In the conflict over eastern Ukraine, acting President Olexander Turchynov has signaled support for a national referendum. It's a good option, says East Europe expert Jörg Baberowski – if Turchynov really means it.
Deutsche Welle: How do you interpret the Ukrainian president's concession? Is he trying to take back the reins, or is it a sign of helplessness?
Jörg Baberowski: Presumably, it's both. Of course, Turchynov is trying to win time. He knows that if things continue as they are right now, he's lost eastern Ukraine. That's why he's making a suggestion the West will like and that Russia can never accept – and neither can the demonstrators who throng the streets in eastern Ukraine.
After all, he's suggesting that all Ukrainian citizens should vote on the confederation. And of course, that's not what the separatists want. It would be sensible to let the people vote who want to split, and that's only the population in eastern Ukraine. And of course it's an act of helplessness, because he doesn't know what else to do.
What could such a referendum actually look like, what exactly would people be voting on?
A referendum on this issue involving all Ukrainians wouldn't lead anywhere. There would probably be a 60:40 vote against such a federation, and people would only become more entrenched in their positions. You could hold a referendum in the eastern territories only, the regions hit by unrest. Why shouldn't that be possible? But of course, that's something the leadership in Kyiv is opposed to.
The biggest problem is that everyone concerned has lost trust. The former, elected president was toppled by demonstrators, and laws were broken in Crimea; in fact, everyone in Ukraine is doing exactly as they please - everyone is violating the Constitution. As long as that's the case, no one will trust the other side. I don't see a solution to this problem at all right now.
Do you think turning Ukraine into a federal state is a sensible option?
Every option that leads to de-escalation makes sense. After all, everything that's decided can also be retracted. In 1991, a majority of Ukrainians voted for independence, not because they were great supporters of the Ukrainian nation, but because they believed it would improve their lives if the Soviet Republics were independent. Now, the situation has changed, so why not try a confederation?
We tried out different models in western Europe, too, and that didn't lead to war. Just remember the South Tyroleans' autonomy and the division of Czechs and Slovaks: there wasn't a shot heard, and today these regions are a part of the EU. So, if that's an option for Ukraine and Moscow signals agreement, the West must now say, Ukraine won't join the EU, won't become a part of NATO, but will remain in a wider area that allows Russia to play a role, too. Right now, that would be a good choice, and five years down the road, things might be different again: if, for instance, the Ukrainians recognize that there isn't much of a benefit, opinions can change yet again.
Some see a threat of Ukraine breaking apart if it gives up a strong centralized state.
There is that possibility. The people are the sovereign, and if the majority of voters in the east no longer wants to be part of Ukraine, then so be it. Why preserve a state that's not wanted by its citizens? I can't understand what's wrong with that. Violent conflicts and war are a tragedy, that's what we all don't want. So we have to find a solution to prevent just that. And if that's the solution, I can't see what's to be said against it.
Jörg Baberowski teaches Eastern European History at Berlin's Humboldt University. In 2012, he won an award at the Leipzig Book Fair for his book "Verbrannte Erde. Stalins Herrschaft der Gewalt" ("Scorched Earth. Stalin's Reign of Violence").