Tuesday was a day of both good and bad news for Ukraine. The good news was that a full cease-fire went into effect in eastern Ukraine at midnight on Sept. 1 to mark the beginning of the school year, and virtually no cease-fire violations had been reported for the day as of this writing. The bad news was that the Radical Party left Ukraine's ruling coalition following an Aug. 31 parliamentary vote over controversial constitutional changes — a vote that prompted violent protests from far-right activists.
These developments show that the Ukrainian government is in a difficult spot, with pressure from Russia and Moscow-backed separatists on one side and demands from far-right and ultra-national elements on the other. The more Kiev concedes to one, the more it is in jeopardy of facing blowback from the other. This situation will continue to complicate not only chances of a settlement between Russia and the West over the conflict in eastern Ukraine, but also the coherence of the Ukrainian state as a whole.
Since the start of the conflict more than a year and a half ago, the main question has been what political role — if any — the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk could play in the Ukrainian state. Initially, Russia lobbied for Ukraine's federalization, which in practice would grant substantial autonomy for these regions, allowing them to integrate politically, economically and militarily with Russia. Moscow wants to ensure that Ukraine is at least a neutral buffer state between Russia and the West, and absent that, to use the separatist regions as a way to undermine Kiev. The pro-West Ukrainian government vehemently opposed such an outcome, though Kiev did indicate a willingness to decentralize power to all of the country's regions regarding issues like budgetary and education policy.
This willingness set the stage for negotiations between Ukraine and its Western backers and the separatists and their backers in Moscow over the reintegration of the separatist territories into the Ukrainian state. The various parties reached an agreement in September 2014 in Minsk that established a cease-fire between Ukrainian security forces and the separatists. After military hostilities ended, both sides would make several political concessions. However, the cease-fire was never fully enforced, and political concessions were not made. Both sides reached another cease-fire agreement, known as Minsk II, in February 2015, but it, too, was never fully enforced. Thus, implementing political aspects of the agreement proved elusive.
It is in this context that, on Aug. 31, one of the most violent protests since the Euromaidan uprising that overthrew President Viktor Yanukovich's government in February 2014 erupted. That day, the Ukrainian parliament met to approve the first of two readings of constitutional changes as part of Ukraine's decentralization process designated by the Minsk agreement. Though constitutional changes in no way guarantee more autonomy for the separatist regions (a representative from the Donetsk People's Republic stated that they defied the Minsk agreement that was "a road to nowhere"), far-right elements nevertheless interpreted the changes as granting undue recognition and autonomy to the separatists. On the same day as the vote, several hundred activists from nationalist groups like Svoboda and the Samopomich party gathered outside the parliament to protest. One demonstrator threw a grenade that injured dozens of police officers and protesters and caused three fatalities.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko condemned the act and addressed the nation to criticize the demonstrations as the actions of "pseudo-patriots" seeking their own political gain. Poroshenko went on to explain that the decentralization amendments "do not envisage any special status for the Donbas" and reiterated that the separatist territories would not receive any political concessions until they hold local elections in accordance with Ukrainian law, withdraw heavy weapons from their territory and relinquish control of the border with Russia. Russia and the separatists are criticizing this position for not going far enough, but certain far-right elements in Ukraine believe it goes too far. Even though the far right is a marginal political force in Ukraine, garnering only about 5-10 percent of the national vote, far-right groups can still carry out highly disruptive acts, as the events of Aug. 31 showed.
As a result, Kiev is in a precarious position. The departure of the Radical Party — which accused the government of trying to discredit "patriotic political forces" — does not threaten the government's functionality. The loss of the Radical Party's 21 seats still leaves the ruling coalition with a majority of 281 seats out of 450 in parliament. But it does reveal a deep-rooted fragility in the Ukrainian government and the nation as a whole — a weakness that political forces are testing. And so, while a day without cease-fire violations would normally be cause for celebration in Ukraine, it is instead a reminder that maintaining unity and stability may be just as hard for Kiev as reaching a meaningful settlement with Russia and the separatists in eastern Ukraine.