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12 October 2015

ELECTIONS IN DONBAS: A WAY OUT OR A ROAD TO NOWHERE?

Oleksii Sydorchuk, Analyst

As the EU is still struggling to cope with the influx of refugees and at the same time trying to formulate adequate response to Russia’s military involvement in Syria, issue of the conflict in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas is slowly falling off the radar. Moreover, recent developments have raised hope in peaceful regulation of the confrontation in Donbas. First, since the end of September, fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels has largely come to a halt. Second, recent meeting of ‘Normandy Four’ – leaders of France, Germany, the Russian Federation, and Ukraine – has resulted in vague political agreement on concluding implementation of Minsk agreement provisions by conducting local elections in rebel-held territories of Donbas and finalizing process of constitutional reform which would give these regions more autonomy. Since then, self-proclaimed leaders of ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ (‘DPR’) and ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ (‘LPR’) agreed to postpone their previously planned local elections until reaching agreement on principles of their conduction with the Ukrainian side, while members of Ukraine’s ruling coalition declared necessity to elaborate and adopt the law on elections in the rebel-held territories by the end of the year.

Yet, prospects of meaningful political regulation of the conflict in Donbas remain doubtful, and optimism of leaders of some EU member states seems to be misleading. One of the biggest obstacles to resolution of the conflict lies in the Minsk agreements which use rather dogmatic recipes of conflict management while not addressing the underlying causes of the confrontation in the East of Ukraine. After year and a half of military clashes, basic interests of two sides remain as different as they ever were. The strategic interest of Ukraine’s leadership consists in regaining full control over the rebel-held territories in Donbas. However, realizing impossibility to reach this aim in short-term perspective, official Kyiv tries hard to degrade economic potential of ‘DPR’ and ‘LPR’ or, at the very least, strip itself of any obligations to financially support these entities over which it has no political or administrative control whatsoever. Interests of ‘DPR’ and ‘LPR’ are opposite and are defined by the Russian political leadership which has total control over their actions. Specifically, Moscow wants to enjoy full political control over the separatist entities but force Kyiv to provide all kinds of economic support to them.

Similarly, proposed local elections are seen by Ukraine and Russia in totally different light. Ukraine’s leadership hopes that by conducting them it would be able to obtain at least some political representation in the rebel-controlled territories bringing the objective of their re-integration closer. Russia, on its part, expects that the elections will bring no significant changes to the political landscape of ‘DPR’ and ‘LPR’, but will push Ukraine to legally recognize the old-new political leadership of these regions and to re-establish economic ties with them.

Under these circumstances, the EU and its member states find themselves in rather uncomfortable position. On the one hand, Germany and France push heavily for conduction of the elections in the rebel-held territories under Ukrainian legislation and, by doing so, constructs political trap for themselves. It is clear that as long as Russian military personnel and equipment remain stationed in ‘DPR’ and ‘LPR’, free elections in those regions are impossible, as the previous sham ‘elections’ in these regions held on 2 November 2014 have demonstrated. Proposed OSCE monitoring of the electoral process won’t have any impact either, as international observers will be able only to register electoral violations, but not to prevent them. Faced with such facts on the ground, it is hard to imagine the EU embracing these elections after their conclusion, for in doing so it will undermine its credibility as the community based on common values. Thus, the whole process of Germany’s and France’s involvement in the process of preparation of the elections in Donbas will resemble pitiful waste of time and efforts.

It is very doubtful that leaders in Berlin and Paris do not understand such risks attached to their ongoing diplomatic initiative. However, no recipe for preventing such turn of events is being proposed. Changing order and sequencing of implementation of different parts of the Minsk agreements could point to such way out. Germany and France could insist that the elections in ‘DPR’ and ‘LPR’ should be conducted only after withdrawal of all foreign military personnel and equipment from Ukrainian territory followed by verification of it by an international monitoring mission, probably OSCE. Re-establishment of Ukrainian control over Ukrainian-Russian border could be another pre-condition for the elections. At the same time, in order to prevent contrary danger of undue influence of Ukrainian military on the electoral process in the rebel-held territories of Donbas, de-militarization of the region could be proposed – again, under strict control of international observers. While these conditions may seem too demanding and hard to implement, the alternative – requiring free and fair election under circumstances when there could be no – looks hardly more attractive and could only contribute to ‘freezing’ of the conflict without clear prospects for its resolution in foreseeable future.

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