Recasting Russia’s armed proxies as democratic mandate-holders—and tutoring them to look like that on an election’s schedule—is an innovation of the Minsk armistice and ensuing negotiations on the status of the occupied territories in Ukraine’s east. Russia had never seriously attempted to sell this approach to Western powers in the other “frozen” (conserved) conflicts. But Moscow wants Western-approved elections to be held in the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (DPR, LPR).
Having such elections recognized as valid could officially turn the DPR-LPR from products of Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine into products of local elections. This could then qualify Russia’s local proxies to negotiate that territory’s status from impregnable political positions vis-à-vis Kyiv.
The DPR and LPR had unilaterally scheduled local elections for October 18 and November 1, 2015, respectively; but they have now postponed the dates to February 21 and April 20, 2016. Undoubtedly, Moscow made this decision, allowing more time for diplomacy to elicit Western consent and for preparation of democratic cosmetics on the ground (see EDM, October 29).
Unilateral elections in the DPR-LPR would have been worse than useless to them and Moscow, with no chance of Western acceptance. Moscow, however, needs usable elections, to be prepared in concert with Western powers (via the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe—OSCE) and with chances to be deemed valid by the West. Thus, the Kremlin decided for the DPR-LPR to postpone useless elections, only in order to stage potentially useful ones in a few months’ time. This fact seems to be misunderstood by Western officials—most recently US Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken (Radio France Inter, October 28, cited by Ukrinform, October 30)—who actually praise Russia for causing the DPR-LPR to postpone their unilateral “elections.”
This postponement effectively cancels the December 31, 2015 deadline for implementing the political clauses of the Minsk Two armistice. It pushes the time horizon well into 2016, without any substitute deadline. This plays to Moscow’s interpretation of the Minsk armistice, whereby Ukraine must fulfill the political clauses first (specifically, conceding a legal-political status to the DPR and LPR) before Russia will fulfill the military clauses (withdrawal of forces, however vaguely and elusively formulated in the armistice).
Those elections’ postponement delays a resolution of the DPR-LPR status issue, which in turn postpones the time when Russia would have to at least discuss its own fulfillment of those military clauses. As a net result, Moscow and Donetsk-Luhansk gain more time to prepare for staging local “elections” and for augmenting local forces with reflagged Russian troops and equipment, circumventing the armistice clauses.
The modalities of DPR-LPR elections are being negotiated in the Contact Group (Russia, Ukraine, OSCE, Donetsk, Luhansk), which is meeting in Minsk and is closely monitored by Berlin and Paris as “Normandy” group members. In line with the armistice document, those elections are to be organized on a two-fold basis: Ukraine’s electoral legislation (symbolically preserving Ukraine’s title to sovereignty in this territory) combined with DPR-LPR’s own “electoral legislation” (practically allowing the “people’s republics” to rig the elections). Kyiv and Donetsk-Luhansk are supposed to combine those two sets of documents into a single whole, as a formal basis for DPR-LPR local elections (Ukraiynska Pravda, October 27–30).
That could pave the way for legitimizing the DPR-LPR through a process that Ukraine anticipates as “fake elections.” On October 2, in Paris, the “Normandy” group’s summit (Russia, Germany, France, Ukraine) endorsed a document attributed to senior French diplomat Pierre Morel (the “Morel Plan”) as a basis for reconciling Kyiv’s and Donetsk-Luhansk’s opposite views of what would constitute valid elections in that territory (see EDM, October 9, 13, and accompanying article).
Negotiations on that document are now ongoing in the Minsk Contact Group’s working group on political affairs, of which Morel is the moderator on the OSCE’s behalf. The OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institution and Human Rights (ODIHR) is being coopted to advise on preparations for those elections (Belta, October 27) and—if and when staged—to monitor and evaluate them. All sides recognize that valid elections in this territory in these circumstances are impossible now. The Minsk process, however, is goal-oriented. It purports to engineer at least minimally acceptable circumstances that might lead, if not to free and fair elections, then at least to elections that could be pronounced, however “imperfect,” nevertheless “acceptable on the whole,” with recommendations to correct the flaws in the future. The DPR-LPR might then become permanent political realities, on top of the Kremlin-created military realities on Ukraine’s territory.