For all of the physical and verbal pushing and shoving in Ukraine, the unspoken focus of the tension is the country’s May 25 presidential election.
Last week, the United States, the European Union, Russia and Ukraine agreed to de-escalate the turmoil in Eastern Ukraine in the pursuit of economic and financial stability.
Russian President Vladimir Putin went off during a televised four-hour Q&A rant on what is best for Ukraine: federalism. A measure of independence with regional veto power on foreign treaties with European interests.
Candidates to replace Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovych are saying the same thing, only with key variations on Putin’s theme. They talk about Ukraine’s regions and their varying cultural and political constituencies.
If that argument prevails in a successful national election, Putin would find it all the more difficult to argue for his harder line, explains Scott Radnitz, director of the University of Washington’s Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies.
Radnitz said an effective strategy for the candidates in Kiev is to keep offering and refining plans for decentralization of government. He notes, for example, candidate and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is talking about formal steps to embrace stronger local self-government, financial independence and the Russian language in Eastern Ukraine.
Rough parallels exploited in the tense political rhetoric can be disorienting, and they are intended to be.
Putin is quick to argue the not-well-identified street thugs in Eastern Ukraine are no different from the freedom-seeking protesters in Kiev who occupied government buildings and deposed the president.
Putin is also employing an elemental political tactic: changing the subject. All the focus on Ukraine, and “Novorossiya” — New Russia — and wistful talk of past glory, might well be intended to take attention away from a crumbling ruble, a collapsed stock market and massive capital flight.
Last week’s four-party agreement was meant to defuse tensions. How high will the rhetoric soar as May 25 approaches?