The peace agreement signed in Minsk in February 2015 prescribed a path towards a permanent settlement of the war in Ukraine by the end of this year. To date not one of its clauses has been fully put into effect. While the scale of the fighting is much reduced compared with the start of the year, there is still not a complete ceasefire; Kiev has not passed a law providing the promised amnesty; prisoner exchanges have taken place but are incomplete; and the Ukrainian government has not restored social and economic connections between government and rebel-held territories (indeed it has done the opposite by tightening its blockade of the latter).
These violations of the agreement would perhaps not matter if progress had been made on the agreement’s most important sections – those which deal with the final political settlement. If those can be sorted out, the rest will probably fall into place. Unfortunately, both sides have taken steps which raise serious barriers to such a settlement.
The first of these steps relates to the constitutional reforms which the Minsk accord obliges Kiev to undertake. The Ukrainian government claims that the reforms it has introduced in parliament satisfy this obligation. At the same time, though, it reiterates that they do not involve any form of ‘special status’ for Donbass. The entire point of including constitutional reform in the Minsk agreement was to satisfy the rebels’ demands for local autonomy. Because Kiev’s plans don’t do this it is extremely hard to see how they can form the basis of a political settlement. Indeed, rather than facilitating a settlement, they block it.
Now, Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), has thrown up a barrier of his own, by issuing an order stating that the republic will hold local elections, starting with town mayors on October 18. The Minsk agreement obliged both sides to ‘Launch a dialogue … on modalities of local elections in accordance with Ukrainian legislation and the Law of Ukraine “On interim local self-government order in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions”.’ Ukraine is holding its own local elections on 25 October. Those in the DPR will clearly not be ‘in accordance with Ukrainian legislation’. Because of this, Kiev regards them as a breach of the agreement. Furthermore, Kiev sees local elections under Ukrainian law as a crucial step towards reintegrating its lost territories, and it has been urging its Western allies to make the elections a sort of ‘red line’ which the rebels must not cross without serious consequences. In particular, President Petro Poroshenko has been trying to persuade his allies that they should increase sanctions against Russia and provide weapons to Ukraine should the rebels hold elections which are not in accordance with Ukrainian law. If the votes in the DPR go ahead, they could be the final nail in Minsk’s coffin.
As noted, the Minsk accord demands ‘a dialogue … on modalities of local elections in accordance with Ukrainian legislation’, and then in paragraph 12 states that, ‘questions related to local elections will be discussed and agreed upon with representatives of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in the framework of the Trilateral Contact Group.’ No such dialogue has taken place, and there has been no agreement ‘with representatives of particular districts of Donetsk and Lugansk’. The reason is simple – Kiev refuses to talk to the rebels.
In Crimea last week, Vladimir Putin remarked that, ‘The most important thing to do is to establish direct contacts between Ukrainian authorities and authorizes of Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics so that the accords can be fully implemented.’ Poroshenko seems to cling to the hope that Western pressure on Russia will force Moscow to abandon the rebel republics. That way, Kiev will be able to regain control of Donbass without ever having to negotiate with the rebel leaders. Judging by Putin’s statement and Zakharchenko’s announcement, this doesn’t seem likely to happen.