Polling station during the sham 2014 Donbas “referendum.” Photo: dn.depo.ua
One of the most difficult issues for Ukraine is the problem of conducting elections in the occupied territories in Donbas.
On the one hand, the President Petro Poroshenko is under pressure from Ukraine’s international partners, because according to the Minsk agreements, such elections should be conducted.
On the other hand, Ukrainian society realizes (unlike Western diplomats) that holding the elections now is part of the Kremlin’s plan. Russia would be officially seen as not part of the conflict and the war against Russia in Donbas will be officially considered a civil war. Russia’s proxy militias would be legalized, and in the future members of these militias will likely sit in the Ukrainian Parliament.
So far there has been no bill on holding elections, but every bit of news or rumor about it causes anxiety in Ukrainian society. More news about elections in Donbas is expected after Poroshenko’s meetings with international partners in July. Let’s examine what necessary conditions need to exist before holding a real election.
How Ukraine lost control of the territories
In April 2014 pro-Russian forces of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) had just established control over Horlivka, a city in Donetsk Oblast with a population of over 250,000 people. The militia seized administrative buildings, hung out flags of the “DNR”, and conducted agitation among locals.
These were the last days of the local deputy from the Batkivschyna [Fatherland] party Volodymyr Rybak. He was among those who tried to resist Russia’s creeping invasion. During one of the pro-Russian protest he tried to convince people that they were making mistake and made the attempt to take away the flag of “DNR.”
A video of his confrontation with the protestors shows men wearing masks trying to drag him away. Just after the protest the deputy disappeared. The Ukrainian intelligence service released a series of intercepted phone calls, documenting Russian fighters coordinating his kidnapping.
A few days later his body was found in a river in Sloviansk region of Donetsk Oblast. His wife Olena has no doubt that Volodymyr was killed because of his opinion. She is confident that not only were the leaders of the pro-Russian militias directly involved in the assassination of her husband but also that the mayor of Horlivka, Eugen Klep, was also involved. Klep took a pro-Russian position and organized the so-called “self-defense” in Horlivka which terrorised the city.
Horlivka has been under occupation for more than two years now. The citizens still suffer from the actions of the Russian militia. According to recent data from the Anti-Terrorist Operation press-center, during the last weeks occupants fired from civilian areas trying to provoke the pro-Ukrainian forces into shooting back so they can videotape it to use in propaganda. As Ukrainian side is not returning fire, Russian irregular forces are creating new tricks to make the Ukrainians shoot.
There are dozens of similar towns and cities like Horlivka. Imagine elections taking place there in the near future. Who will control the results? Do pro-Ukrainian candidates even have a chance to be elected there? Who can guarantee that they will not end up like Rybak, and whether the actual votes of the local population will even matter?
Experts from the Renaissance Foundation claim that before conducting elections in Donbas the following conditions should be achieved:
- (1) Disarmament and demilitarization,
- (2) The establishment of an independent electoral commission ( institutional support for elections),
- (3) The participation of IDPs and refugees,
- (4) Ensuring a “neutral political environment” during the election campaign,
- (5) The participation of international organizations in the preparation and monitoring of elections as a way to ensure their legitimacy,
- (6) The implementation of all the preparatory phases for the elections and compliance with all agreements,
- (7) A significant time period (2-3 years) should pass between the beginning of an actual ceasefire and elections.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the conditions.
Disarmament and demilitarization
In April 2016, President Petro Poroshenko told Fox News that 6,000 Russian troops were occupying eastern Ukraine, with an additional 50,000-plus troops in Crimea and 40,000 members of irregular militia forces headed by Russian commanders.
Almost every day Ukrainians see news about shelling coming from the side of the pro-Russian forces using weapons forbidden by the Minsk agreements. Lately the hot spots are near Avdiivka, Novosilky, Nevelske, the mine of Butivka and Verhnyotroicke near Donetsk city, and Mariinka, Granitne, Taramchuk, Gruntove, Krasnogorivka and Shyrokyne near Mariupol. In Luhansk Oblast the city Schastya remains the hot spot.
In the middle of June, Minister of Defense Stepan Poltorak said that there were 623 personnel KIA, WIA, and MIA from among Ukrainian soldiers in 2016.
So far the very first condition for conducting real elections, disarmament, and demilitarization, is far from being implemented.
Organizing an election
The last free election in the parts of Donbas which now are occupied took place in the spring of 2014, when Ukraine was choosing a new president after a disgraced Viktor Yanukovych run away from the country. Then, only a fourth of the polling stations in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts opened their doors to voters. The head of the NGO “Committee of the Voters of Ukraine” Oleksandr Chernenko said that voting in Donbas was an act of bravery. Also, he admitted that while it was a free election, it took place under martial law.
At the same time, another expression of the will of Donbas residents was happening there. In the pseudo-referendum organized by pro-Russian forces, people were answering only one question: whether they supported the independence of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” or the “Luhansk People’s Republic.”
The so-called referendum was held at a gunpoint. Before the referendum, Russian-backed militias seized ballot boxes and voter lists. They then created so-called “commissions” and printed ballots on Xerox. Only a few polling stations worked so that people who came to vote were standing in long lines. Images of these lines were used for Russian propaganda. Also, people could have voted on behalf of their relatives or neighbors. Ukrainian journalists who were on the ground conducted an experiment and voted at five polling stations without restrictions. Later in the best traditions of Russia’s fake referendums, local “officials” announced a very high turnout.
To find out the actual will of the people who live in Donbas is an almost impossible task under present circumstances. According to the UN report on the situation in the area, the 2.7 million people living in areas controlled by armed groups have their freedoms of expression, assembly and association severely curtailed, and they are faced with difficult living conditions.
So the question is whether the aim is to just conduct something that looks like an election or to listen to the people and let them define their future?
If the former is the aim, then it is not that hard to predict who will benefit.
Ensuring a neutral environment
Most experts agree that Moscow does not need the Donbas region as a part of Russia. The real aim of the ongoing conflict in the East is the destabilization of Ukraine.
“There are many problems in the uncontrolled territories. The most important thing is that we should start the process of their return, the return of the territories and the people. For that reason we need to adopt the law on election on these territories and to conduct local elections there,” said Yuriy Boyko, the head of the party “Opposition Bloc” (the successor to Yanukovych Party of the Regions).
Before the occupation, the Party of Regions was robbing Donbas residents, while at the same time fueling the myth that Donbas fed all Ukraine. The result of this myth’s popularization was that people of Donbas felt insulted by Kyiv. Creating an enemy in the shape of Ukrainian authorities in Kiev is one of the election strategies for the Opposition Bloc.
So when he talks about desiring the return of Donbas, Boyko is sincere. He is one of the oligarchs whose interest are in Donbas. Among others with interests are Rinat Akhmetov, Oleksandr Yefremov, and Yuriy Ivanushchenko.
“The Opposition Bloc’s big goal goes beyond elections in Donetsk and Luhansk. The long-live oligarch clans that are part of it dream of bringing back the electorate from the Occupied Regions of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts and getting its votes in nationwide elections. If implemented, this plan will put the Opposition Bloc among the leaders in parliamentary elections and allow its members to compete for the top positions in Ukraine,” wrote a popular blogger and journalist from Donetsk Denis Kazanskiy.
If the elections will take place in the near future, it is very likely that ex-Party Of Regions members in the form of the Opposition Bloc will claw back the votes of this region. These politicians had always been associated with pro-Russian policies in Ukraine. They will continue this so they will be the party that will get support from Russia.
It is hard imagining how it would be possible to provide a neutral media environment in occupied Donbas. During the two years of occupation, Ukraine took only a few steps to oppose the Russian information war in towns near the front line which are still under Ukrainian control.
“For example, in (the town of) Toretsk people need to buy an antenna to watch Ukrainian TV, (they must) turn it towards the right direction and also tune the TV. But to watch Russian propaganda sometimes you just need to turn on the TV,” says activist Maryna Romancova who took part in a research project on the state of Ukrainian broadcasting near the frontline areas.
The broadcasting strategies of Ukraine and Russia are different. While Ukraine tries to inform the populace and perhaps broadcast some Ukrainian cultural programs into the gray zone, Russia broadcasts entertaining radio stations with the elements of aggressive anti-Ukrainian propaganda. The head of the National Council on Television and Radio Broadcasting in Donetsk Oblast Oleksandr Tolstoguzov says that 42% of the population in the parts of Donetsk Oblast under Ukrainian control are watching programs which are broadcast from the Russian-occupied “DNR.”
Among those living in the occupied territories, 91% of the people watch Russian propaganda programs. While the Ukrainian side complains about technical difficulties with broadcasting Ukrainian channels into occupied territories and take every small achievement as a big victory, Russian propaganda broadcasts to every corner they can and is extremely easy to get.
If elections in Donbas are conducted in a rush, the political environment during the election campaign will be far from neutral.
Examples from elsewhere
Ukraine is not the first country to undergo armed conflict. Conducting elections is often one of the final stages of ending armed conflicts. These stages must follow a certain order. Otherwise, there is a big risk of a return to hostilities.
An example of a premature election can be found in Angola. In 1992, elections were organized there prior to the completion of disarmament after an armed conflict. The ruling party of Angola MPLA won the elections with a margin of only one or two percent. Their opponents from UNITA used their remaining arms to violently challenge the results of the election. This lead to a new civil war.
Another example took place during the 1992 election in Liberia. During this election, all political parties were not given access to the media. In two years a second civil war started.
An election in Donbas is a necessary step for ending the war and integrating the now-occupied territories back into Ukraine. However, it is not the first stage of settling the conflict, and holding the election because of international pressure and without the necessary prior conditions will only destabilize the situation.