Tag Archives: Minsk Agreement

Is Minsk dead?

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.

Tele-bridge

On Friday I participated in a ‘Tele-bridge’ which was broadcast by the online Ukrainian TV station, Channel 17. The idea was to promote dialogue between the warring parties in Ukraine by bringing together via Skype representatives of both sides along with outside commentators who could provide an alternative perspective. The ‘Tele-bridge’ participants included military personnel and civilians in Kiev (including a member of the Right Sector organization), representatives of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic, a journalist from Minsk (Aleksandr Feduta), and from Ottawa, the former Canadian ambassador to Yugoslavia James Bissett, Halyna Mokrushyna who is a PhD student at the University of Ottawa, and me.

Details of the Tele-bridge can be found on the website of Channel 17 here. An abridged version containing only those parts in which the Canadian contingent participated is online here. I apologise for at one point continuing talking when the interviewer was trying to let somebody else have a word – the sound link with Kiev was poor, and I couldn’t hear what was being said.

During the broadcast, I made the following points:

Continue reading Tele-bridge

On the bus, off the bus

Having climbed on board the bus of constitutional reform and proposed amendments that would make Donetsk and Lugansk ‘inseparable parts of Ukraine’, rebel leaders in Ukraine have now leapt off the bus and are backtracking from their own proposals with remarkable speed. Today, the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Aleksandr Zakharchenko, told Life News, ‘I do not envision the DPR being part of Ukraine.’ ‘For me personally, the DPR’s future is as a free, independent state,’ he said, adding that, ‘the blood which our compatriots have shed cannot be forgotten. There can be no talk with Ukraine about any type of autonomy.’

This, of course, completely contradicts the suggestions for constitutional reform put forward by the DPR’s representative to the so-called ‘Contact Group’, Denis Pushilin, which I analyzed in another post yesterday. How can we explain this contradiction? According to Pushilin today, the DPR has no intention of rejoining Ukraine, ‘This would, of course, be for us a form of suicide … nobody intends to go in this direction. But negotiations within the framework of international process is possible and is not excluded.’ In other words, the DPR made its proposals not because it actually wants them to be accepted, or even because it expects Kiev to respond to them, but because ‘international processes’ (i.e. the Minsk agreement of February 2015) require that it propose something. In short, the DPR is going through the motions.

The question is why it bothers to do so. It cannot be because the Ukrainian government is forcing it to, or because the French and German governments (which were largely responsible for the Minsk agreement) are forcing it either. The only possible explanation is that the pressure to at least go through the motions is coming from Moscow. This would mean that the proposed constitutional reforms, which would see the provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk acquire ‘special status’ but remain within Ukraine, represent the wishes not of the rebels but of the Russian government.

The recent G7 meeting reiterated demands that Russia abide by the Minsk agreement, suggesting that it was not doing so and threatening additional sanctions if it did not change its behaviour. But if the above is correct, Moscow is actually trying hard to make the rebels conform with that agreement’s requirements, while Kiev is failing to live up to its own obligations by refusing to negotiate the ‘special status’ for Donbass as mandated by Minsk.

‘Separate regions with special status’

Point 11 of the Minsk-2 agreement which is meant to provide a road map to end the conflict in Ukraine, states that the Ukrainian government should undertake:

Constitutional reform in Ukraine, with a new constitution to come into effect by the end of 2015, the key element of which is decentralization (taking into account peculiarities of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, agreed with representatives of these districts), and also approval of permanent legislation on the special status of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in accordance with the measures spelt out in the attached footnote, by the end of 2015.

In a previous post, I mentioned that representatives of the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR) had laid out their suggestions for the required constitutional amendments. Until today, we only knew the broad outline, but the DPR’s press agency has now published the complete text. The key proposed amendments are as follows:

Article 1391: The regions, towns, and other populated points of Donetsk Province form a separate region with special status. The regions, towns, and other populated points of Lugansk Province form a separate region with special status. … the principles of this status are to be defined by a separate Ukrainian law. … The separate regions with special status are inseparable parts of Ukraine, and within the limits of their powers, defined by the Constitution, separate agreements, and any agreements about the division of powers among these regions … they will independently decide those questions which are brought before them.

Article 1292: The separate regions with special status will form electoral commissions on the territory of those regions. The electoral commissions of the separate regions with special status will be independent and not subordinate to the organs of the legislative and executive powers or other electoral commissions.

Article 1393: The state will guarantee the financial independence of the separate regions with special status by 1) strengthening the budgets of the separate regions with special status with sufficient sources of finance to guarantee the balancing of the budget. …  and 6) introducing a special economic regime.

Article 1394: The organs of local self-government … have the right to create organs to protect public order (people’s militia). These organs’ leaders are to be nominated to and removed from office by the organs of local self-government of the separate regions with special status.

Article 1395: The organs of local self-government of the separate regions with special status will regulate the following matters: 1) agriculture, land resources and ownership … 2) land improvement, 3) social work, charity, 4) urban construction, 5) tourism, 6) museums, libraries, theatres, and other cultural institutions, 7) transport, 8) hunting and fishing, 9) health service, 10) use of the Russian language … 13) economics and investment within the framework of the special economic regime.

Article 1396: The following matters will be considered by the separate regions with special status: 1) carrying out referendums, elections of members of local councils … 7) guaranteeing the right to use Russian and other languages … 8) preserving and constructing memorials … 10) concluding treaties with foreign states on questions linked to the activities of the separate regions with special status, 11) collecting local taxes.

Article 1397: Justice in the separate regions with special status will be administered by courts which are part of the court system of Ukraine. The creation and dismantlement of courts, and the appointment and dismissal of judges, will be carried out with the agreement of the organs of local self-government of the separate regions with special status. …

Article 133: The administrative territorial system of Ukraine consists of: the Autonomous Republic of Crimea; the separate regions with special status of Donetsk and Lugansk Provinces; the provinces, regions, towns, regions in towns, settlements and villages. … The cities of Kiev and Sevastopol and the separate regions with special status of Donetsk and Lugansk Provinces have special status defined by Ukrainian law.

In addition to these amendments, the document also states that ‘It is proposed that the Constitution of Ukraine be amended with the words “Ukraine will not join military blocs and alliances, will remain neutral, and will refrain from participating in military actions outside its own territory.”’

In reviewing this, the Russian press has focused on the fact that the document lists Crimea and Sevastopol as part of Ukraine, as if this somehow means that the rebels are distancing themselves from Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol. This supposedly constitutes some form of scandalous political retreat.  In reality, the rebels must know that they cannot get the Ukrainian government to amend its constitution to remove the references to Crimea and Sevastopol. What matters is the proposed inclusion of Donetsk and Lugansk Provinces as ‘separate regions with special status.’

The language used here is significant. There is no talk of ‘autonomy’ or of turning Ukraine into a ‘federal’ state. Rather the phrase ‘special status’ corresponds with the demands of Minsk-2. If the rebel proposals were to come into force, Ukraine would remain a unitary state, albeit one in which two provinces had unique local powers. Furthermore, the statement that the two provinces are ‘inseparable parts of Ukraine’ is extremely important. The labelling of the rebels as ‘separatists’ no longer fits the facts.

The powers requested by the rebels for the ‘separate regions with special status’ are not insubstantial. Even if the word ‘autonomy’ is not used, the proposed amendments would in practice make Donetsk and Lugansk Provinces very largely self-governing. That said, the proposed competencies of the separate regions are not out of line with what one can find in the states and provinces of many Western countries. Beyond the issue of neutrality, the suggestion which would be most likely to cause serious difficulties is that of creating a special economic regime for the separate regions. It would seem that in proposing this, the rebels have in mind the maintenance of close economic ties with Russia. The problem is that a special economic regime for one zone of Ukraine is not compatible with the country’s ambitions to join the European Union (which allows for no such regimes).

Still, a deal along the lines suggested by the rebel document would allow all sides in the conflict to save face: Ukraine would preserve its territorial integrity, while the Ukrainian government could claim that it had successfully resisted attempts to federalize or confederalize the country; and the rebels could say that they had won significant autonomy. Even if some details might prove problematic, overall the rebels’ document is not unreasonable as a foundation for negotiating a peace settlement.

Unfortunately, as I pointed out in my previous post, the Ukrainian government does not appear to be interested in negotiating. Despite the fact that Minsk-2 specifically states that the required constitutional reforms should include ‘special status’ for Donetsk and Lugansk, the government is insisting that they will consist only of a general decentralization of powers to all Ukrainian regions and will not involve any such ‘special status’ for Donbass.  Ukraine’s Western allies should press it to reconsider.