Over the last few weeks, as it became clearer that Crimea would end up joining Russia one way or another, a question mark has hung over Ukraine’s other largely Russia-speaking eastern regions. In cities such as Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Luhansk, tensions rose between pro-Russian protesters and those who backed Kiev’s “Euromaidan” protests and the departure of former President Viktor Yanukovych. Meanwhile, Moscow seemed determined to stir up trouble there, whether by pushing for federalism or, as many in Kiev now fear, military intervention. What happens in these cities over the coming weeks will be decisive for Ukraine and the region. 

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, is where former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko -- Yanukovych’s arch-nemesis -- was imprisoned until her release last February. It is also where Yanukovych first fled before disappearing and showing up later in Russia. The area defies black-and-white linguistic categorization: the 2001 census lists the city of Kharkiv as predominantly Russian-speaking, but Ukrainian is the main language in the surrounding region. “I don't think language is dividing us,” Serhiy Zhadan, a celebrated writer who hails from Kharkiv but writes in Ukrainian, said recently, after he and several dozen protesters were beaten up in Kharkiv.“It's what we say in these languages that is dividing us.”

In Kharkiv, the action has centered on the city’s vast Freedom Square, which is home to a particularly impressive statue of Lenin. As similar statues were toppled across Ukraine last month, pro-Russian demonstrators rallied to protect this one. On March 1, pro-Russian protesters stormed the regional administrative building (located on the far side of the square) and raised the Russian flag above it. Dozens of pro-Maidan demonstrators were injured; some were taken onto a stage in the square, where they were forced to kneel and kiss the Russian flag. Later that month, just a day ahead of the vote in Crimea to secede from Ukraine, two men were killed in a shootout in the city center.

Moscow was quick to seize on the shootings, indirectly blaming the government in Kiev. “Russia is receiving many requests to protect civilians,” concluded a statement released the following day. “These applications will be considered.” Amid concerns that Russia was merely waiting for a pretext to march into the region, Kharkiv’s new governor (appointed by the interim government in Kiev) warned of possible provocations or even terrorist attacks over the weekend of the Crimean referendum. Fortunately, the violence never came.

As residents of Crimea headed to the polls mere days later, pro-Russian protesters rallied in Kharkiv. They unfurled a massive Russian flag and, according to some reports, set fire to books on Ukrainian history. Pro-Russian organizations also held a symbolic referendum -- ignoring a ban by a local court -- in which locals were invited to cast their vote on issues such as federalism and making Russian a second state language. Referring to the way it was carried out, the region’s new governor, Ihor Baluta, called the Kharkiv vote “more ridiculous than the Crimean one.”

In this respect, Kharkiv could be a bellwether for the rest of Ukraine’s east. In recent weeks, the city has become a hotbed for discussions of federalism. It was in Kharkiv that officials from Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions gathered on February 22, the day that Yanukovych fled, to challenge the legitimacy of the parliament in Kiev. Later that day, Mikhail Dobkin, who was Kharkiv’s regional governor at the time and a leading proponent of federalism, fled across the border to Russia along with Kharkiv’s equally well-known mayor, Hennadiy Kernes. Returning to Kharkiv the next day, Kernes was quick to drip his former ally, saying “Yanukovych is history.” Dobkin has announced that he wants to run for president on this May, but was detained earlier this month for “encroachment on Ukraine’s territorial integrity.”

According to the constitution of 1996, Ukraine is a unitary state. Some Western experts have suggested that some form of federalism could help diffuse tensions in Ukraine’s east and formalize relations between Kiev and the regions. Maybe so, but this would have to be an institutional process, not a decision that Russia can make for Ukraine at gunpoint. And Ukrainians aren’t fond of the idea. According to a Razumkov Centre poll published earlier this month, 61 percent of Ukrainian citizens disapprove of a federalist arrangement in Ukraine. Only 16 percent expressed a positive attitude towards it.

In Ukraine’s present tense situation, federalism is widely seen as a veil for separatist ambitions. It would lay the groundwork for greater autonomy in the eastern regions, which some people there see as culminating in those regions joining Russia. For this reason, Ukraine’s new leadership has been quick to condemn the idea. “We need to stop all speculation about separatism, federalism and preserve the integrity of our country,” said boxer-turned-politician and presidential candidate Vitali Klitschko on Ukrainian television earlier this month. He added that the situation in Crimea and the east is “artificially fuelled” -- referencing Russian President Vladimir Putin and his allies within Ukraine who are trying to divide the country.

Russia has endorsed a federal Ukraine. In an earlier statement, it called on Kiev to prepare, without delay, a new constitution that would make Ukraine a federation. It added that Russian should be made the second state language, on equal footing with Ukrainian.

Meanwhile, Kiev is treading carefully; events in recent weeks have laid bare the capital’s limited influence over Ukraine’s more far-flung regions. Popular support for many of the new governors that the interim government has appointed in the eastern regions -- including Ihor Baluta, a member of Tymoshenko’s party, in Kharkiv -- remains shaky. In Luhansk region, slightly further east, pro-Russian protesters rallying for federalization forced the new governor to resign. When Klitschko gave a speech in Kharkiv last week, pro-Russian demonstrators pelted him with eggs. He also backed out of a recent rally in Donetsk, another major city in Ukraine’s east, to avoid confronting hostile pro-Russian demonstrators.

In an address to the inhabitants of Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions on Tuesday, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Ukraine’s prime minister, promised to pursue decentralization in Ukraine’s new constitution. At the same time, he attempted to reach out to people who feel alienated by the power changeover in Kiev, calling on them “not to take Yanukovych’s exit as your own defeat,” he said. “Russian language is the language of Ukrainian patriots, just like the Ukrainian language,” he added, in a nod to Ukraine’s Russian-speakers. It was a nice gesture, but one that some feel could have been made earlier.

Meanwhile, Moscow may be growing impatient. Local media report that Russia has been gathering military equipment along the border with the Kharkiv region. Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, who hails from Kharkiv, has said the Ukrainian side has effectively sealed off parts of the border with Russia to stop people with “doubtful intentions” from entering, adding that hundreds of them are being detained every day.

“Crimea’s all settled,” a demonstrator on Kiev’s Independence Square told me. His mother-in-law, a resident of Crimea, had come to the capital to protest against the peninsula’s incorporation into Russia. “Now all that’s left is to fight for the east.” A newly created national guard has already started training outside Kiev, providing military training for protesters who rose up against the riot police last month. In the coming days, leaders in Kiev will continue to try to unite the country in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity -- which could be slipping away alarmingly fast.

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