Following on from my last post about authoritarianism in Russia, we see evidence of growing authoritarianism in Ukraine. The most recent example is the charges of high treason laid against opposition MPs Viktor Medvedchuk and Taras Kozak. I discuss the case in an article for RT, that you can read here.
The Russian and Ukrainian media have been abuzz this week over the news that the Ukrainian government has accepted the ‘Steinmeier Formula’ which is meant to help regulate the reintegration of rebel Donbass into Ukraine. Supporters of foreign Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, as well as members of the Ukrainian far right, are denouncing the move as a betrayal. Others, though, hope that it is an important first step towards peace. In reality, however, I don’t think that the Ukrainian government’s decision adds up to very much. For sure, it’s a step forward, but only a very small one, and unworthy of either the hysterical denunciations or the fervent optimism.
The Minsk II agreement of February 2015 laid out the terms on which rebel Donbass would return to Ukrainian control. These included a ceasefire, a withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line, and the commencement of a ‘discussion’ on how to hold elections in Donbass and on the nature of Donbass’s future relationship with Ukraine. Following this, an amnesty would be granted, elections held, and constitutional reform undertaken and legislation passed to provide special status for rebel-held areas of Donbass. The day after elections, Ukraine would regain control of its border with Russia.
No sooner had it agreed to these terms than the Ukrainian government began to backtrack, insisting that it would not grant special status to Donbass, and also demanding that the rebels disarm and the border be placed under Ukrainian control prior to elections. This reversed the order of events required by the Minsk agreement. The Steinmeier formula, named after its author, German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is meant in part to find a way out of this impasse. It says that once Ukraine has passed a law on special status for Donbass, local elections will be held, and the special status will come into effect on a temporary basis on the evening of the elections, and permanently once the OSCE has confirmed that the elections were carried out in accordance with international standards.
For hard-line Ukrainians, the Steinmeier formula is seen as capitulation as it admits that Donbass will have to get special status. However, even if the formula is accepted, the question remains of how and when the elections in question are meant to take place, and so get the ball rolling. And on this Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has been very clear: the elections must take place under the supervision of the Ukrainian government, and can only take place once all rebel forces have been disbanded and the border has been restored to Ukrainian control. Zelensky also says that any special status for Donbass can only take the form of a law, not of a constitutional reform.
These conditions are completely unacceptable to the rebel leadership and its Russian patrons. First, the rebels insist that they must have a role in running the elections which, they say, they will only accept if held under the first-past-the-post system and not under the Ukrainian system of proportional representation. Second, disbanding their armed forces and handing over the border before any special status is conferred would amount to complete surrender and put the rebels entirely at Kiev’s mercy. This is clearly something they won’t do. And third, special status conferred by a law not by constitutional reform could be simply revoked by a parliamentary majority repealing the law. It provides very few guarantees for the future. This makes it something which is unlikely to be acceptable.
In short, while accepting the Steinmeier formula, Zelensky has imposed conditions which mean that it can never be put into practice. Viewing this, Baylor University’s Serhiy Kudelia remarks that either Zelensky is either ‘genuinely delusional’ or simply making a token concession in order to stay in the good books of his European allies while knowing full well that nothing will come of it.
I suspect the latter, though I think that it may also be a product of the restraints under which Zelensky is operating. Prior to this week’s decision, we witnessed the fiasco of foreign minister Vadim Pristaiko saying that he had agreed to the formula only for Ukraine’s chief negotiator, former president Leonid Kuchma, to then publicly refuse to do so. Eventually, it seems that Zelensky was able to get Kuchma to back down and sign the document, but it’s clear that even this small step was quite a struggle. Going any further would require Zelensky to fight a major political battle internally. It doesn’t look like he’s prepared to do so.
As I’ve said on many occasions, the peaceful reintegration of Donbass into Ukraine will only be possible if Kiev makes major concessions. It’s obvious that that’s not going to happen all at once. The best we can hope for is little steps which gradually move Kiev in the right direction. In so far as this constitutes such a step, it’s something to welcome. But I’m not overly confident that Ukraine’s internal political situation will permit further moves of the same sort, at least not for some time. I hope I’m wrong, but for now I don’t think that the Steinmeier decision changes very much at all. Peace remains a rather distant dream.
The impending victory of Volodymyr Zelensky in the Ukrainian presidential election is splitting the commentariat into two. On the one hand, there are the optimists. Zelensky is less beholden to the nationalist vote than Ukraine’s current president, Petro Poroshenko, and has avoided divisive ethno-national language of the sort which has characterized Poroshenko’s campaign. According to the optimists, therefore, he will be much better placed to bring the conflict in Donbass to an end. Serhiy Kudelia, for instance, remarks that, Zelensky ‘offers a new type of political leadership that could improve prospects for reconciliation and the peaceful reintegration of the Donbas in the near to medium term.’
That scares the hell out of hardliners who believe that any peaceful settlement of the war in Donbass would inevitably involve some sort of surrender to Russia. Poroshenko’s supporters thus view Zelensky’s coming triumph far more pessimistically. Poroshenko has been resolute in his refusal to make the concessions necessary to bring peace to Donbass; he has approved numerous nationalist projects, such as laws restricting the use of the Russian language in the media and education, and the decommunization law; and he struck a blow at the Moscow Patriarchate by negotiating the formation of a new Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Zelensky, it is feared, will not be so reliable.
Both the optimists and the pessimists share the assumption that Zelensky may help bring peace to Ukraine by softening the tough line taken up to now by President Poroshenko; they just differ in their opinion as to whether that’s a good thing. The problem with this assumption is that it’s not exactly reliable.
A common solution to civil conflicts is some sort of power sharing system. This can involve mechanisms to guarantee that minorities are represented in central government structures (e.g. Lebanon and Northern Ireland) or some sort of federalization or confederalization of the country in question (e.g. Bosnia-Herzegovina). These mechanisms have definite disadvantages (for instance, they entrench the divisions which caused conflict in the political system), but in general people consider the price to be one worth paying for peace. In Ukraine’s case, it has long been obvious that the only way to reintegrate Donbass into Ukraine and thereby bring the war there to an end in a manner favourable to Ukraine is through constitutional reform which would give Donbass some sort of special status (i.e. autonomy) within Ukraine, combined with an amnesty for all involved. This is in effect what was promised in the Minsk II agreement of February 2015.
To date, Poroshenko’s government has not only failed to make concessions of this sort. but has also done its best to make it impossible for future governments to do so, by means for instance of a law redefining the conflict in Donbass as a war against the Russian Federation. It is precisely a fear that Zelensky will change direction that inspires the hardliners’ dislike of Ukraine’s likely future president.
These fears, however, are unjustified. As the UNIAN information agency announced today:
Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky has said Donbas does not need to be granted any special status. … Zelensky also said that, if elected president, he is not going to sign the law on amnesty for the militants of the so-called ‘Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics’.
Since these are two absolutely necessary conditions for any peaceful settlement of the war in Donbass, this pretty well nixes the idea that Zelensky is the ‘peace candidate’. Further evidence of Zelensky’s future policies towards Donbass can be seen also in a statement of the first ten steps he plans to take upon taking power. Number one is ‘invite the United Kingdom and the United States to join the Normandy format’ – in other words to join the process which is meant to negotiate how the Minsk agreements will be put into practice.
The Normandy format, like the Minsk agreements, are pretty much dead. But bringing the UK and the USA into the peace process is about the last thing you’d suggest if you were truly interested in bringing them back to life. Not only are those countries the two states in NATO (perhaps barring Canada) which are the most resolutely hostile to Russia, but they have also shown not the slightest interest in persuading Ukraine to make the concessions required to fulfil its obligations in the Minsk agreements. On the contrary, the Americans have very much pushed Ukraine in the other direction. Take, for instance, the American response to Vladimir Putin’s proposal for a peacekeeping force in Donbass. Whereas Putin proposed a force which would be deployed along the front line and physically separate the two warring parties, the Americans, through their representative Kurt Volker, have suggested creating a force which would occupy all of rebel-controlled Donbass, take over the rebel republic’s borders with Russia, and disarm rebel formations, all before any political reforms (such as granting of autonomy) are enacted. This plan turns the order of events laid out in the Minsk agreement on its head, and in effect amounts to an abandonment of the agreement and to the rebels’ total abject surrender. For that very reason, it has no hopes of succeeding.
Ukrainian politicians do not yet seem to have grasped the need to compromise, and the Americans in particular have encouraged this blindness. Bringing them into the peace process only makes sense if you have no intention of making concessions yourself and see the solution as lying entirely in pushing things in a more hardline direction through increased pressure on the Russian Federation. The fact that Zelensky has proposed this tells us a lot therefore about his attitude towards Minsk and the peace process more generally – namely, that at this point in time, he’s very much not somebody who’s prepared to do what needs to be done to obtain peace on terms favourable to Ukraine (i.e. see Donbass restored to Ukrainian control).
Instead, based on his current statements, we are more likely to see a continued insistence on the absolute capitulation of the rebel forces and the Russian Federation. The result will be that the conflict in Donbass will continue to dribble along at its current low level for the indefinite future. Of course, the things politicians do once elected often differs from what they promise during elections. And much may change during Zelensky’s presidency which may push him in a different direction. For now, though, the idea that his election will do much to accelerate the arrival of peace in Ukraine seems a little far-fetched.