The Kremlin has announced its decision to stage “elections” in the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (DPR, LPR) in November, and has launched preparations for such elections (see EDM, September 12). This is not about the municipal elections (city, district, village levels) envisaged by the Minsk armistice and discussed in several diplomatic forums. Under the Minsk terms, municipal elections would be useless to Moscow and the DPR-LPR if conducted unilaterally (only Kyiv’s consent, if extracted, could have turned those municipal elections into a political bonanza for the Russian side). Moscow’s latest decision, however, is to stage elections to the posts of DPR and LPR “heads” (“glava”, would-be presidents) and the two people’s councils (would-be parliaments).
Moscow’s announcement of these “elections” at this juncture seems to pursue two objectives, neither of which is the international recognition of the elections’ results. The Kremlin knows that such recognition will not be forthcoming.
First, Moscow’s minimal goal is to induce Western diplomacy to pressure Ukraine into prolonging the validity of its law on a special status for the DPR-LPR by another year. Ukraine adopted this law in 2014 under the duress of the Minsk terms, and had to prolong its validity at annual intervals. However, it hedged this law with preconditions and safeguards, rendering it inoperative thus far. Without actually enacting that special status, this law makes it conditionally possible. The Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) is due to vote on whether or not to prolong this law’s validity by October.
The governments in Berlin, Paris and Brussels (among others) fear that allowing this law’s validity to expire would contravene the Minsk armistice, provoke Russian and/or DPR-LPR military escalation, and derail the Minsk and Normandy (negotiations involving the governments of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany) processes. Aware of these fears, Moscow (in the words of Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov) wants “Western partners to exercise their influence on Kyiv” yet again to revalidate that law (Interfax, September 2).
The Kremlin is especially keen for this law to remain valid into 2019, when Ukraine is scheduled to hold general elections. Moscow hopes that those elections could produce weaker or transactional authorities in Ukraine that might bring into effect the now-inoperative law on DPR-LPR’s special status.
As Ukrainian analysts discern, the Kremlin may seem to suggest a tradeoff: postponing the DPR-LPR “elections” by one year, in return for Kyiv prolonging the validity of its law on a hypothetical special status also by one year (Ukrinform, September 7–11). Moscow had suggested such tradeoffs in previous years, when its DPR-LPR proxies announced municipal “elections” (not yet “republican” ones) unilaterally, unless Kyiv would revalidate the law on special status and compromise on a special electoral law for those territories. But those announcements were a bluff, and those municipal “elections” were never staged, as they would be useless to Moscow in the absence of Kyiv’s consent (see above).
Moscow is, on the whole, content with the present situation whereby the two unrecognized “republics” are eligible to negotiate with Kyiv about a special status. Meanwhile, the DPR-LPR’s four-year “election” cycle will have been completed in November, and Moscow seems determined to recreate the fraudulent appearance of popular legitimacy for its local proxies.
The second, more far-reaching goal behind the decision on DPR-LPR elections at this juncture is to threaten the prospects of a genuine peacekeeping operation under United Nations aegis in Donbas (see EDM, September 22, 2017). The Kremlin will grow more vocal in demanding that “popularly elected” DPR-LPR leaders be given some de facto role (“they must be taken into account”) influencing the parameters of the proposed peacekeeping operation. According to Aleksei Chesnakov (deemed a proxy for the Kremlin’s DPR-LPR overseer Vladislav Surkov), blocking the “Minsk process” “would cause the DPR and LPR to become even more intractable, and then you can forget about any UN mission in Donbas, even in the Russian-proposed ‘soft’ version of such a mission” (TASS, September 10, 2018).
Holding those “elections” in the DPR-LPR in November would not technically violate the Minsk armistice and the follow-up international process. This ambiguous diplomatic construction neither authorizes nor precludes creating “republics” with their “elected” quasi-presidents and quasi-parliaments in this Russian-controlled territory of Ukraine. The Kremlin did create the whole DPR-LPR setup after the Minsk One armistice in 2014, staging “republican” “elections” for four-year terms. Moscow saw to it that the “republics’ heads” were accepted as armistice signatories (Minsk One and Minsk Two), and the DPR-LPR representatives as de facto negotiators in the Minsk Contact Group, from 2014 up to the present. Moscow seems confident that it can stage (or at the very least threaten to stage) another round of quadrennial elections to perpetuate the same “republics,” expecting the same degree of impunity as hitherto.
The Minsk armistice and follow-up process only stipulate municipal elections, to be held under rules negotiated and agreed by Kyiv with Donetsk-Luhansk in the Contact Group (while also being discussed in the Normandy Quartet). Those municipal elections were never held, in spite of pressures on Kyiv to consent to their holding. Holding such elections with the blessing of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) could have lent the DPR-LPR a deceptive semblance of democracy. Hence, Moscow is now ready to resort to quasi-presidential and quasi-parliamentary “elections” in Donbas, effectively prejudging a negotiated political solution. The Kremlin can do so without violating the letter of the Minsk armistice. Unilaterally held “elections” would of course violate the spirit of the Minsk armistice and negotiation forums, which assume compromises between Kyiv and the Moscow-controlled Donetsk-Luhansk. But this compromise-based assumption itself amounts to a massive breach of international law and of Ukraine’s sovereignty, a fatal contradiction in this whole diplomatic process from 2014 to date.