Members of the parliament blocking the rostrum and presidium of the Verkhovna Rada to disable voting on Donbas bills. 5 October 2017, Kyiv, Ukraine. Photograph: Serhiy Kovalchuk, Flickr verkhovna_rada
The first bill “On the specifics of the state policy to ensure the state sovereignty of Ukraine over temporarily occupied territories in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts,” unofficially known as the “re-integration law,” passed the first reading in the Ukrainian Parliament on October 6. It seeks to restore Ukraine’s sovereignty over the eastern oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk. The key points of the bill are:
- fixing Russia’s status as an aggressor state;
- defining territories controlled by the Russian-hybrid forces as temporarily occupied;
- safeguarding the right of Ukrainian citizens to their properties in the occupied territory;
- safeguarding property rights of local communities and of the state regarding the properties situated in the occupied territory;
- declaring the state policy of restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty over the occupied areas;
- passing the operative command from the Security Service of Ukraine to the Joint Operations Staff of the Armed Forces. Creating the Staff gives up on the initial format of the war in the Donbas as an anti-terrorist operation (ATO).
The initial version of the bill reaffirmed Ukraine’s commitment to the Minsk agreements, but this provision was withdrawn due to criticism from opponents in parliament.
Special status for Luhansk and Donetsk
On October 6, the Verkhovna Rada adopted one more law, “On creating the necessary conditions for a peaceful resolution of the situation in the occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts,” the President signed it on the next day. The law came into force on October 10 as it was published in the Ukrainian parliament’s official newspaper Holos Ukrayiny.
This bill extends for one more year the law “On the special order of local self-governance in the occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts,” adopted in September 2014 amid the direct invasion of the Russian regular forces into the Donbas to support Russia-backed militant groups that were about to lose in fighting. Later amended in early 2015, this law never came into force over the three years of its validity. The special status law just shows Ukrainian intentions to comply with so-called Minsk agreements, imposing a special status in the occupied territories in case Russia would fulfill its part of Minsk.
Read also: Who is who in the Minsk process
Notably, the bill calls for the stationing of UN peacekeeping forces in the Donbas.
In fact, the legislation complies with the demands of Minsk agreements, establishing a special order of local self-governance in certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (ORDLO, the official designation of the occupied territories) and granting an amnesty to those who fought against Ukraine’s government forces.
However, the special order of governance in the Donbas has never come into effect over the three years since the conditions for its effectiveness listed in its Article 10 have never been met. The key condition is another Minsk paragraph, demanding the withdrawal of all illegal armed formations and the military equipment from the territory of Ukraine as well as militants and mercenaries.
Russia trained and formed two army corps under Russian command in the occupied parts of Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk out of local separatists and mercenaries coming mostly from Russia. Russia provided the armies with military equipment from assault rifles to tanks, cannon, self-propelled artillery, anti-aircraft and multiple-launch rocket systems.
Both corps are united in the so-called Armed Forces of Novorossiya and this army group has more tanks than Germany, France, and the Czech Republic combined. According to the Ukrainian Army officials, the army group has 31,000 men, 11,000 among them are Russian nationals, 2,900 of the Russians are regular soldiers of the Russian Armed Forces.
There are no signs that Russia has the will to settle the conflict fomented and fueled to blackmail Ukraine and keep the situation unstable. That is why it is hard to imagine that Russia would withdraw all the armed formations with their equipment from the Donbas during the following year to meet the condition of Ukrainian law to bring the special order of governance in the Donbas into effect.
Voting amid scuffles and smoke
Both presidential bills had been prepared for submission to the vote in the Verkhovna Rada for quite a long time. The first information about the content of the draft law on re-integrating Donbas was publicized in July 2017. However, now they considered in an emergency mode with the use of force by representatives of the Rada’s largest faction, Poroshenko Bloc, to overcome the resistance of the opponents of the bills, namely the Samopomich faction, independent MPs, and the Svoboda party.
On October 5, the Samopomich-led lawmakers blocked the rostrum and presidium to disable the bills regarding the Donbas from being considered.
Speaker Andriy Parubiy announced a break to negotiate a compromise with the leaders of the factions. However, they didn’t come to a consensus and the meeting was closed.
On the next day, the provision on Minsk was excluded from the bill and it finally passed the first reading. However, the opponents of the bill still didn’t favor it. Just after the votes, independent MP Yuriy Levchenko (nationalist Svoboda party) tossed a smoke grenade into the auditorium saying later that he “protested the anticonstitutional move” this way.
As both bills were passed, speaker Andriy Parubiy closed the morning session “for technical reasons.”
As a fire erupted at the military munitions depot at Kalynivka in central Ukraine two weeks ago, top members of the Narodnyi Front party (“People’s Front,” NF), Poroshenko Bloc’s ally in the Rada, started campaigning for the resignation of Viktor Muzhenko, Chief of the General Staff and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Force. The re-integration bill broadens the powers of the military chief. Ukrainian military expert Oleksiy Arestovych suggests that such an unexpected campaign could be an attempt to take advantage of the occasion to replace the top brass with an NF representative merely before the adoption of the re-integration bill.
Parliamentary factions Batkivshchyna (“Fatherland”) and Samopomich (“Self-Assistance”) opposed the bills alleging that incorporating the Minsk agreements into a legislative act or extending the law on special status for the Donbas would give the separatists legal status.
Samopomich even compared voting for both Donbas bills with the 2010 voting for the Constitution with the Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Crimea and the Kharkiv agreements signed by then presidents Viktor Yanukovych and Dmitri Medvedev under which the fleet remained deployed in Ukraine.
On October 5, as the first attempt to pass the Donbas bills failed, Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) Oleksandr Turchynov said at a briefing that the entire responsibility for the fact that the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine could not approve the strategic bill should lie on the “fifth column” of Moscow and that the participants in the provocation have no justification.
“As soon as the deputies of the Samopomich faction saw that there were voices in the session hall to recognize Russia as an aggressor and to determine the de-occupation strategy for Donbas, they rushed to block the rostrum, disrupting the adoption of the law, and arranging a celebration for Russian politicians and the media,” said Turchynov.
The next day after the adoption of the bills, the USA’s and Russia’s envoys to Ukraine, Kurt Volker and Vladislav Surkov, held a meeting in Serbia behind closed doors. President Poroshenko could have tried to select the timing of the bills with the eve of the meeting to strengthen Volker’s hand at the meeting with his Kremlin’s counterpart. Thus, attempts to delay the adoption of the legislation by the Rada opposition to the President could aim to undermine an initiative of their political opponent.
Reaction to the new Donbas legislation
The German Embassy in Ukraine welcomed the adoption of the bill on the extension of the special procedure for local self-government in the Donbas:
“Germany welcomes today’s decision of the Rada to extend the provisions on the special status of the Donbas. We reaffirm our commitment to the peaceful resolution of the conflict in the framework of the peace process,” the statement of the German embassy in Ukraine reads.
The French Embassy in Ukraine expressed support too:
“The adoption of this law confirms Ukraine’s commitment to a peaceful settlement of the conflict within the framework of the Minsk agreements… France and Germany continue their mediation efforts within the Normandy format with a view to sustainable conflict resolution,” the French embassy said.
US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker welcomed the special status extension as well:
OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Sebastian Kurz also welcomed the decision:
Welcome decision today on prolonging law on future special status for #Donbas 1/2
— Sebastian Kurz (@sebastiankurz) October 6, 2017
– important step in right direction towards further #Minsk implementation 2/2
— Sebastian Kurz (@sebastiankurz) October 6, 2017
The bill on the Donbas re-integration brands Russia as an “aggressor” in the conflict. Russia consistently denies its involvement in fighting in since the conflict erupted in 2014 and, of course, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov expressed dissatisfaction at the bill saying that it “did not correspond to the reality of the conflict.”
Russia’s envoy to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Alexander Lukashevich believes, “The introduction of the law on the special status of Donbas in 2014 would have led to a speedy settlement of the conflict. But it was not implemented either after the signing of the Package of Measures or after the Normandy format agreement of the ‘Frank-Walter Steinmeier formula’ in October 2015.” However, the Russian envoy omits the fact that it was Russia who hadn’t withdrawn its troops, mercenaries and military hardware from the Donbas to bring the special status into force.
Moreover, Mr.Lukashevich thinks that the law on the reintegration contradicts the Minsk agreements and would replace the law on the special status of the Donbas, he promised escalation instead of the resolution. “Replacement of that law by a document that contradicts the Package of Measures is the path of escalation, not settlement,” Lukashevich said at a meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council on October 5.
Meanwhile, the door is still open, if Russia withdraws its forces and fighters from the eastern Ukraine, the special status may come into effect.
The Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine has registered two new draft laws. One of the bills, initiated by the SBU, provides for the criminal liability of officials for visiting Russia with the aim of undermining Ukraine’s national interests. The relevant article is proposed to be added to the Criminal Code of Ukraine. Another bill introduces a temporary restriction of the right of citizens of Ukraine to travel to the territory aggressor state, which is Russia.
Future of the re-integration bill
On 9 October, deputy head of Poroshenko Bloc faction, MP Iryna Lutsenko told the Ukraine’s 5th Channel broadcaster about the amendments to the reintegration bill scheduled and planned for the second reading.
“Many propositions have already been taken into account and there will be more because now we are receiving more proposition for consideration,” Ms.Lutsenko said. According to her, the faction has received complaints from Crimean Tatar activists that the law does not mention occupied Crimea, and that a section or an article may emerge in this law that Ukraine is going to act just the same to de-occupy Crimea.
She also noted that some Rada deputies mostly elected in the Donbas “want to offer additional tools for the peaceful resolution and returning the Donbas back into Ukraine.
- Ukraine’s draft law on reintegrating Donbas finally says it’s under Russian occupation
- Ukraine re-thinking its approach to Donbas war. Key things to know
- Elections in the occupied territories delegitimized Russia’s Parliament
- Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada: an oligarchs’ club or a real parliament?
- Ukraine’s Parliament asks BBC to stop using “civil war” for Russia’s aggression
- Ukrainian parliament mulls requiring officials to call the Russian state ‘Muscovy’
- Why Minsk II is a trap for Russia
- Ukrainian parliament declares 1944 Soviet deportation of Crimean Tatars an act of genocide
- Electing bad leaders in Ukraine: how to break the vicious cycle #UAreforms
- OSCE Parliamentary Assembly condemns Russia’s role in Ukraine
- Klimkin defends Minsk II in Parliament
- Putin’s crony in Ukraine proposes new “compromise” plan ahead of Minsk talks
- An insider’s view of the Minsk process — interview with Roman Bezsmertnyi
- Kremlin organizing “fifth column” in Ukraine’s parliament — Kremlinologist
- Minsk Accords ‘recipe for catastrophe’ for Ukraine, Kyiv analysts say
- Why Putin lost in Minsk — interview with Portnikov