Balkanization? Southeast Ukrainian region demands greater autonomy

Lawmakers in a Ukrainian region are demanding greater autonomy from Kiev, saying more locally-paid taxes should go to the local budget so it can handle the ongoing economic crisis. The president rejected the idea.

The 69-seat legislature of the Zaporozhye Region in southeastern Ukraine on Tuesday approved a draft that would give the regional authorities greater autonomy from Kiev. The bill received 66 ‘yes’ votes with none voting against or abstaining.

In essence it redistributes tax flows to keep more money in and gives more authority to locals, allowing them to decide on how to tackle social benefits, medical care, education and environment protection.

The draft legislation is for the country’s parliament in Kiev to pass, which may prove to be challenging, since in a country fighting against rebel forces in the east any calls for autonomy are viewed by many politicians as separatist. Sponsors however say it is in line with what the central government is doing itself.

“The draft is aimed at making the region and entire Ukraine prosperous. It is also in line with the administrative and territorial reform that was declared in Ukraine and may become an integral part of it,” local newspaper Golos Zaporozhya cites MP Elena Semenko as saying.

“The socio-economic situation in the region is worsening every day. At the same time the high concentration of industrial objects in its territory impacts the environment and the health of the citizens. What we suggest is a working roadmap for solving these issues,” she added.

As the legislature was in session, hundreds of people gathered in front of the regional parliament to support the bill. Sponsors of the draft say 400,000 people in the region signed a petition in its favor and that they would be sent to Kiev as proof of the public support for autonomy.

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Various regional and ethnic groups voiced similar calls to Kiev over the year. Not only eastern industrial regions like Zaporozhye, which borders the rebellion-gripped Donetsk Region, but even some western regions were affected.

The authorities in Kiev however seem unconvinced, with President Petro Poroshenko rejecting the idea on Friday.

“No federalization, no special status. We will be voting on it on Monday in the parliament. We will unveil all that lies and preserve the unitary nature of our country,” he said.

Poroshenko is seeking legislative support for his constitutional reform, which would provide limited decentralization of Ukraine. The reform introduced in July was welcomed by Kiev’s foreign sponsors as a right move in the framework of the Minsk peace agreement with rebels.

But there is a strong resistance against it: both from those considering it too big a concession and from those concerned that it would actually strengthen the president’s office. Poroshenko has to secure at least 300 votes in the 450-seat national parliament to push through the legislation. Voting is expected to happen later this month, but may be postponed.