To hold Ukraine together, it needs to pull together
March 28th, 2014
11:44 AM ET

To hold Ukraine together, it needs to pull together

By Viola Gienger, Dominik Tolksdorf and William B. Taylor, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Viola Gienger is a senior writer; Dominik Tolksdorf is a Transatlantic Post-Doctoral Fellow for International Relations and Security; and William B. Taylor is vice president for Middle East and Africa programs, at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Taylor is a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. The views expressed are their own.

As Russian troops gather along the border, and with Ukrainian soldiers having been forced from their bases in Crimea, Ukraine’s leaders, civic activists and armed forces are facing a severe test – one that has global implications.

After all, the response of the country’s interim leadership will determine not only the future of their own country, but also that of Russia's entire periphery, as well as the U.S. and European security arrangements at the heart of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It is therefore important that the country’s leaders keep their eyes on the ultimate prize – a unified Ukraine with a democratic, transparent and effective government.

To make this goal a reality, the country can take concrete steps toward disarming internal cultural fears and tensions, broadening political power, stemming graft and securing economic reform. Encouragingly, Ukraine’s leaders already are demonstrating that they are more respectful of the rights of ethnic Russians than Vladimir Putin, at least judging by the Russian president’s poor record on protecting the civic rights of his own citizens.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian civic activists are mounting impressive campaigns of nonviolent resistance across the country to promote unity in the face of Russian provocations, a sentiment the interim leadership can bolster by emphasizing openness and inclusivity. Interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov made a start on this by appointing wealthy businessmen Serhij Taruta and Ihor Kolomojskij, who were close to his ousted predecessor, as governors in eastern regions. This move could be used as part of an outreach effort to moderates aligned with the former government, which in turn will strengthen reform efforts. In doing so, the interim government would be demonstrating to Ukrainians that the country is pulling in the same direction.

Clearly, the problems facing the interim government transcend ethnic and linguistic divisions, differences that have anyway been exaggerated by Russian propaganda. For years, unrest has been driven primarily by graft and economic hardship more than it has by questions of whether citizens felt closer to Europe or Russia. And while ousted President Viktor Yanukovych's decision in November not to sign an association agreement with the European Union was the trigger for the Independence Square protests, the turnout at the demonstrations was also driven by Ukrainians angry over endemic corruption and a government that repeatedly ignored the interests of the public.

With this in mind, the interim leadership would be strengthened by laying out a clear, comprehensive vision of how politics in Ukraine should be conducted in the post-Maidan era. Constitutional changes that address the distribution of power would be a good place to start, and the central government could make clear that it wants to respect the regions and their elected officials without fuelling separatism, something that would help lay to rest the rumblings of secession in the east.

In fact, the reality is that many Russian-language speakers across the country support a unified, sovereign Ukraine, and reject the prospect of Russian annexation or invasion. The government could therefore do well to demonstrate its new openness by changing the system for choosing regional governors, opting for a more democratic approach than the current, centralized system of making appointments from Kiev.

On the economic front, the interim government is demonstrating that it is committed to battling corruption while also being willing to make potentially unpopular decisions, such as raising domestic heating gas prices to allow the country to cover an expected increase in costs from Russia and meet the terms of vital loans from the International Monetary Fund. The international community should do as much as it can to help Ukraine ease the potential impact of any higher prices on the poorest citizens.

The EU, U.S., IMF and other international organizations have indicated they are committed to the interim government, offering financial aid, military advice, development assistance, and introducing punishing sanctions against Russia for its violations of international agreements and military incursions.

All this is welcome and it is important that the international backing be stalwart. But ultimately, Ukraine’s future is in its own hands. And if political and economic reform is introduced carefully but comprehensively, with proper respect for legitimate opponents, the interim government might just give the country – and itself – a chance to prosper.

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Topics: Ukraine

soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. J. Foster Dulles

    Who says that Ukraine needs to be "held together"? It may be better to let eastern Ukraine with it's Russian majority split from the predominately Polish, Roman Catholic western part. If the eastern Ukranians wish to join Russia, then let them and let the western Ukrainians sell out to the EU if they wish to. In old Russia, Kiev was the capitol from 882 to 1240 AD when the Tartars destroyed it and since then, the Polish along with the lithuanians seized the western half of Ukraine with Kiev as it's capitol. This is why there are diiferences among the Ukrainians.

    March 28, 2014 at 1:01 pm | Reply
    • J. Foster Dulles

      So true. I like pepperoni pizza.

      March 30, 2014 at 1:29 am | Reply
  2. Brian

    I agree.

    March 28, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Reply
  3. chrissy

    So true. I like pepperoni pizza.

    March 28, 2014 at 1:47 pm | Reply
  4. New Russia - New Empire

    A strong and powerful RUSSIA may be good for stability in Asia. No-one can keep back China, not even USA, so a GREAT RUSSIAN EMPIRE would keep Chinese down to earth. USA should support Russia – not China.

    March 28, 2014 at 2:11 pm | Reply
  5. Marcello Botzo

    What about to let the Ukrainian decide with a referendum, so they can finaly say: WE, THE PEOPLE of this land have decided our future. The time of the bully "lead, follow, or get out of the way" is finish, now is a time for DEMOCRACY and SELF DETERMINATION of OMOGENEOUS COMMUNITIES inside OVERNATIONAL ORGANISATIONS like for Scotland, Catalunia...etc

    March 29, 2014 at 11:11 am | Reply
  6. Susan Diner

    Why are we always so critical of Putin/Rusia? I don't remember us being in such a tizzy when China just took Hong Kong whether the people of Hong Kong approved or not.

    March 29, 2014 at 5:14 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Then again Susan, I don't remember anyone being in a tizzy when we launched our iniquitous invasion of Iraq back in 2003 either. Do you remember when two American pilots mercilessly bombed the Amriya air raid shelter in Baghdad, Iraq on Feb. 13, 1991, slaughtering more than 414 innocent civilians? I do and the man who had his entire family in that shelter mourn his horrific loss on the newsreel the following day. We Americans should stop being so quick to condemn others in light of what we did!

      March 29, 2014 at 7:42 pm | Reply
      • Jerry Falwell

        Oh shut up.

        March 30, 2014 at 1:31 am |
      • joe

        Graat point

        March 30, 2014 at 2:22 am |
      • Jose F. Esber

        yes,when America invade Iraq,Russia did not howl a protest,so what's the buzz.

        March 30, 2014 at 2:58 am |
      • Lance Buckmaster

        Yes Joseph, I too remember that sickening episode in Iraq and it made me want to puke. The worst part of this is that when most people here heard of it, they merely parroted the right-wing drivel "war is war and it's an ugly business" as if nobody did anything wrong here. To this day, no one was ever held accountable for this heinous act!

        March 30, 2014 at 12:45 pm |
  7. Susan Diner

    Sorry for the typo – I know I spelled Russia incorrectly.

    March 29, 2014 at 5:16 pm | Reply
  8. Jose F. Esber

    When America invade Iraq,Russia did not howl a protest,so what's the buzz...

    March 30, 2014 at 3:00 am | Reply
  9. j. von hettlingen

    It is true that many ethnic Russians, especially the young ones, in Ukraine don't want to join Russia. The protests in some parts of Ukraine have been fomented by "protest tourists", taken across the border in buses, to make the impression that the ethnic Russians in the Eastern Ukraine demand a referendum on a reunion with Russia.
    It is important that Ukrainians be prepared for economic hardship in the coming months. Yet they have reasons to look forward to a brighter future.

    March 30, 2014 at 12:48 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      That's true j. von hettlingen, as long as the Ukrainians don't snagged into joining the EU. As an old Irish saying goes, "if you shake hands with the Devil, you may not get it back"!

      March 30, 2014 at 5:03 pm | Reply
      • ✠RZ✠

        Very good Irish saying McCarthy, hope you don't mind if I pass it on.

        Будьте дуже обережні, коли рукостискань з дияволом, можливо, він ніколи не дасть його назад до вас.

        Будьте очень осторожны при рукопожатие с дьяволом, может быть он никогда не даст его обратно к вам.

        March 30, 2014 at 8:10 pm |
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Thank you, RZ. Your Russian is very good. It's a very beautiful language, even more so than either French, Spanish or English. However, German is the most beautiful of all.

        March 31, 2014 at 10:55 am |

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