’s government has so far avoided. The proposed “decentralization” amendments thus fulfill the primary requirement of the ceasefire clause while skirting the prerequisite that the separatists approve of the reforms. Poroshenko’s partial implementation of the clause reflects competing pressures from his Western backers that support the ceasefire deal, domestic factions that oppose aspects of the agreement, as well as Russia and the separatists, which use the deal as a platform to pursue political concessions through military escalation.
Several parties in parliament have construed the amendments as a major concession toward Russia and the separatists despite the absence of specific autonomy provisions in the legislation. From the ruling five-party parliamentary coalition only the factions backing President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk supported the amendments. The three junior coalition parties and members of marginal factions including the ultranationalist “Svoboda” party voted against the legislation, while the pro-Russian opposition supported the amendments. Oleh Lyashko, the populist leader of the coalition’s “Radical Party” described the amendments as pro-Putin and traitorous and called for the removal of the reference to the special status law. Lyashko’s party attempted to block off the speaker’s podium and brought sirens and loudspeakers into parliament in an effort to disrupt the passage of the legislation. “Radical Party” flags among the protestors suggested it also had a hand in organizing the riot along with “Svoboda.” The other two junior coalition factions, including the “Batkivshchyna” (“Fatherland”) party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, also opposed the amendments because of the reference to the special status law; however, the parties did not exclude the possibility that they would support revised “decentralization” amendments. On September 1, Oleh Lyashko announced that the “Radical Party” was leaving the coalition and accused the pro-Poroshenko and pro-Yatsenyuk factions of forming a new de-facto coalition with the pro-Russian opposition. While Lyashko’s defection does not threaten the coalition’s majority, it does take away the coalition’s ability to unilaterally amend the constitution and could be followed by the departure of the other two dissenting coalition members.
Even without the broad support of the ruling coalition, the amendments successfully passed through parliament with the backing of 265 out of 368 MPs present. A second and final reading in December 2015 will require 300 votes before the constitution can be amended. Following the clashes outside parliament, Poroshenko announced that the passage of the amendments in December 2015 will be determined by Russia’s demonstrated willingness to fulfill the “Minsk II” agreement. The head of the pro-Poroshenko bloc in parliament suggested that changes could be introduced into the text of the amendments if Russia and the separatists did not take steps to implement the ceasefire agreement. These statements suggest that Poroshenko is giving himself room to alter the amendments in order to receive broader support within parliament.
In the meantime, Poroshenko faces an increasingly real threat to stability posed by far-right groups that oppose any compromise with Russia and the separatists. Given that Poroshenko’s international backers, namely the U.S., Germany and France, insist on his fulfillment of the “Minsk II” ceasefire agreement, the president has little choice but to make political concessions to Moscow and its proxies. The riot outside Ukraine’s parliament demonstrated that far-right factions are willing to resort to violence even in the context of a minor political decision such as a preliminary vote over symbolic concessions, which neither Russia nor the separatists view as conciliatory. The threshold for triggering political violence from Ukraine’s far-right is low, recently demonstrated by a July shootout in Western Ukraine over an apparent smuggling turf dispute with a Ukrainian MP and an August clash over a pro-Russian party’s registration in the northeastern city of Kharkiv, both incidents involving members of “Pravyi Sektor.” Like the Russian-backed separatists in Donbas, Ukraine’s far-right is likely to continue to use violent escalation as a means to pursue political ends. While it is difficult to predict when Poroshenko will face another “stab in the back” or what form it will take, it is clear that a polarizing political climate in Kyiv and the rise of a potential far-right spoiler to “Minsk II” creates new fissures for his Russian counterpart to exploit.