The escalation of violence during the first week of continuous clashes between protesters and riot police in the Ukrainian capital has triggered the mobilization of protest activity at the local level. Protesters in major cities (oblast centers) across Ukraine have targeted the buildings of oblast executive administrations housing the offices of their chairmen appointed by the president. They have long symbolized the power of central authorities in respective Ukrainian oblasts. In a matter of three days (Jan. 24–26), protesters captured and occupied state administrations in eleven oblasts in western and central Ukraine. In most of them, police units tried to prevent the protesters’ entry, but were quickly forced out by the crowd. In some, such as Lviv, Volhyn, and Rivne, presidential envoys and their deputies were also pressured into resigning by the chanting crowds.
Apart from their symbolic significance, the takeovers of state administrations in the regions have reconfigured the structure of sovereign authority in Ukraine. In essence, the Ukrainian government lost its sovereign power over most of the cities in the so-called “orange” oblasts where Yushchenko and Tymoshenko gained solid majorities in the 2004 and 2010 presidential elections. At the same time, the government’s continued presence in rural areas (raions and villages) of these oblasts has fragmented the Ukrainian state and established pockets of self-rule and areas of ambiguous or contested sovereignty.
The new executive authority structure in each of the eleven oblasts has been vested in executive committees organized by local councils. They are supposed to include the representatives of opposition parties and civil society organizations participating in Kyiv’s Maidan movement. The councils in these cities also voted to claim allegiance to the newly created People’s Council – the national legislative body created from among the opposition MPs of the Rada (parliament). Some raion councils, like the one in mountainous Kolomiya in the Ivano-Frankivsk oblast, followed suit by claiming executive power in their locality and subordinating themselves to the opposition-led legislature.
The People’s Council unequivocally declared itself to be the country’s only legitimate legislative body and an institutional alternative to the Rada with the executive committee composed of three opposition leaders. In practice, the opposition has still abstained from contesting the government’s sovereign power on the national level. Opposition factions agreed to participate in the Rada’s upcoming session and still recognize the authority of the president and the government. Their talks with Yanukovych and his ministers over policy concessions underscore their continued recognition of the government’s authority. This further adds to the confusion about the ultimate source of the legitimate executive power in Ukraine.
By contrast, the opposition-led local executive committees in eleven cities no longer recognize Yanukovych’s presidential authority and, de facto, exist outside of the central government’s reach. The quick retreat of police units in the face of protesters’ advances on government offices exposed the state’s loss of monopoly on the legitimate use of force in these localities. In essence, the state ceased to exist there. Their current status could be compared to the status of city-states of medieval Europe, which were de facto governed by free citizens, but could have still been formally embedded in larger state units. As a result, there is no longer a continuity of state sovereignty over supposedly contiguous space within its official borders.
The sovereignty of the Ukrainian state has thus fragmented in most of its central and western oblasts. While the cities there find themselves outside of its purview, it could still control some territories in the oblast by maintaining control over state administrations on a raion level. Moreover, military bases stationed in these areas remain loyal to the central government, while a decision of city executive committees to organize citizen militias (self-defense units) may indicate that police units could also remain subordinated to Kyiv. It also remains unclear whether the local Tax Administration will now collect taxes only for city and oblast budgets or whether the government will continue reallocating funds to the budgets of rebellious regions, particularly to pay for continued operation of state institutions, like schools, hospitals, and museums.
The opposition expects that the demolition of central power on the local level will have a cascading effect across Ukraine and, ultimately, lead to Yanukovych’s resignation. This, however, would require a much greater protest mobilization in the eastern and southern oblasts. So far, Yanukovych’s regime has shown major variation in its coercive capacity across the country. While retreating in the west and center, police units have managed to disperse protesters in several eastern (Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv) and southern (Zaporizzhia) Ukrainian oblasts. The government’s latest decision to increase the size of the riot police (“Berkut”) by six-fold (to 30,000 troops) reflects their concern that they are running low on effective coercive power. Still, successful takeovers of state administrations, often spearheaded by extreme nationalist groups, are, for now, unlikely to spread beyond “orange” regions.
In addition to relying on riot police, central authorities have also hired civilians (predominantly males in their twenties nicknamed “titushki”) armed with sticks to engage in violent counter-attacks on protesters. One of their purposes may be to allow for more ruthless and better-organized beatings of protesters that could look, on video, like gang fights rather than police violence. Recent reports indicate that the government decided to formalize these as civilian militia groups. The use of mercenary forces in demobilizing societal protests may reinforce the government’s coercive capacity in the short-term, but over the longer haul, it undermines the state’s monopoly over the legitimate use of force and contributes to the erosion of its sovereign power. If continued, this fragmentation of state sovereignty will ultimately lead to a de facto split of the country.
While offering a semblance of political survival for Yanukovych’s clientele in the Party of Regions, Ukraine’s dissolution will impose substantial costs on the country’s most prominent businessmen. They include Yanukovych’s long-time oligarchic backers Rinat Akhmetov and Dmytro Firtash, who possess substantial assets in the regions that the government no longer controls. Firtash’s Group DF owns major fertilizer plants in Rivne and Cherkasy as well as agricultural businesses in western Ukraine. Akhmetov’s SCM Group owns electric power generating businesses in Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk. The country’s gradual disintegration will mean an increasing threat of losing ownership rights over these companies. Moreover, political risks will drive down the value of their assets even in areas under the control of the Party of Regions. Finally, with all export routes to the EU going through anti-Yanukovych regions they may face difficulties ensuring continued deliveries to European customers. Given the potential losses in revenue and property, the oligarchs may well be the strongest organized domestic interest group now favoring the country’s unity. While the extent of their current leverage over Yanukovych personally remains unclear, Akhmetov’s influence within his party and in the Donbas region may well be sufficient to divide the party from within, thus eliminating Yanukovych’s key power base. This should open the way to talks on the terms of his withdrawal from the presidency.
What remains certain now is that any path to securing the integrity of the Ukrainian state lies through peaceful bargaining rather than polarizing rhetoric and violent gestures. Any attempts at a forceful government-led crackdown in the opposition-controlled regions through introduction of a state of emergency or attempts by radical right groups to capture government buildings in the east could only accelerate Ukraine’s breakup.