Election in the occupied Donbas is nothing more than a slogan used at the Minsk negotiations. There are no real tools available today to make it happen
Talks about election in the areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts seized by illegal armed groups resumed after the visit to Kyiv of the Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland in late April. Following the meeting, Samopomich MP Viktoria Voytsitska reported that the US Department of State insists on amending the Ukrainian Constitution to include the 'special status' for the occupied territories and on holding election there as early as mid-summer. Nuland later stated that she had not mentioned any specific dates for the election. However, the bad taste lingers.
It's no longer a secret that the West, especially Europe, wants to settle peacefully the 'Ukrainian issue' as soon as possible. Europeans are interested in lifting sanctions against Russia, which make them lose money. Of course, Ukraine would have made many in the West happy if it made concessions and fulfilled its obligations under the Minsk agreements unilaterally, without demanding anything from the Moscow-controlled puppet quasi-republics existing at the point of the Russian bayonets. However, if you look at things realistically, it becomes clear that holding anything at least slightly resembling the expression of free will today in Donbas is impossible. And it is unlikely to become possible in the near future.
The main problem is that the militants categorically oppose an election held under Ukrainian laws, with the participation of Ukrainian political forces. This has been repeatedly stated by the self-proclaimed leader of the “Donetsk People’s Republic”, Oleksandr Zakharchenko. “Closed” and “independent” election is certainly an option. However, it remains unclear why Ukraine would need it or why it should deal with it. Besides, it is not clear why wasting time to imitate the election process, since such 'elections' in the DPR and the LPR have already been held in 2014 to legitimize Zakharchenko and Plotnytsky.
There is hardly a politician in the world today who would believe that fair elections could at all be possible in the puppet republics. Even in DPR and LPR, people openly say that there was no real voting in 2014, and Zakharchenko and Plotnytsky were simply agreed in Moscow and appointed by their curators. The disgraced Donetsk warlord Oleksandr Khodakovsky was one of those who made such statements. The former head of the “DPR Central Election Commission” Roman Lyagin still sits in the basement after threatening to tell how the “election” of the DPR honcho was held in reality.
If we assume that the election is to be held in Donetsk this summer, that is, in a few months, what would be the choice? Is it between Zakharchenko and Khodakovsky? Or between Zakharchenko and Gubarev? In Luhansk, however, there is no intrigue left to expect. All of Plotnytsky's potential competitors were exterminated before the previous election. Russia could still appoint some new people as its gauleiters in Donetsk and Luhansk, such as the representatives of the former Party of Regions. But in this case, it would become clear that the republics do not actually exist, but are merely another puppet show controlled from the Kremlin.
Talking about a full-fledged electoral process in the occupied territories today is impossible. There are too many factors preventing the normal expression of the citizens' will in these areas. There is still no answer to the question of how the rights and interests of those Donbas residents who never wanted any DPR or LPR would be accounted for. Will they be able to nominate their own candidates, or will they be forced to choose between the candidates agreed with the Russian occupation administration? Will they be given a chance to vote for Ukrainian parties, or will they be treated as non-citizens in the territory of their own country and discriminated in their choice?
It is also unclear whether the former residents of the areas today controlled by the militants, who became refugees and were forced to leave after the beginning of hostilities, would be able to vote. If we look at the experience of other countries, the example of Croatia proves how important it is for the state to ensure the votes of the loyal population of the disputed territories. When Eastern Slavonia seized by the Serbs was integrated, all Croats who became refugees after the outbreak of the war had the right to elect local authorities there. They were able to vote regardless of their place of residence, and special voting stations were opened for them throughout the country.
Would a similar scenario be possible during the upcoming election in the occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts? It is very unlikely. The pro-Russian bands will hardly compromise on this point. So, once again, what we get is not a solution to the problem, but rather an imitation thereof: appeasing one side at the expense of the other. Accepting the terms of the Russian side in this case would mean agreeing to the results of the purges that actually took place in the area in 2014, when citizens loyal to Ukraine were forced to escape to save their lives. Such lopsided election would only legalize these purges, thus giving a new impetus to the conflict.
There is still no answer to the main technical issue: who and how would count the votes? In the current situation, the work of Ukrainian election commissions and observers on the occupied territory is impossible. In the areas controlled by militias, where the rule of law has been replaced with the rule of Kalashnikovs and tanks, organizing full-fledged voting is out of question.
However, if we try to ignore the reality and turn a blind eye to the upcoming election, this would not only be frankly stupid and detrimental to Ukraine, but would also deal a serious blow to democracy and the values nurtured for centuries by the Western society. And the West is perfectly well aware of this.
It has to be recognized that ignoring the interests of the Ukrainian side and meeting the demands of only one side (in this case, the Russian one) would not reduce the contradictions; to the contrary, it would create a new hotbed of tensions and delay the problem rather than solving it.
After adopting the rules of the game imposed on Ukraine by Kremlin at the Minsk negotiations, the West would have to admit that it is sacrificing its basic principles and values. Holding election in the occupied territories according to Putin's scenario would provide a rather bitter precedent, which in turn would mean a throwback to the realities of the 1930s. Such compliance could result in a serious crisis of Western democracies and the actual victory of the neo-fascist expansionist ideology.
So far, no one seems to have an idea on what the election in the occupied territory should be like and how to organize it in practice. It's like dividing by zero in mathematics: it is an impossible and forbidden operation resulting in system failure. The tangle of concerns is inextricable, and no one has a clear plan. This means that we are unlikely to see any significant progress in finding a political solution to the Donbas conflict this summer. It seems that sooner or later, both sides will come to the conclusion that the best way to stop violence in this case would be the Transnistrian or Abkhazian scenario. This means that most likely we will simply get another frozen conflict and another black hole in the world map in the place of a once successful Ukrainian region.