Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Monday signaled a readiness to let Ukrainian voters decide whether to decentralize their government but denounced the demands of pro-Russian separatists for independence as an "infection" spread from Russia.
At the first meeting of a constitutional commission convened to discuss a proposed redistribution of power from the Kiev government to Ukraine's diverse regions, Poroshenko predicted that 90% of Ukrainians would vote in favor of unity if a referendum were to be held on the issue.
Poroshenko had previously opposed a referendum on whether to revise Ukraine's constitution but said he wouldn't stand in the way of such a vote should the commission decide to hold one.
"Decentralization has nothing to do with federalization," Poroshenko said, the latter restructuring model urged by the Kremlin to give the Russian-speaking eastern regions of Ukraine virtual independence. "Ukraine has always been and, I believe, will remain a unitary state. It is not because we, on the top, have decided so, but because we regularly examine public opinion."
In comments to the parliamentary commission reported by the Ukrinform news agency, Poroshenko compared federalization to "an infection, like a biological weapon, that is imposed on Ukraine from aboard. Its bacilli try to hit Ukraine and destroy our unity. I am sure that we will not allow it."
The discussion of potential constitutional change coincided with the one-year anniversary of the separatists' takeover of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and a failed attempt to occupy the government offices of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city.
Ceding more autonomy to the regions is one of the proposals contained in a Feb. 12 peace plan worked out in the Belarus capital of Minsk among the leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine. The Minsk plan also called for local elections in the rebel-controlled regions to be conducted according to Ukrainian law. The separatists have rejected any vote organized by Kiev authorities, claiming their unsupervised November election of separatist leaders was valid.
Andrei Purgin, one of the separatist leaders elected five months ago in the midst of the conflict, told the Associated Press that none of the separatist representatives was invited to participate in the constitutional commission, "which already says a lot."
More than 6,000 people have been killed in the fighting between Ukrainian government forces and the separatists backed by Russian arms and fighters. Russian President Vladimir Putin denies Kremlin involvement in the Ukraine conflict but concedes that "volunteers" from Russia have gone to assist in the fight against the Kiev government.