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Blog: Donbas elections: A way out or a road to nowhere?

New blog post by Oleksii Sydorchuk on recent development in Ukraine, mainly about elections in Donbas.

  • Issue of the conflict in Ukraine’s region of Donbas is slowly falling off the radar.
  • Recent developments have raised hope in peaceful regulation of the confrontation.
  • Yet, prospects of meaningful political regulation of the conflict remain doubtful.



As the EU is still struggling to cope with the influx of refugees and simultaneously trying to formulate an 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 emphasized the necessity of elaborating upon and adopting 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 ever. The strategic interest of Ukraine’s leadership consists in regaining full control over the rebel-held territories in Donbas. However, realizing that this is impossible to fulfill this ambition from a short-term perspective, Kyiv tries hard to degrade the 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 to Kyiv’s and are defined by the Russian political leadership, which has total control over their actions. Specifically, after being unable to secure economic self-sufficiency of the separatist entities in Donbas, Moscow now wants to retain full political control over these self-proclaimed ‘republics’ but force Kyiv to provide all kinds of financial support to them.[1]

Similarly, proposed local elections are perceived fundamentally differently by Ukraine and Russia. 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 current 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 one hand, Germany and France push heavily for conduction of elections in the rebel-held territories under Ukrainian legislation and, in doing so, constructs a political trap for themselves. On other hand, 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 only be able only to register and not prevent electoral violations. 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 a community based on common values. Thus, Germany and France’s involvement in the process is unlikely to further any desirable outcomes at best, and will at worst cast a sheen of legitimacy over a process that is fundamentally flawed and counter-productive to a sustainable solution for Ukraine.

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. Imposing strict preconditions that should be met before elections can be held could prove pivotal in preventing such a turn. 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 the 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 the 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 where there can be none – is hardly an attractive prospect as it would only contribute to ‘freezing’ of the conflict without clear prospects for its resolution in foreseeable future.



[1] Vladimir Dergachev, Dmittriy Kirillov. The ‘Novorossiya’ Project Is Closed. –http://www.gazeta.ru/politics/2015/05/19_a_6694441.shtml


Text has been originally published at blog.HNed.cz (in Czech language).