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Amid violence in Kiev, Ukraine tries to find a 'decentralized' peace (+video)

Ukraine's parliament took a first step toward granting powers to rebel regions. But deadly clashes in the capital show the depth of resistance to such changes.

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    Protesters clash with police after a vote to give greater powers to the east in front of Ukraine's parliament, in Kiev Monday. At least one police officer was killed and scores injured as protesters tried to storm the parliament building to prevent lawmakers from passing constitutional reforms that protesters say will weaken the country.
    Andrew Kravchenko/AP
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In what was the worst violence to hit Kiev since last year's Maidan Revolution, fighting between right-wing protesters and police left at least one officer dead and around 100 injured, four critically, outside Ukraine's parliament Monday. 

But the more lasting confrontation may prove to be inside the parliament.

Even as protesters, some armed with grenades and firearms, attempted to break in to the building, legislators passed a set of constitutional reforms that would grant "special status" to rebel republics in eastern Ukraine. The bill's passage marked a first step in Kiev's compliance with the Minsk-II agreement, sponsored by both the European Union and Moscow.

But protesters, led by the right-wing Svoboda and Radical parties, say the package of "decentralization" reforms, which still require another vote at the end of the year for final passage, are a surrender to the Russia-backed rebels in Ukraine's east. The reforms' supporters counter that they are necessary to move ahead on Minsk's tenuous road map for peace and reintegration.

The basic reform, in the works for more than a year, aims to address many of the causes of last year's revolution by streamlining Ukraine's over-centralized government to delegate appropriate powers to regions and local communities. Polls show this plan, based on Poland's model of governance, enjoys widespread support around the country.

But opponents of the bill, which passed its first reading Monday with support from 265 lawmakers, are incensed by provisions that would grant temporary autonomy to the rebel republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Many fear that step will eventually harden into permanent independence. The bill will need a constitutional majority of 300 votes to pass in its second and final reading slated for December.

"The storm in society is mostly over the issue of special status for [the rebel zones]. This bill is like a candy that's fine – except for a couple of noxious chemicals that it's laced with," says Sergei Gaiday, an independent political expert in Kiev, and opponent of the bill.

"The president claims there's not really any special status, but in fact there is. If they're going to change the Constitution to do this, why not grant special status to all Ukrainian regions? Why is Donbass so special? The question many people are asking is: Does this mean we have lost the war?"

Decentralization vs. federalization

Under the Minsk agreement, Ukraine is required to pass a set of constitutional changes that grant greater autonomy to its regions, allow the rebel republics to hold separate elections on the territory they control, end the year-old economic blockade of the rebel territories, and begin talks aimed at reintegration. The rebels, while retaining special powers that include the right to form their own militia and appoint administrators, would return to Ukrainian rule and hand back the Russian-Ukrainian border to Kiev's control.

But there is a fundamental disagreement over the nature of a "decentralized" Ukraine. In Kiev, the reform is viewed as handing down only those powers that concern local government, while retaining military, foreign policy, and overall economic control.

Moscow has argued that Ukraine needs a "federalized" system that allows regions to go their own way on issues like language and cross-border economic associations – which would effectively give them a veto over major initiatives like joining NATO or the EU. Rebel leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk have offered  their own version of constitutional change that differs sharply from Kiev's.

Olexander Chernenko, a Rada deputy with President Poroshenko's bloc, says he voted for the decentralization bill Monday because he regards it as Ukraine's most basic reform, and stalling could be disastrous.

"If we didn't pass it today, it would be postponed" beyond the year-end deadline for meeting the Minsk requirements, he says. "Some political forces are using this for their own purposes in advance of [October regional] elections."

Ukraine, divided

But others warn that, while decentralization may be needed, the political and economic situation in the country is too unstable to carry it out effectively.

"It's a very risky path," says Vladimir Panchenko, an expert with the International Center of Political Studies in Kiev. "People fear that separatists in the east will be legitimized, and that they might get elected into local legislatures and councils. There's a lot of scope for provocations and escalation of tensions."

The most comprehensive poll on Ukrainian public opinion, conducted by the International Republican Institute in July, found majority support in all regions of the country for the idea of transferring more rights from central to local authorities. On the other hand, it also found that solid majorities support the idea of Ukraine remaining a "unitary" state, which would seem to rule out the Russia-sponsored idea of "federalization."

Critics say Monday's unrest in Kiev may be just a foretaste of troubles to come, as Ukrainian society continues to split over how to deal with the rebellious east.

"People see Poroshenko increasing his [executive] powers," says Mr. Gaiday. "Increasingly, authorities make decisions in a non-transparent way, through backstage maneuvers that ignore people's interests. There was no social discussion about [today's decentralization bill], and the process was not open. It's a very dangerous precedent."

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