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How to return Donbass to local elites: Minsk process adjourned until 2016

The major problem of the peace process in the east of Ukraine is the process itself. The latest meeting of the Normandy Four has just confirmed that already acknowledged fact.  Seven months have passed since the Minsk Agreement was signed, but the situation in the east of Ukraine is still tense.  The deadline for the implementation of the Minsk Agreements is approaching. Three months are left. Meantime, the key provisions of the Agreement are still unfulfilled.  At the same time, this month, both Russian and Western mass media admitted the fact that the Minsk Agreements can be neither implemented nor breached actually. However, the European guarantors of the Minsk Agreements of the Normandy Four are well aware of that game and do not blame Kiev for breaching Minsk II.

Well, but what will come to replace the Minsk process? Russian experts explain the current inactive situation in Donbass with conflict freezing. This fact was to be confirmed on October 2 2015 at the so-called Normandy Four meeting of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, and President of Russia Vladimir Putin. The Russian president met with his European partners after launching air strikes in Syria. The factor of Syria was in the air during the discussions of the Ukrainian issue in Paris. The Syrian factor seemed to have overshadowed the conflict in the east of Ukraine, which has not become less tense from it.

Actually, the problem of illegal migrants has weakened Russia’s European partners during the talks in Paris. It is noteworthy that the discussion of the problem of elections in Donbass ahead of the Summit did not face new any threats of sanctions against Russia.  They in Europe think one of the Kremlin’s goals in Syria is to weaken the West’s positions in Syria i.e. to achieve rescinding or at least reduction of the sanctions in exchange of constructive cooperation in Syria. In this light, the Summit in Paris did not prove fruitful, however it demonstrated that the conflict in Ukraine cannot be discussed setting aside the war in Syria and the migration crisis in Europe.

Nevertheless, Moscow’s European partners supported their ally at the summit. Poroshenko and Hollande had a private meeting ahead of the Normandy Four Summit and coordinated their stands.  Merkel and Hollande, in turn, had phone talks with Poroshenko during which they coordinated their stands with the Ukrainian president. Eventually, in Paris, the Russian president had to stand against the coordinated game of his partners.

The talks in Paris continued for almost five hours. Putin and Poroshenko left the Elysée Palace right after the meeting, while Merkel and Hollande remained to give a news conference. The Normandy Four meeting in Paris appears to have resulted in nothing. No documents were signed. Neither the parties announced any arrangements. Even the joint press conference did not take place. Nevertheless, the meeting was preceded by several-weeks-long preparations and the informal agenda of the meeting was known beforehand.

At the meeting, the Ukrainian president pressed for cancellation of Ukraine’s elections in the territory of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR). Internal legitimization of the “people’s republics” would freeze the conflict without legitimizing it. For the Russian president, it was of utmost importance to prevent new sanctions against Russia at the Paris talks. In this light, the Kremlin does not need the formal termination of the Minsk agreements. The Minsk process must be continued even if it goes beyond the deadline.  Therefore, it was in favor of Moscow to extend the deadline for the implementation of the Minsk agreements. Talking to media after the meeting, President Hollande said the implementation of the Minsk Agreements will be continued also after Dec 31 2015. That is, the Minsk process becomes not limited in time when it comes to the point concerning the elections within the Ukrainian laws and the transfer of the border under control of Ukraine.  Actually, the key result of the Paris meeting of the Normandy Four was the prolongation of the Minsk process until 2016 without any clear definitions of that decision. In this light, it appears that the results of the Paris meeting were in favor of Russia, but nothing else. Further, there will be just problems. 

The Summit in Paris was held after a month-long ceasefire in Donbass. It is the most durable ceasefire, which is breached rarely.  Talking to media after the meeting, President of France Hollande admitted that the ceasefire in the east of Ukraine is observed generally.  The working group in Minsk agreed upon the issue of withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line ahead of the meeting. It was already the third agreement of the kind. The two previous ones were breached. Monday, on October 5, the withdrawal started.

As military actions in the east of Ukraine have relatively calmed down since early September, there is more hope for a compromise over the disputable points of the Minsk Agreements.  Point 4 of the Minsk Agreements is still the key reason for disputes:  “On the first day after the pullout a 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 Lugansk Oblasts," and also about the future of these districts based on the above-mentioned law.” The heads of the self-proclaimed republics say that no dialogue on modalities (by the way, what is it?) has been held. Therefore, they are ready to conduct local elections within their own laws.  The Ukrainian party points at the condition “in accordance with the Ukrainian legislation” and demands its fulfillment.  “Dialogue must be held with the legitimately elected representatives of Donbass,” President Poroshenko says. That is, he means the elections must precede the dialogue.  In addition, he believes that all the political parties of Ukraine, including the extremely nationalist ones, must be allowed to participate in the elections in the “special districts” and the refugees from the region must participate in the voting.

Disputes over the elections demonstrate the major problem of the Minsk process – the Kiev authorities refuse to recognize the leadership of the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” as parties to the conflict. Elections in Donbass remain the key point of the ongoing Minsk process. Berlin and Paris say postponement of the local elections in Donbass until the beginning of next year could be a compromise here. Local elections in the DPR and LPR are scheduled for October 18 and November 1 2015, respectively.  Donetsk and Lugansk are suggested to postpone the elections. Kiev, in turn, should adopt a special law on these elections and announce their date. Elections in the “special districts” are to be conducted within 80 days after Kiev adopts a law on it. 

They tried to settle the problem of elections by means of the so-called “Morel Plan” offered in early September in the working groups on the Minsk process. Officially, “Morel Plan” is a document prepared by Pierre Morel, the coordinator of the Political Subgroup on Donbass. In fact, according to Deutsche Welle, Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland and State Secretary of the Russian Foreign Ministry Grigory Karasin are behind the “Morel Plan.”

The major points of that document are: elections in the territory of the “special districts” of Donbass within the special law, but on their own rules, amnesty for the militia/rebels and special status for these territories ahead of the elections. It has been planned that Kiev will pass a law on elections, and Donetsk and Lugansk will hold elections on their own rules. In such case, not only the “Morel Plan” will save Moscow’s face, but also ensure the political positions of the incumbent leadership in Lugansk and Donetsk. In addition, it has legitimized the leadership after the elections. Moscow reasonably anticipates that its people will win the upcoming elections in the “special districts.”  Elections as usually are a post-Soviet political and technological combination. Russia’s adversaries think the Kremlin tries to legitimize the “people’s republics” to turn the Minsk process into an instrument for destroying the Ukrainian statehood. That is why the “Morel Plan” is not welcome in Ukraine.

The initiators consider the “Morel Plan” as an integral part of the Minsk Agreements that should help implement them. In this sense, the “Morel Plan” meets Russia’s interpretation of the Minsk Agreement.

The “Morel Plan” means that Berlin and Paris demand the parties to observe the proprieties of implementing the Minsk agreements on condition that the Supreme Rada passes a law on elections in the “separate districts” in coordination with the self-proclaimed republics. One can state for sure now that Kiev will not agree on talks with Donetsk and Lugansk over the elections and will pass a law that will not meet the interests of the self-proclaimed republics.

Elections are conditioned by the ceasefire, agreement on the date of elections, full access of the OSCE observers to the elections. In addition, the issues of the special status of Donbass and amnesty must be settled. The last one is quite problematic, as Ukraine agrees only on a selective or personal amnesty. Amnesty can be announced for the voting day in the “special districts.” This leads the core group of the self-proclaimed republics into uncertainty, let alone the self-defense forces.

All the points of the Minsk Agreements, except the ones concerning the elections and restoration of the border must be implemented by the end of the year.  Under the document, the border restoration process must be launched right on the next day of the elections.  Donbass’ special status will come into effect on the voting day. At first it will be temporary. However, if the international observers confirm the voting outcome, it will become effective on continuing basis. Such reservations create uncertain situations. The general situation is not stable also because the situation with the laws is within the competence of the Supreme Rada of Ukraine. If the Supreme Rada does not approve any decision on the elections, President Poroshenko will simply wash his hands of it. In addition, Paris and Berlin do not admit publicly that Kiev violates the Minsk Agreement. It became evident from the Normandy Four meeting in Paris.

We have approached to another development point of the crisis in Ukraine. Moscow was openly demanded to cancel the elections in Donbass, which would mean de-facto ‘yielding’ of the core group of the “people’s republics.” Refusal from the elections in Donbass will pave the way for restoration of Kiev’s power over Donbass, as it will get an opportunity to decide the date and format of the elections. Cancelling the elections would mean a retreat, final discouragement of the forces in Donbass that are determined to fight against the Ukrainian nationalists. Refusal from elections would affect the reputation of the incumbent leaders of Donbass, whom Poroshoneko calls “terrorists.”

By the general idea of the peace process, Donbass must be returned to its pre-war state when the region was totally controlled by the local elite ‘headed by’ Rinat Akhmetov. U.S., in turn, hopes to brainwash the local elite after the normalization of the situation. U.S. and their European allies look to achieve this by providing funds for rehabilitation of Donbass. Refusal from elections will restore Akhmetov’s influence in Donbass.

Previously the peaceful settlement in Donbass appeared to have two options. First: the insurgent region receives autonomy through decentralization and basing on the Minsk Agreements. Second: the region remains with the status of the self-proclaimed republics with Kiev’s de-facto, implied recognition of that state. Now, a third option has emerged: the region is returned under control of the local elites without any special terms.

As to the first two options, freezing of the conflict in Donbass would be an ideal option for the Russian leadership. Now we are witnessing a situation when they try to “freeze” the conflict, but this “freezing” fails to obtain the necessary status due to Kiev’s resistance. They do not allow freezing the conflict in Donbass on a legal basis. Ukraine’s leadership still tries to gain time. It replaces the requirements of the Minsk Agreements with its own interpretations of the document’s points. In his latest TV interview, President Poroshenko said U.S. President Obama has charged supplying more “defensive weapons” to Ukraine. It turns out that the end of the conflict in Donbass does not mean general peace. With the end of the crisis in the east of Ukraine, the Crimea issue comes to the forefront. In his latest interview, Poroshenko confirmed that the “start of the process of returning Donbass” will be followed with similar actions concerning Crimea. “Crimea is the next stage of our actions,” he said.

Now, after the Paris meeting of the Normandy Four, Ukraine keeps a low profile. The key decision rests upon Moscow. In early November, the foreign ministers of the Normandy Four countries – France, Russia, Ukraine and Germany – will meet to assess the progress in the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. The major point of the discussion will certainly become the elections in Donbass, irrespective of whether they are held or cancelled.

EADaily Analysis

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