Sunday, August 28, 2016


Voting For A Frozen Conflict In The Donbas

Separatist gunmen guard Aleksander Zakharchenko (center), prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in Donetsk.
Separatist gunmen guard Aleksander Zakharchenko (center), prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in Donetsk.

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The de facto separatist authorities in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions are organizing a vote that analysts say can only solidify the country's conflict and potentially turn it into another post-Soviet protracted, or frozen, conflict.

Voters in the two regions will go to the polls on November 2 to endorse regional legislators and executive branch heads in a process that is neither regulated by Ukrainian law, nor overseen by the Ukrainian Central Election Commission, nor observed by monitors from international bodies such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Andrew Wilson, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and author of the new book "The Ukraine Crisis: What It Means For The West," cautions that it is not even proper to call the voting "elections," saying it is a "fake vote" aimed at "locking in uncertainty and unpredictability" to undermine the Ukrainian state.

Orysia Lutsevych, a research fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Program of Chatham House in London, concurs.

"What the separatists -- with the endorsement of Moscow -- are doing right now is that they are running elections to legitimize the breakaway region and to create a frozen conflict," Lutsevych says.

The Ukrainian government, Western countries, and international organizations have all said the November 2 process violates the September Minsk agreement that was signed by representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the OSCE, and the separatist regions.  

Point No. 9 of that agreement stipulates "facilitating the conduct of early local elections in accordance with the Ukrainian law on temporary organization of local self-government in certain regions of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts." That law, which was subsequently adopted by Ukraine's parliament and signed by President Petro Poroshenko, sets local elections for December 7.

Moscow, however, has said the process is in compliance with the Minsk agreement and has pledged in advance to accept its results.

"Prior to the start of the Minsk process, the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics' leaders publicly outlined their negotiating positions, which in particular stress that the holding on those territories of free elections on the principles of people's self-governance will open the way for joint work to preserve the common economic, cultural, and political space of Ukraine," said an October 29 Russian Foreign Ministry statement.

Creating A Virtual State

"What Russia is saying is a lie," counters Lutsevych, "because the elections -- according to the Minsk protocol -- should be taking place according to Ukrainian law and organized by the Ukrainian Central Election Commission, which is not the case with the elections this weekend because Kyiv has no access to these territories."

Moscow, however, seems to be relying on the Minsk protocol phrase "local elections," distinguishing between the region-wide process set for November 2 and the municipal and district elections that could, theoretically, be held on December 7 under the Ukrainian law.

  • Rebel field commander Igor Bezler, who is known to his comrades as "Bes," plays guitar at the wedding of one of his unit members in Gorlovka, in the Donetsk region.
  • Tatiana, a nurse assisting pro-separatist fighters, inside a dugout at a rebel checkpoint in Gorlovka.
  • Nikolai sells grapes, grown in his own garden, to an elderly woman in front of a destroyed building in Gorlovka. According to the new separatist mayor, 80 percent of the city's population has returned to their homes. Job opportunities are still very limited
  • A separatist takes cover in the Kiyevskiy district of Donetsk. The district is close to the airport, which has been the scene of much of the fighting.
  • A poster calling on people to vote in the disputed November 2 elections in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic is being set up on the Shevchenko boulevard in Donetsk.
  • Several local families are living in a bomb shelter in the Petrovskiy district of Donetsk. Their houses were destroyed by shelling.
  • A young refugee boy unwraps chocolate distributed by volunteers in accommodation for displaced Ukrainians in Donetsk. Despite the truce between the separatists and Ukrainian government forces, there is still sporadic fighting. Refugees from shelled areas have sheltered inside Donetsk University campus buildings.
  • Iosif Kobzon, a singer known for his loyalty to the Kremlin, and Aleksandr Zakharchenko, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, sing a Soviet-era song together during a concert in Donetsk. 
  • In Donetsk, bags of humanitarian aid are ready to be distributed to mothers with small children.
  • While aid is available in the city of Donetsk, it is harder to distribute it to the more isolated areas of the Donbas region.

PHOTOS: Daily Life In War-Torn Donbas (Click for full-size images)

Lutsevych speculates that Moscow and the separatists might be rushing ahead with the November 2 vote precisely so that the "elected" regional authorities could then oversee the December elections "in accordance with the Minsk protocol."

"We should remember that this whole exercise is orchestrated by the Kremlin to create a virtual state, to create a political entity," she says. "From that perspective, they need some kind of attributes of this state. So they pretend they are organizing elections. They already wrote a national anthem of Novorossia. They are writing the history of Novorossia. So, it is a project of political technology run by services."

The ECFR's Wilson says the separatist regions also seem to be rushing ahead with this process because the worsening situation there is eroding their support.

The regions' de facto leaders want to "cement the situation on the ground" now because there is something "little short of a looming humanitarian disaster in some of these places, particularly in Luhansk."

He adds, however, that Moscow's particular interpretation of this point of the Minsk agreement is a worrisome sign for the implementation of the rest of it.

But ultimately, Wilson says, "Russia is trying to keep its options open for the broader purposes of influencing Ukraine or of destabilizing Ukraine if it fails to influence" it.

The  November 2 process is "locking in uncertainty and unpredictability" to undermine the Ukrainian state, he argues.

Lutsevych comes to the same conclusion. Moscow seeks to create an "artificial state…that will remain outside the control of the central authorities of Ukraine" for the foreseeable future, just like Moldova's breakaway Transdnister region.

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