Despite the hoopla, Volodymyr Zelenskiy returned with pretty much empty hands from his first Normandy format talks. The agreement to continue the exchange of prisoners and withdrawal of troops was more of a participation award, as these processes were already going on. In fact, President Zelenskiy has failed to achieve the serious progress in the Donbas promised during his election campaign. It looks like the President has learned first-hand that “sitting down and meeting somewhere in the middle” with Moscow will not work, so the current law on the special status for ORDiLO, the occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, was extended for another year.
Sluha Narodu, his party, pledges a new bill to replace it this coming spring, but how close it will get to actual implementation in the Donbas is unclear. Regardless of what laws are passed in Kyiv, everything will depend on whether Moscow complies with its supposed commitments under the Minsk Agreements, as Russia has made it clear that it is willing and ready to do everything to drag out the peace process while testing the political resilience of Ukraine’s new leadership.
Given the reality on the ground, freezing the conflict in the Donbas is not the worst case outcome for Ukraine. Unfortunately, this is not the most convenient option for Zelenskiy’s team, as it fails to fulfill his election promises and voter expectations. Now, that the myth of 73% support for Zelenskiy is fading, it’s time to think about ratings. According to the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, support for the president’s efforts shrank from 64% to 54% between October and November 2019, the Government’s popularity dove from 51% to 37%, and the Verkhovna Rada similarly went from 53% to 36%. Today, 51% of Ukrainians believe that their government is not working effectively on the Donbas question. Until the Normandy talks bring serious progress, the government will desperately need any small success stories in the occupied territories that it might present to increasingly irritated voters.
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Reconciliation with the residents of the occupied territories was a key plank in the Ze-team’s platform. As candidate, Zelenskiy talked about launching a “powerful Russian-language TV channel” to “fight for hearts and minds” in Crimea and the Donbas. This is now a priority state policy.
“The main goal is psychological reintegration, then the restoration of the territories,” said Oksana Koliada, Minister for Veterans, Temporarily Occupied Territory and IDPs, at the latest UN General Assembly. According to Culture, Youth and Sports Minister Volodymyr Borodianskiy, the TV channel will be set up on the basis of UA:TV, Ukraine’s existing public television channel, at a cost of UAH 440mn. Borodianskiy claims that it will cover 80% of ORDiLO by February. What political messages this TV channel will broadcast is anyone’s guess. It looks like the accent will be on reconciliatory rhetoric now being actively tested by Serhiy Syvokho, advisor to the National Security and Council Secretary
“Our goal is dialog and reconciling people, not fuelling the conflict like the old government did,” he says, calling on everyone to quit using pejorative nicknames, such as separy for separatists or ukry for Ukrainians. In addition to this, the Council plans to create “a platform of reconciliation and unity,” whereby ORDiLO residents will be spoken to in “the language of sports, culture and business,” Syvokho claims. These measures really can be seen as an example of proactive policy for the Donbas. The question is what practical results they will bring. The previous administration similarly portrayed the Ministry for Information Policy as a proactive instrument, but its performance was unimpressive.
As to the “reconciliation platform,” the main task is to make sure it does not turn into a platform for direct dialog between Kyiv and “leadership” of the self-proclaimed republics. This would be a clear step towards capitulation, as it is precisely what Moscow has been pushing Ukraine to do since the very first Minsk talks in September 2014. The threat of this happening is very real. Since any political activity in ORDiLO is strictly controlled, it is difficult to imagine anyone but puppets of the occupation administration representing this territory in a “reconciliation platform.” That means that any dialog will automatically lose purpose: the representative s of the “republics” will voice Moscow’s messages, not the real sentiments of the local population. Of course, there’s nothing that can keep Ukraine’s leadership from claiming even this mock “dialog” as an accomplishment.
Reforming checkpoint procedures at the line of contact is another possible success story. The current administration is paying special attention to this, which is why one of Zelenskiy’s first projects was restoring the bridge at Stanytsia Luhanska. “The first thing our citizens from occupied Crimea and Donbas see when they enter the rest of Ukraine is our checkpoint,” President Zelenskiy has said. “It’s very important for this to be as comfortable as possible. Because this is actually our window showing that Ukraine is cool, safe and friendly.”
In fact, there are quite a few problems at the contact line. According to the Ministry for Veterans, Temporarily Occupied Territory and IDPs, 1.15 million people crossed it both ways in November 2019 alone. According to Pravo na zakhyst [The Right to Protection], a charity, the problems aren’t limited to long queues, but electricity, heating, ventilation and other conditions are also poor. Solving these issues will likely be the president’s priority. Reconstruction has already started at the Kalanchak and Chongar checkpoints on the border with occupied Crimea.
If troops are withdrawn in the Donbas, new crossing points will open and the rules for crossing will be simplified until passes are finally abolished. This process has already begun: the Cabinet simplified the rules in early November, and annual passes became passes with no expiry date last March. Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko has suggested that railway traffic to ORDiLO, including cargo traffic, could resume. The question is how all this will be adapted to security needs which it’s far too early to drop.
The most controversial – and most striking – success story of the Ze-team so far is probably the payment of pensions to residents of occupied Donbas. In fact, such payments never stopped, but the occupation complicated the process of receiving them. Until now, it has been handled through phenomenon known as “pension tourism,” meaning that Ukrainian pensioners from ORDiLO registered as IDPs while in fact continuing to live in the occupied territory. In order to retain their IDP status and receive their benefit, they had to regularly cross the contact line. Pension tourists accounted for nearly 60% of the traffic at checkpoints.
The procedure was both humiliating and exhausting, so not everyone was able to be a pension tourist: according to the UN, some 560 pensioners in ORDiLO were not collecting their pensions because of bureaucratic barriers. Apart from that, this practice added chaos to the records of IDPs and offered countless opportunities for corruption. In November, a bill was submitted to the Verkhovna Rada to simplify the rules for pension payments to ORDiLO residents and abolish mandatory registration as IDPs. It was sponsored by MP Tetiana Tretiakova (SN), Chair of the VR Committee for Social Policy and the Protection of Veterans’ Rights, and a number of other MPs. Of course, the bill does not envisage the disbursement of benefits in territory not controlled by Kyiv, so pensioners will still have to cross the checkpoints. If the Verkhovna Rada supports the bill, President Zelenskiy will be able to claim yet another success story in front of both Ukrainians and the international community, including the UN, which has long been pushing Kyiv to do this.
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In a nutshell, Zelenskiy has quite a bit of room to maneuver on the Donbas. What’s not clear is how this will affect the government’s popularity. The target group for these potential innovations has little electoral weight, and ORDiLO residents don’t vote in Ukrainian elections at all. For other Ukrainians, a simple fact will remain obvious: any dialogs, platforms and repairs to checkpoints – all done with the taxes they pay – as well as other conciliatory steps towards ORDiLO residents, won’t bring the liberation of the occupied territory any closer, as Moscow, not the people of occupied Donbas, decides things there. And the Ze-team’s proactive approach will have no effect on the Russians.
Of course, Zelenskiy will be able to present these success stories to the western allies at the next Normandy talks, as proof of his determination and goodwill. But it’s unlikely to be enough to justify new sanctions against Russia. So, unless there is a major breakthrough in the Normandy talks, all Kyiv can do in the Donbas is take small steps on secondary issues that will bring real deoccupation of the region neither closer nor further.
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj