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The war and Minsk

The war and Minsk
Article by: Serhiy Rakhmanin
Translated by: Anna Mostovych

The preparation of a draft law on elections in ORDLO (the occupied areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts) is nearing completion.

According to our information, the group of Ruslan Kniazevych, which has been collaborating with German specialists and experts from ODIHR (Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights — one of the OSCE institutions) has almost reached the finish line. This document may soon be properly formatted and submitted to the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament).

However, no one is prepared to predict when it will appear on the parliament’s agenda. Similarly, none of the observers is prepared to state if the project is destined to become law. An unrepresentative survey of representatives from the different parliamentary factions has confirmed that for now most of the MPs are not prepared to vote for a document under that name. However, to be fair, it is important to mention two important details. First, we were unable to find anyone even familiar with the draft bill. Second, the president’s office has not yet begun active work with the deputy communities. And it is well known how resourceful and persistent the administration can be when it needs to force through a needed decision. The question is how much does it need this law. And how much does it need these elections.

Whatever the case, the question of creating a kind of conciliatory commission that would include representatives of the different factions is being discussed by the parliament’s leadership. This interim entity could either simplify the passage of the documents through the Verkhovna Rada or slow its consideration. Depending on the circumstances. Including external ones.

Even if the law on the local elections in ORDLO is adopted by the end of the current session, its implementation at least before the end of this year is unlikely. This is the view of most of the experts surveyed regardless of what scenario they support for ending the conflict in the east. And the issue is not only that anything resembling normal elections is unrealistic in principle in the foreseeable future. Everyone understood this even earlier, including  Barack Obama and Angela Merkel. But, they still continued to put pressure on Kyiv, persistently demanding that it demonstrate good will.

However, in Ukrainian politics the number of those who consider even the imitation of elections in ORDLO possible has dropped recently, as has the number of those among our “Western partners” who believe such a scenario is desirable.

Obama, as before, is not against having a blue-yellow leaf in his peacemaker wreath. Victoria Nuland has not abandoned her dream of continuing a successful career in the State Department and Frank-Walter Steinmeier  has not changed his mind about fighting for the post of German president. And each of them expects that “peace” in the Donbas “established” according to the Minsk plan will help them achieve personal goals. However, the situation inside Ukraine has changed. On the one hand, opinion polls record a steady drop in public confidence in the government and a serious drop in confidence in the president in particular. To what extend the change of prime ministers will slow this process remains a question. On the other hand, opinion polls show a growing number of those who oppose ending the war at any cost. The results of the recent study by the Razumkov Center are indicative: 56.4% against granting “special status” to the ORDLO, 52.5% against holding elections there before the restoration of control of the territories by Kyiv, 42.3% against amnesty for the “participants in the events ” in the east. I can add that similar figures also appear in several private surveys, and that this data has been carefully studied not only in the  president’s office but in the White House, the German Chancellery, and on the Champs Elysees.

It appears that the following conclusion have been reached in the West:

  • Undue haste in the matter of elections in ORDLO could exacerbate internal tensions in Ukraine.
  • President Poroshenko today is insufficiently influential and authoritative to quickly and painlessly  “push through” this issue in parliament and convincingly justify this decision in the eyes of the public.
  • A forced implementation of the “Minsk scenario” ( insisted by the West until very recently) would further destabilize the situation in the country and could further weaken the authority of the government. And this would play into Moscow’s hands. And, after all, this could lead not to “peace,” even a decorative one, but to a real escalation. Because Russia is the only country not interested in peace in Ukraine.

This absolutely does not mean that the participants in the process have abandoned their goals. According to our information, it means that Washington and Berlin have recently  begun spending a little less time talking about goals and a little more time on the process itself.

One of the conclusions is that discussions about the appearance of an international police contingent in the ORDLO territory have moved into the realm of practical consideration.

Briefly about the goals:

The West is not against holding “decorative elections” in ORDLO. As soon as possible. Elections will take place very soon in the United States, Germany and France. But the West understands that slowing the Minsk process is better than its complete collapse.

Ukraine is not eager to hold elections in ORDLO. There is ever less desire to finance ORDLO out of an already meager budget. Bu there are the “Minsk” obligations that are forcing Ukraine to demonstrate, at a minimum, its  willingness to implement the agreements. And this is the reason for the president’s current tactics — to hide the reluctance to hold elections by demonstrating the willingness to adopt the law on elections. For this reason there are plans to load the law with requirements that Moscow will not want to accept and conditions that it will not be able to fulfill. In such a situation even the possible adoption of the law on elections in ORDLO would make it possible to postpone the elections themselves indefinitely. If all else fails, the possibility of cancelling the already adopted law on elections in the uncontrolled territories is being discussed (along with the notorious law on “special status” which possibly may also be adopted )  by a decision of the Constitutional Court. Because their unconstitutionality is obvious and the questions of making appropriate changes has been postponed until better times — with which Berlin and Washington reluctantly  agreed.

Kyiv is unable to ignore the Minsk requirements openly, primarily out of fear that the sanctions against Russia would be lifted. Even more so because the “Western partners” are using this threat to blackmail Ukraine. “If you do not abide by ‘Minsk’ we will cancel sanctions” Brussels threatens. “If you do not abide by ‘Minsk’ we will be unable to keep the EU from lifting sanctions” echoes Washington. The situation is almost a stalemate: if the Minsk agreements are implemented, all restrictions will be removed from Russia, and if Minsk is not implemented, the sanctions will be lifted, punishing Kyiv for irresponsibility. Therefore the logical behavior of the Ukrainian authorities is as follows: demonstrate loyalty to the spirit of the Minsk agreements while trying to prevent their implementation. For now, this tactic is working: the question of continuing restrictions on Russia until the end of this year is practically settled. Nobody is willing to predict if they will be extended in December.

Why it was necessary to be driven into the Minsk trap in order to dodge it so much and why our strategy is based solely on being pegged to  Western sanctions against Russia are rhetorical questions. National assessments of Russia’s strength range from “it’s eating its last petrodollars” to “they will always have enough resources for us.” The constant attention to the decrease of another’s potential turned out to be a much more pleasant task than a determined augmentation of our own. If the strategically important decisions in the country were decided as quickly and skillfully as the “lobbying” and “commercial” ones, our dependence on Westerns “investments” in Ukraine’s economy and the Western restrictions on Russian economy would simply not be so critical.

Russia no longer makes any secret of its great interest in having the sanctions lifted. According to official data of the Federal Customs Service, Russia’s foreign trade turnover has dropped by more than a quarter in one year. Revenue from the export of oil, according to some data, has shrunk threefold. While the sanctions were in effect the EU trade turnover (by the way, Russia’s main trading partner) fell by half. Moscow desperately needs access to Western financial resources and to the technology market.

It should be noted that the Kremlin has accepted the fact that sanctions will be extended until December. It even plans to use this fact as a mobilizing factor for the fall parliamentary elections: “The whole world is against Russia!” As always.

But Russia expects favorable foreign policy changes in the near future. Western diplomats say that in private conversations their Russian colleagues are confident that after elections in the United States, Germany and France, leaders who are much more friendly to Putin’s politics will come to power. The  Kremlin is convinced that they will not only achieve the lifting of EU sanctions in 2017 but also bring up the issue about lifting US sanctions. To what extent this optimism is justified, time will tell. But it is clear that Ukraine needs to prepare in advance for adverse scenarios.

By the way, according to our sources, in late April Barack Obama speaking with Angela Merkel at the international industrial exhibition in Hanover proposed that the Normandy Format be expanded to include Washington. He received a polite refusal. And would the new  US president propose a similar initiative is a question. And would such an expansion be in the interest of Ukraine is the event of a Trump victory is yet another question.

Russia still considers the Donbas primarily as a platform for the continued destabilization of Ukraine. It considers the full implementation of the “Minsk scenario” very beneficial for its interests but unlikely. In Putin’s circle it appears  that  the number of those who propose abandoning the realization of the “Minsk ” plan is growing steadily — they believe the sanctions will be removed anyway,  and there will be more room to maneuver. It will even be possible not to keep avoiding discussions on the ceasefire, the withdrawal of weapons and so on. And, at the same time, it will be easier to torpedo questions on bringing in police missions, which was seen primarily as a factor to ensure security during elections. If there are no elections, there will be no international armed contingent. If there is no “Minsk,” there is no reason to even talk about the monitoring of borders by the OSCE. The Kremlin does not believe in an offensive by the Ukrainian army. Moreover, the Russians who support abandoning the Minsk plan recommend that every effort be made to place the responsibility for breaking Minsk process on Kyiv and not Moscow. Putin’s attitude to these initiatives in unknown. But it is quite possible that he may be considering such a scenario.

During the recent meeting of the foreign ministers of the “Normandy Four” and the most recent round of negotiations of the tripartite contact group in Minsk, the Kremlin once again tried to impose its plan for elections in the ORDLO. As far as is known,  there again appeared strict “majoritarian” and equally strict residency requirements (people who have not lived on this territory for the past year would not be allowed to participate in the elections), and limited access to Ukrainian media and political parties. Ukraine rejected this plan and was supported by Western allies. Moscow’s move was more ritualistic and the reaction to it was expected.

Equally unsuccessful (at least so far) was the attempt to “exchange” the release of Ukrainian citizens illegally detained in ORDLO for passage of the law on amnesty. As previously reported, the law “On prevention of the prosecution and punishment of persons participating in events on the territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts” was adopted by the Verkhovna Rada as early as September 16, 2014. It adopted it but the Verkhovna Rada speaker did not sign it. The official status of the document (according to the parliament’s website) is that it is being prepared for signature by the Verkhovna Rada. Lawyers claim that legislation does not prevent the speaker from approving the 18-month-old bill and submitting it for the president’s signature. Russians, according to our information, have tried through different channels to let Kyiv know that if Kyiv legalizes the law Russia would release the prisoners and hostages. Kyiv has not consented to such an exchange.

However, the possibility of holding elections in uncontrolled territories and the issue of amnesty have not been removed from the daily agenda. It is expected that the local campaign in ORDLO will be one of the topics for the phone conversation on May 21 between Petro Poroshenko with the German Chancellor and the French President. It is also expected that Angela Merkel will then inform Vladimir Putin of the outcome of the talks.

Another important topic for the talks among the three leaders is the discussion on the mandate and size of the future international police mission in the Donbas. It is expected that this issue will be discussed at the G7 summit in Japan on May 26-27. Russia has not yet given consent to the placing of armed troops under the aegis of the OSCE in ORDLO but has at least it has indicated its willingness to discuss this issue. This can be considered a small diplomatic victory through the mediation of the United States. Washington, as much as is known, has succeeded in softening the position of Berlin, which previously opposed such as step.

The debate about the size of the future police contingent is in full swing. The possible minimum number is 1,500 (strongly opposed by Kyiv as unacceptably low), and the possible maximum is  up to 11,000 (again strongly opposed by Moscow). It is assumed that this mission would be equipped with light weapons and armored equipment (there is of course no talk of tanks but the presence of armored vehicles is fully justified. Kyiv is demanding that the mission’s mandate be as broad as possible and hopes the mission will be the largest in history. In that case the OSCE can turn to the UN with the request to provide material, technical, consulting and logistical support for the mission’s deployment. At least the Ukrainian Ministry of  Foreign Affairs is working on this possibility.

Moscow, of course, will interfere with these plans as much as possible. The debate will be long, difficult and substantive. Its result will depend as much on the persistence of Kyiv as on the wisdom of Berlin and Washington. Ukraine’s fundamental position today is that discussions on  elections are impossible without assurance of security. And the assurance of security in ORDLO without the presence of a police mission and the full monitoring of the border is impossible. The full deployment of a police contingent, according to specialists, would take at least six months. And, furthermore, this decision has not even been reached yet.

Ukraine considers the following basic conditions necessary for holding elections in ORDLO:

  • Full respect for the ceasefire ( at least a month without any shooting along the entire line of demarcation).
  • Full access by OSCE mission anywhere in ORDLO
  • Round-the-clock OSCE monitoring of the portions of the Ukrainian-Russian border not under the control of Kyiv through technical means (Kyiv has mapped out the 9 most problematic points in the border where the OSCE units are to be deployed).
  • The police mission must be active on the ORDLO territory before, during, and after the elections. Its powers should be  clearly spelled out and should not be limited by the line of demarcation. Its access to any point in ORDLO must be guaranteed not only for the period of possible elections.
  • All heavy weapons and equipment must be removed to pre-determined places and remain there under the constant supervision of the mission. The terms and conditions of withdrawal must be specified in advance. The places of ultimate redeployment (outside of Ukraine) must be specified as well.
  • All internally displaced persons who previously lived  on the territory of ORDLO must have the active and passive right to participate in elections without restrictions.
  • Any discrimination against Ukrainian political parties that want to participate in the elections is unacceptable. Equally unacceptable are restrictions on Ukrainian media who wish to cover them.
  • The key role in organizing and conducting the elections should belong to the  Central Election Commission of Ukraine.
  • All illegitimate authorities on ORDLO territory must be abolished after the elections.

It is easy to assume that this list of requirements is unacceptable for Moscow. Therefore, we must expect new initiatives, agreements and compromises. We must stock up on patience. And strengthen our defenses. It is worth remembering that Minsk-1 was signed after Ilovaisk. And Minsk-2 after Debaltseve.

Serhiy Rakhmanin is deputy editor-in-chief of the Ukrainian publication Dzerkalo Tyzhnia (Mirror of the Week), where he is responsible for the politics department.

Translated by: Anna Mostovych
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