From the start of the crisis in Ukraine, I have regularly pointed out that it is not all Russia’s fault. My purpose has not been to deny all Russian responsibility – Russia does share the blame for what has happened – but merely to point out that others are to blame too, most notably those who currently govern Ukraine. The talks last week in Paris between the so-called ‘Normandy Four’ (Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France) indicate that the West, or at least part of it, is beginning to realize this.
In the past few weeks, the main roadblock to the implementation of the Minsk-2 peace settlement has been proposed local elections in Donbass. Kiev has been insisting that such elections be held on 25 October in accordance with Ukrainian law. The rebels in Donbass had announced that they would hold elections on different dates and under their own laws. If the rebels had agreed to the Ukrainian demand, it would have amounted to something close to surrender. If they went ahead with their own plan, it would be a major step on the way towards forming independent states, and would constitute a formal break with Minsk-2.
In Paris, the Normandy Four agreed to a compromise, referred to as the ‘Morel plan’ after Pierre Morel, the French diplomat who proposed it. The rebel Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (LPR & LPR) would cancel their own elections and instead hold elections under Ukrainian law, but not until 2016 after Ukraine has brought in a new electoral law, which is to be drawn up in consultation with the rebel leaders, and after Ukraine has legislated an amnesty for the rebels, so that they can stand as candidates in these elections. Russia’s president Vladimir Putin promised to ask the rebels to cancel their elections, and today the DPR and LPR announced that they would indeed postpone them until the new year, on condition that the Ukrainian government provides the promised amnesty, enters into negotiation with them about a new electoral law, and grants Donbass ‘special status’ in the Ukrainian constitution.
By asking the rebels to cancel their elections, Putin has shown yet again that he is not interested in annexing Donbass or in seeing the DPR and LPR become semi-independent states like Abkhazia or South Ossetia. Rather, Russia remains committed to making Minsk-2 work, and that means re-integrating Donbass into Ukraine. But, it is equally clear that the Russian government believes that the only way that this can be done is by direct negotiation between Kiev and the DPR/LPR, leading to a constitutional ‘special status’ and to new electoral laws which the latter find acceptable. According to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov:
Besides the timing of local elections, of key importance are issues such as guaranteeing the special status of Donbass … And, according to the agreement, this special status will be guaranteed permanently, not for a year, not for two, not for three. This is written in black and white in the Minsk agreements. … All this work [to change the constitution and carry out elections] must be agreed with the particular regions of Donetsk and Lugansk regions, that is to say with the current leaders of Donbass.
Lavrov is on solid ground here. Contrary to what Kiev claims, the Minsk-2 agreement did not actually state that Donbass had to hold local elections on a specified date under Ukrainian law, merely that ‘dialogue is to start on modalities of conducting local elections in accordance with the Ukrainian legislation and the Law of Ukraine “On temporary Order of Local Self-Governance in Particular Districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts,” and also about the future of these districts based on the above-mentioned law.’ The agreement also says 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, nor have the elections been ‘discussed and agreed upon with representatives of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts’, for the simple reason that Kiev refuses to recognise the rebel leaders as being the ‘representatives’ in question. By insisting that the local elections are dependent upon Kiev engaging in dialogue with the DPR and LPR, the French and Germans are doing nothing more than demanding that the Ukrainian government carry out its obligations under the Minsk-2 agreement.
They [France and Germany] are demanding that we do not prosecute them [the rebels], that we allow them to participate in elections, that is to say that we recognize that the leaders of the DPR and LPR represent the people of Donbass, and that we must speak with them, and not with Russia. This is a complicated and dangerous moment. Russia is achieving what it wanted – Ukrainian recognition of the DPR and LPR.
If this attitude prevails, and Kiev continues to refuse to speak to the rebels, it will be in clear breach of last week’s agreement, and there will be no progress towards a final peace settlement. This is not inevitable, but at present it looks likely. As Leonid Bershidsky writes, ‘It’s almost politically impossible for [Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko] to push a Moscow-approved election bill through Ukraine’s parliament.’
Indeed, Poroshenko is already backtracking on the commitments he gave in Paris. There was no Morel Plan, he told Ukrainian television, just ‘some proposals, some of which can be taken into consideration, and others of which certainly not.’ Local elections in Donbass, he added, could only take place when there were guarantees of security, in other words after ‘the withdrawal of all foreign forces, volunteers, arms, and equipment.’ Since the Ukrainian government considers most of the rebels’ forces and their weapons to be ‘foreign’, this pretty much rules out any elections until such time as the rebels have disarmed.
What will France and Germany do if Kiev doesn’t fulfil its side of the bargain? Will they finally hold the Ukrainian authorities to account? In the past, when they have felt that Moscow wasn’t fulfilling its obligations, they have taken a tough line. In the interests of peace, they now need to take an equally tough line with Kiev.