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27 June, 2016  ▪  Roman Malko

Through the looking glass: The crazy world of Minsk

How Ukrainian politicians see the likelihood of elections in the occupied parts of Donbas

First there is supposed to be a legitimate election in a territory that is run by armed bandits and where 1.8 million IDPs will never return to cast their ballots, and where not even the well-armed OSCE mission is likely to guarantee a minimum of security to those who still live there in a permanent state of fear. Then, the accords say that there should be an “comprehensive political settlement,” which in practice means adopting a slew of laws that exempt the so-called separatists from criminal prosecution, require Ukraine to take on complete financial responsibility for these territories while cooperating with the local thugs who are in charge, call for cross-border cooperation with the Russian Federation, for the establishment of local militias, and for the election of prosecutors and judges.

As a finishing touch, to provide some kind of foundation for all this, Ukraine is supposed to amend its Constitution. This entire exercise is a complete travesty. Its outcome will be to legitimize terrorists and their right to remain in power in the occupied territories. And yet, even this is not all. Only after the supposed “comprehensive political settlement” will the occupying forces be withdrawn from ORDiLO.

RELATED ARTICLE: How new Kremlin-backed political projects try to find a niche in Ukrainian politics through peace and reconciliation rhetoric

Meanwhile, Bill #4719, expressly forbidding such an election, has been registered in the Verkhovna Rada by independent MP Yuriy Dervianko. The authors argue that such an election cannot be held as long as the territory is still occupied, until all hostages and POWs have been released, and Ukrainian government has been established there. This move is interesting, but is unlikely to prove successful. Everything will depend on a number of factors, but the main one is political will at the very top.

Fending off a deathblow

As Yehor Sobolev (Samopomich) puts it, “Elections in the occupied territories is the fulfillment of Putin’s plan to conquer Ukraine through politics. He was unable to do it militarily and, like 17th century Russian tsars, he has switched to conquest by political means.” Sobolev sees a pretty straightforward plan at work: by legitimizing its proxies in Ukraine, Russia’s fifth column reinforced. “It’s not even about simply a fifth column, but more likely about five columns of politicians and business that represent Russian interests,” Sobolev continues, and to set up that which was never going on in Ukraine but about which Putin has long dreamed—civil war within Ukraine.

“And this means that serious bloodshed will now be between Ukrainians, so that Putin can then tell Washington and Brussels, ‘I told you that Ukrainians can’t live in peace and that Ukraine is a failed state,’” Sobolev concludes. There is some truth to this, as the very fact that the situation around this election is being stirred up, along with the issue of approving the necessary bill, clearly shows—although amendments to the Constitution are so far not being mentioned.

“I know that this is under continuous discussion with Berlin and Paris, that it’s being raised in the legislature by people like Ihor Kononenko (a scandalous Poroshenko ally – Ed.),” says Sobolev, “but so far the actual text is not being presented. The bill, like all special ops, will be brought out at the point when the special operation begins. Right now, local councils dominated by the Opposition Bloc (the rump Party of the Regions in the current Rada – Ed.) are already taking in ‘requests’ to announce this election,  which means the special operation is just about to start. Putin most certainly can find 226 votes in the Rada now, and through the oligarchs, he can probably find even more. That’s why we are now talking seriously with the public about possibly calling on them to come outside the legislature and not allow this vote to take place. It would be a deathblow to any chance of Ukraine becoming a normal state.”

RELATED ARTICLE: The history of separatism in Donbas

It’s not hard to figure out whom Sobolev considers votes for Putin in the Rada. This includes the various parties set up by formerly PR oligarchs, such as the Opposition Bloc, Vidrodzhennia, Volia Narodu, and some of the deputies who are currently free-floating. Those who will clearly not vote in favor include Samopomich, Batkivshchyna and Liashko’s Radical Party. Based on discussions with members of Narodny Front, this party is also unlikely to support to such a move.

“As far as I’m concerned,” says Mykola Kniazhytskiy (NF), “an election can only take place after we have complete control of the border, although the Minsk accords say something rather different. And that’s why we’ve been talking about a policing mission from the OSCE to ensure that any election is fair. If there is the least suspicion that holding such an election is impossible, Narodny Front will definitely not vote in favor. No matter what kind of international pressure is put on us, we can’t possibly legitimize terrorists.”

Oleksandr Chernenko (Petro Poroshenko Bloc) disagrees: “Passing a bill and holding elections are two different things. There’s no reason to worry about adopting the law. If all the main rules that matter to Ukraine are in place, I don’t see anything wrong with this. The question is for this to really be a decision by the Rada and that it come after serious debate. I understand that this will upset many and that it will be yet another irritant, but we can certainly begin to debate it. Of course, an election can only be held after that becomes possible. I don’t see any way that proper democratic elections can be held there today or for the foreseeable future.”

Converging or diverting?

What’s interesting nearly all factions in the Verkhovna Rada are against holding elections under the current circumstances and have almost identical opinions on what the conditions should be —both the patriotically inclined and those who aren’t much so. Of course, everything could change in a flash, but right now, even the former PR MPs represented by Yuriy Pavlenko (OB) are confident that voters will only be able to make a proper decision after “a series of mandatory conditions are provided: re-establishing control over the border, meaning that Ukraine’s border service patrols the entire international border in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts and border checkpoints operate normally; that all illegal armed groups are disarmed; that international observers are present, whether as a humanitarian or police mission; that all Ukrainian parties, without exception, participate; and that the election is held in line with Ukrainian electoral law with specific rules for this territory that need to be regulated in a special law, because the specifics will be exceptional, regardless of the circumstances.”

On the other hand, the Opposition Bloc never tires of repeating that “the only path to peace is for all participants in the process to carry out the Minsk Accords” and that “Ukraine has the most at stake in this and should therefore demonstrate the utmost dynamism in this regard to its partners in the US and EU, its opponents in the RF, and other unidentified signatories to the accords, and should lead the process rather than being a passive observer who does nothing and blames others.”

So far, nobody in the Rada knows much about the bill regulating potential election. No one has seen or read it. Supposedly Ruslan Kniazevych (BPP) is busy drafting it, but everything is being kept carefully under wraps. Whether this bill will be a panacea, whether it comes into force, whether it is even passed, what its ultimate purpose is, and whether it’s even worth taking all these games seriously is a question nobody can answer at this point—not even those who are drafting, instigating or lobbying it. Kniazhytskiy thinks that, whatever the bill, “Russia itself will never allow free and fair elections in ORDiLO to take place according to Ukrainian law.”

RELATED ARTICLE: The beginning of armed aggression in Donbas

Commenting on the likeliness that an ORDiLO election bill will be passed, let alone elections held, one-time Governor of Donetsk and now MP Serhiy Taruta notes that none of this will be possible unless two conditions are met. First, the format of four has to be confirmed: France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine. “Once that is established, the militants will do as they are told,” says Taruta. Secondly, once everything is agreed, “the president will have to come to the Rada and explain what commitments he has taken on, what their purpose is, whether to peace or confrontation, and whether we will regain control of this territory or not. Ukraine’s legislature is being kept in the dark. It doesn’t know about all the Minsk agreements, about current relations, what people are talking about there, or what is being explained.”

Taruta is convinced that compromises will have to be sought if anything is to change. Leaving this issue unresolved will not only destroy Ukraine, but will threaten the stability of all of Europe. Only the bill should not be the starting point; the border should be. “For me, knowing all the nuances from every angle quite well, the main point is to control the border,” says Taruta. “If we regain control over it, everything else will fall into place very quickly, believe me. And if we have guarantees that the border remains ours, I’m ready to vote for any option. Any formulation, any elections, any kind of elections is not important to me. What’s important is controlling the border.”

Promises that come back to haunt

It’s unlikely that the Administration on Bankova does not understand how complicated the situation is and is not aware of the entire array of information. Having been burned on constitutional amendments and having National Guard members killed outside the Rada in August 2015, Mr. Poroshenko is likely to think three times before making any risky moves, such as submitting a bill on elections in ORDiLO.

“As long as there aren’t enough voices, he won’t take that chance,” says Aliona Shkrum (Batkivshchyna). “And even if he were to take a chance, then it will have to be a serious, properly considered decision and we need to have guarantees from our partners, even if only verbal ones, that they will keep the pressure on Russia, maintain sanctions and be ready to increase them—even to the point of closing Russia out of international financial systems, including SWIFT.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Sociologist explaining the Donbas mentality

All of this is a little too much like a trap that keeps getting harder and harder to get out of. But it’s not impossible, and Poroshenko, as the main figure on the Ukrainian side, is managing to maintain some kind of balance and wiggle out of it. Still, this cannot go on forever. Constant external pressure and rumors that sanctions against Russia will either be reduced or withdrawn altogether make that amply clear. The impression is that Ukraine’s allies have grown indifferent about how Ukraine’s situation will be resolved and just want it to stop bothering them. They understand perfectly well that it really is impossible to hold an election in the occupied territories right now, “but if you promised this, Pete, then be a nice boy and do it.”

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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