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‘We are going to watch the death of a country on live TV’


Western leaders hope that Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election will provide a way out of the bloody conflict in the east of the country. Mathieu Boulègue, a French expert on Ukraine, is less optimistic.


Violent clashes between pro-Russian militias and Ukrainian soldiers in the eastern city of Slaviansk erupted this week after a deadly arson attack in the port city of Odessa on May 2.

Amid the unrest plaguing the country, Western governments have urged Russia not to derail or spoil the upcoming presidential poll. Many hope the ballot can bring a measure of calm to the crisis-hit nation.

Mathieu Boulègue, a researcher at the Paris-based 'Prospective et Sécurité en Europe' Institute (IPSE), a defence thinktank, spoke to FRANCE 24 about the likely outcomes of the much-anticipated election.

FRANCE 24: Is it possible that Ukraine’s presidential election will be called off given the ongoing unrest in the eastern part of the country?

Mathieu Boulègue: The elections will happen. The new leaders in Kiev need the elections to prove they can move their government into a post-Maidan phase [months of protests and clashes in Independence Square, or Maidan, led to the ouster of former president Viktor Yanukovich]. Washington needs the elections to maintain the country’s unity, and even Moscow needs them to better delegitimise Kiev in the future.

Moscow will do everything in its power to make sure the election does not run smoothly. A questionable poll will reflect poorly on Ukraine’s interim government, which Russian leaders view as the lackey of European powers and which they have refused to recognise. In all likelihood the election will be marred by fraud and violence, all encouraged by Moscow.

F24: But in concrete terms, how will Ukraine be able to carry out national elections when several administrative buildings in the east have been occupied by pro-Russian separatists?

MB: The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has tried, with relative success, to organise an election across all of the Ukrainian territory. It’s true that some places are beyond Kiev’s control, and if the situation does not change in the coming days, there will be no polling stations in some areas. But I think it’s possible to carry off voting in most of the country, to hold the best election possible under the circumstances, even if Russia will almost certainly refuse to recognise the results.

F24: Can we expect new clashes between armed pro-Russian and pro-Kiev groups during the presidential election?

MB: The rival camps are already facing off on the ground. My sources in the east of the country talk about daily confrontations between paramilitary groups. Moscow does not even need to intervene anymore because there are so many pro-Russians active in eastern Ukraine. Russia merely had to give the initial push, the militias then quickly ran with the movement.

In any case, Russia has no interest in directly intervening militarily. Moscow does not want to take over eastern Ukraine. They need Ukraine to keep its territorial integrity and to serve as a buffer zone like Transnistria [a Moldovan territory that is under de facto Russian control] and the enclave of Kaliningrad [Russian territory wedged between Poland and Lithuania]. These are the kind of territorial extensions that provide stability to regional blocks – the good old logic of the Cold War.

But the fact that Moscow does not want to outright annex eastern Ukraine does not mean they will give up their grip on the country. This is the project to federalise Ukraine that everyone has been talking about in recent weeks, but that Russia has been promoting since December. Moscow is just calmly following through with the plan it set out months ago.

F24: What would Russia’s plan actually look like if it succeeded?

MB: Russia wants to see a wider decentralization of Ukraine, with regions enjoying a greater share of autonomy in their internal and international policies. The goal is to make Ukraine a confederation of separate entities. That way Russia could wield its influence in eastern Ukraine without the need to annex it.

When you listen to the official statements coming out of Kiev, it’s clear Russia has already won. A few weeks ago interim president Oleksander Turchinov declared he did not oppose federalisation. Certain foreign diplomats have started putting forward this option. Moscow has already won, at least in terms of the debate, and Kiev has no room left to manoeuvre.

We are going to watch the death of a country on live television. I realise I am pessimistic, but I think that between six months to two years from now, Ukraine, as we know it today, will no longer exist.

F24: Could the presidential elections put a stop to the fighting?

MB: I think the election will calm things down, but only temporarily. The problem is that the crisis is being managed by Washington and Moscow, when the real solution can be worked out in Kiev. The possibility of solving the crisis has been usurped from the Ukrainian people. The territorial issue should have been put to a referendum. In fact that is what authorities wanted to do. A bill for such a referendum was presented at the Rada [the Ukrainian Parliament on May 6, but it was rejected.

It would have been an opportunity for the Ukrainian people to express their true opinions and desires. Incidentally, it would have been the opportunity to see if the issue really divides the Ukrainians as sharply as some claim.

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