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An insider’s view of the Minsk process — interview with Roman Bezsmertnyi

Roman Bezsmertnyi (Image:
Roman Bezsmertnyi (Image:
An insider’s view of the Minsk process — interview with Roman Bezsmertnyi
Article by: Serhiy Sydorenko
Translated by: Anna Mostovych
Ukrainian diplomat Roman Bezsmertnyi, former ambassador to Belarus and former member of Verkhovna Rada, was Ukraine’s representative in the political subgroup of the Trilateral Contact Group on the War in Donbas and the one who led negotiations on conditions for elections in the occupied territories and the question of amending Ukraine’s Constitution. On Thursday, April 28, he announced his resignation as Ukraine’s representative in the Minsk process. In this interview with Evropeiska Pravda (division of Ukrainska Pravda) conducted just before he announced his resignation,  Bezsmertnyi shares his views on the future of the Minsk process, its inherent weaknesses, as well as his reported disagreements with the strategy pursued by President Petro Poroshenko.

A week ago there were negotiations in the political subgroup in Minsk. Are there any results?

There was a two-day meeting dedicated to the modalities of the election process. On the first day, there were face-to-face discussions of the parties with the coordinator, meaning the OSCE representative. On the second day, there was a joint discussion, where everything became clear.

Well, we added one additional question to the elections issue: “Who will pay for the elections?” This question has to do with Ukraine’s parliament as well: will there be 226 votes for allocating 100 million, 150 million or some other sum for elections in ORDLO (new acronym for occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk — Ed)?

But there are also other questions. For example, how will this money be brought in there? The banking system is not working, the financial system is not working. How and where can the financial calculations be done? There is one more problem. Imagine that you are working in the Treasury and you need to have a transaction (in the occupied territory). You press a button on the computer and in 5 minutes the prosecutor and investigators are at you door.

For financing terrorism?

Exactly! But let’s just assume there are international organizations willing to finance this flowering of democracy and to finance elections in ORDLO. Then another question arises. How to bring in money ? During negotiations such an apparently small item can demonstrate that any discussions about political stabilization must be guided by realistic factors, not fantasies and dreams.

Is it true that when it comes to the elections, once again there is no progress, and in a month you will be going to Minsk where you will fail to reach an agreement again?

First, let me say that I will no longer attend the meetings. At least I hope not. I made the decision and informed all those involved, starting with those who participate in the technological process right up to the president, that  I am ending this stage of my life. I’m exiting the Minsk process and will no longer be volunteering on this diplomatic level.

As for the prospects for the negotiations, how can it be otherwise if the work of the political subgroup is currently contrary even to the Minsk agreements. After all, from the very beginning everyone agreed that the group would begin working only after the security component is resolved. But in practice, the first points of the Minsk agreements have not been implemented. So my question is what are we talking about?

Could we discuss your departure from Minsk in greater detail. What does it mean, who will represent Ukraine now?

I was one of the two representatives of Ukraine until the last meeting (the other one is Volodymyr Horbulin). Now Olha Aivazovska has joined the political subgroup.

I hope that this work will be the responsibility of Aivazovska. It is not my decision, but she is prepared on the electoral process and now is familiarizing herself with the issues of transitional justice or amnesty and with the issues of the other political components that are being discussed in the Minsk process. In the Minsk process questions on amendments to the Constitution, the law on local self government and so on pop up periodically on the agenda. But now everything is concentrated around elections, where she is an expert.

By the way, when and why have the elections become a key requirement? After all, last year attention was focused entirely on the Constitution.

Sometime in the middle of the summer of 2015 it became possible to push aside the issue of the Constitution. Our arguments worked and everyone realized eventually that the agreement regarding the Constitution was — at least from my perspective — a clear abuse of authority by those who sat at the negotiating table (members of the Normandy Four — Ed).

One cannot assume responsibility for amending the Constitution, knowing that this belongs to the will of the people and of parliament.

But the other requirements, including elections, are also within the authority of the parliament and not of the president.

The question of elections is decided by a parliamentary majority. Since there was a majority in parliament from the president’s party and the party of the prime minister, they could have taken on the responsibility. But the issue of the Constitution touched upon the rights of the Ukrainian people.

I remember that when the foreign ministers of Germany and France, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Jean-Marc Ayrault, came to Kyiv at the end of February, they were absolutely convinced that the law on elections would be adopted soon. Where did that certainty come from?

You know from the beginning I was surprised that 90% of the participants in this dialog, with the exception of certain representatives of the Ukrainian side ( I will not specify who), for some reason expected that this process would move at top speed. Even today, having spent quite some time at summits and meetings, I cannot understand the reasons for this impatience. After all, anyone who understands this process knows that elections in ORDLO will not take place either this year or the next.

In order to prepare public opinion, to address the security issue, to ensure demilitarization and demobilization, to restore at least the minimum of sovereignty requires from 3 to 5 years. I’ll venture to estimate these timeframes based on analogies. We studied similar situations in most of the similar conflicts. And it is well known that accelerating the political process in order to resolve the issues I have listed would only aggravate the conflict.

I will ask you directly whether it is true that Poroshenko not only supported the rapid adoption of the law on elections, but also brought the draft law to his meeting with Angela Merkel (February 1, 2016)?

I am not familiar with these facts.

But obviously you attempted to find out where these draft laws are coming from.

I am aware that within the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) people from four factions were working on this and there are already three documents. One has been registered by Vasily Nimchenko from the Opposition Bloc, the second one by Oksana Syroyid and a number of deputies. It is the draft law “On temporarily occupied territories.”

I have also learned that similar work is being done by Ruslan Kniazevych (representative from the Bloc of Petro Poroshenko [BPP] in the Verkhovna Rada. According to sources, Poroshenko took his proposed draft to Merkel, promising quick elections —   EP)

I contacted several of these individuals. But what struck me is that from the moment that Kniazevych began working on this document he has stopped answering my calls. And, frankly, this bothered me a bit, but I was not overly concerned because I know the position of the deputies. Just do not take my words as jealousy. On the contrary, I’m glad that another center is working on these issues.

Who assured the Normandy partners that speedy elections would be possible? Did somebody tell that to Steinmeier and Ayrault during their visit to Kyiv?

I’m aware of the content of the meeting but I can assure you that neither I nor Kuchma nor Horbulin — none of us — ever said anything anywhere implying that elections in ORDO/ORLO (occupied territories — Ed.) could take place today, yesterday or in 2016.

The Germans proposed that the law be adopted as soon as possible and that the elections be held “sometime later.”

However, there is the so-called “Steinmeier formula”: that if the law is approved then elections must take place within 90 days. This idea originated in Paris last summer and since then is constantly being circulated and keeps reappearing.

This is why I emphasize in negotiations that the Verkhovna Rada will not support an elections law with this idea. Furthermore, the Rada will not vote for this bill as long as the security issue is not resolved before, during and after elections.

What is your relationship with the president? For journalists, it is not a secret that they are far from perfect and that there are tensions, but to what extent does he support the work of the subgroup?

We had several conversations. I don’t know if they were pleasant for the president, but they were unpleasant for me, based on the analysis of the current situation and the approaches  to resolving the issues of the Donbas. But he is the president; he determines the strategy and sometimes the tactics of this process, and it is possible I don’t know something and therefore have no right to judge.

Am I satisfied with this relationship? No, I am not. For example, since October I have not seen him. This happened because the president usually meets with the Trilateral Contact Group representatives the evening before the day of the negotiations, when I already need to be in Minsk. And it is only because there were two of us in the process, Volodymyr Horbulin (Ukrainian statesman and politician) and I — I was always in Minsk and Horbulin in Kyiv — that we were able to ensure communications.

Based on this, I conclude that our negotiating position in Minsk was chosen correctly. Because I may not know something about the president’s position, but the president after each meeting reads a very detailed report, a transcript of my position that I express on behalf of Ukraine. Therefore, if he has no objections, it means all is well.

Has there been sufficient support on the part of Ukrainian authorities in general? Do the Minsk negotiators, in particular, have all necessary information?

At the technical level — from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Security Service of Ukraine, the Foreign Intelligence Service and so on — I have all the necessary information, whenever I want it.

But there are gaps when it comes to issues relating to the strategic goal. And this influences the tactical behavior at the negotiating table. I will say this once again: as an expert, I can’t judge this. It is a matter of those who make political decisions.

How do you view the status of ORDLO. Is this occupied territory or not?

First, I believe that there is a Russian-Ukrainian war taking place right now and that we have a huge number of collaborators who went over to the enemy. And if Kyiv had acknowledged this status of the conflict earlier, then much else would have been clarified. We would understand who is a prisoner of war, who is a collaborator, we could have talked about the procedure of returning citizenships. After all, the collaborators have in fact discarded Ukrainian citizenship and have gone over to the enemy side. The fact that there is uncertainty on our side both helps and hinders the resolution of the situation.

On the one hand, the uncertain status allows us to avoid being limited by the framework of the Geneva Conventions, where the status of such persons is very clearly defined. And this can help if the parties are ready to assume a positive perspective. But at the same time, this lack of clarity is blocking progress in the situation.

We call this territory either occupied or territory with uncertain status and we call the very same individuals either illegally held persons, prisoners of war, or hostages and so on. I find that the term “hybrid warfare” that we hear all the time absolutely does not correspond to reality. In fact, there is war. War between two countries

Should this be recognized officially?

It should have been done from the beginning, martial law should have been introduced from the beginning. And today we can talk about it as much as we want, but it’s already too late, the train has left. There is also the problem of Russia’s participation in the Minsk process as a party to the conflict with an unspecified status.

During negotiation it is important to call things by their right names, to mention the presence of  Russian military units — and I have reliable information! — when the Russian side shrieks:  “You are breaking off the negotiations, you are disrupting the political process. We are not participants in the conflict. The participants of the conflict are the militia and the Donbas.”

The Russians call themselves and view themselves as intermediaries. In discussions they adopt the tone and phraseology of the mediator, while always taking the side of those who represent Donetsk and Luhansk.

And what is the position of the OSCE?

The OSCE cannot have any position. Its role is to lead the meeting. Because as soon as a representative of the OSCE in any of the subgroups insists on the norms of international law, a conflict arises immediately and a discussion ensues between the OSCE representative and the Russian representatives as well as the representatives of the individual regions of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

There were meetings where I had to say after two hours of their discussion: “gentlemen isn’t Ukraine superfluous in your negotiations?”

Is the Minsk process alive at all?

It is infinite.

Is it necessary to keep the Minsk agreements in their present form if, as you said at the beginning, we have already moved away from the Minsk logic?

It must be preserved until a new format is found and until several key questions are answered. This is despite the fact that all the Minsk timeframes and contents have now been practically lost in terms of their logic, consistency, and time of implementation. And this is why Ukraine should do everything that is consistent with its own Constitution, laws and national interests. The norms of the Minsk agreements that go beyond the framework of constitutional rights and powers of the governing bodies must be changed or we must explain why we will not implement them. Yes, we have no right to change the Constitution because that is the will of the Ukrainian people.

Second, the question of elections can be realized only when there is security. The presence on this territory of regular units of the armed forces of the Russian  Federation makes it impossible to hold any kind of political process there. Furthermore, Ukraine should say how to do it, how to verify it: what comes first, second, third. If these points are not carried out, then there will be no law on elections, and no actions in this regard will be taken.

I still want to clarify if we need Minsk 3?

I don’t know if we need Minsk 3, but we need to continue this dialogue; it must not be stopped.

You mentioned that you have a vision of how to get to elections in three to five years. How exactly?

First, one item that needs to be brought to conclusion is the cessation in the use of weapons. And then time will allow us to enter into a dialogue with those we cannot yet identify: whether they are terrorists, or collaborators of something else

And this is important. Because if Alexander Zakharchenko (self-proclaimed head of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” — Ed.) is a terrorist, we should not negotiate with him, according to unwritten laws.

Ceasefires are a good idea. However, violations of the ceasefire do not come from our side.

I explain: what do these persons — enemies or whatever they are called — use for shooting? They are firing from weapons supplied from Russian territory.

But the Russian Federation is a party to the agreements on controlling the spread of conventional weapons. The weapons market has very clear rules, and there are sanction for breaking them. Where are they? Does it mean that  Russia can work with ORDO and ORLO on questions of arms sales the same way it can sell weapons to Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and so on?

Therefore, the first thing that should be done is not a secret. It is absolutely within the power of those who demand that we hold elections (representatives of Germany and France — Ed.). It is within the power of the world and of Europe. And this is why I do not understand discussions on whether sanctions against Russia should be continued or not … These sanctions must be such that Russia stops supplying arms, troops and equipment to the territory of this conflict.

Regarding the elections law, what legal option do you consider acceptable?

My position is as follows: there needs to be a comprehensive document called “Status of the territorial communities in certain regions of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.” It needs to resolve issues dealing with security before during and after elections, the rules governing the elections, the sequence for providing amnesty, the process for securing immunity during the elections, questions relating to the financial regime, the banking regime, and the social status of the participants in this process. Here the order of taking control of the state border needs to be specified, the activity of the quasi-institutions of local government — and I emphasize the quasi part — that will assume authority during the transitional period need to be ensured. Regarding the last item, there need to be compromises on the parity of the three participants: Ukraine, the international institution ( UN, OSCE, or other, it does not matter) and representatives of the local communities.

If we try to break this composite into parts — security, elections, amnesty — we will end up with what we have now. We will do one thing, fail to agree on something else, and as a result the entire process will be blocked.

Note how I named the document: “Status of the territorial communities.” It needs to be developed and adopted by the Verkhovna Rada. And then it comes into effect in the territorial communities that ratify it, and Kyiv reestablishes contact with them. Because I don’t know what ORDO and ORLO are. I only know what Makiivka, Donetsk, Antratsyt, Luhansk are; I know what the Biloukrainskyi raion of the Luhansk Oblast is. We need to operate with these individual entities.

Let’s look at this realistically: if Makiivka ratifies and Donetsk and a few surrounding cities do not, then Makiivka will not have contact with the mainland.

A portion of the territory can ratify. Who does not ratify will not have interaction financially, socially or in infrastructure.

But Donetsk and Makiivka are tied too closely. Even in view of security, how will it turn out when there are people with weapons in one place and not the other.

This means they must not be allowed to go through the administrative border. It’s an entirely different matter how to do it. But first of all you need necessary rules.

As you leave the Minsk process I’d like to find out about your future plans. Is it true that you are returning to party work?

Yes, once again I have accepted the offer to take care of developing the party, preparing it for the elections process and, of course , participating in the elections process. Also I’m heading up the executive committee of the Agrarian Party.

Let’s be realistic. For now this is not a party with high ratings.   To claim effective independent participation in the elections is impossible. Will there will be association or bloc-building with other forces?

I think this is a challenge for the new political forces — to go in the direction of union or else remain “participants in the process.” Perhaps this is exactly why they asked me because very few people managed to seat 9 or more political forces at the negotiating table.

And I can see several promising political segments: in particular, what today is called Samopomich or what is called Saakashvili. Well and what is called the Agrarian Party. Even though they all have absolutely different reasons to count on the future.

Translated by: Anna Mostovych
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