Pro-Ukraine personalities, forcibly displaced from the Russian-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk, participated in the Minsk Contact Group’s extended video-conference session on June 9–15, as invited members of Ukraine’s delegation. This innovative arrangement looks set to continue for the duration of the Contact Group itself, the forum that negotiates the implementation of the Minsk “agreements.” Bringing representative figures from that territory, with name recognition both locally and in the refugee communities, to the Contact Group’s negotiation table, is a move to deny one of the underlying pretenses of the Minsk process: namely, the pretense that Moscow’s Donetsk-Luhansk proxies are authentic representatives of that territory and its population in the Contact Group. The arrival of the pro-Ukraine element at the table denies both the monopoly and the legitimacy of the Moscow proxies’ claims of representation (see Part One in EDM, June 15).
Meanwhile, a personal meeting between the Russian and Ukrainian presidential envoys, Dmitry Kozak and Andriy Yermak, was held covertly on June 11, even as the Contact Group’s session was in progress at long distance by video-conference. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office merely reported that a Ukrainian delegation (no names) paid a “working visit to Belarus,” where it met with the Contact Group’s “Russian side” (no names), with a view to making the Contact Group more efficient (President.gov.ua, June 11). The meeting must have been held in Minsk during Yermak’s stopover en route to Paris. Four days later, Russia’s chief delegate to the Contact Group, Boris Gryzlov, made public the fact of this meeting, without naming the place, but identifying Kozak and Yermak as the participants. In Gryzlov’s telling, Yermak assured Kozak that Ukraine’s representatives to the Contact Group would “participate in a constructive way” there—apparently a reference to the Ukrainian delegation’s newly-added members (TASS, June 15).
Inviting pro-Ukraine representatives of the Russian-occupied territory to participate in the Contact Group is an idea that arose from circles of Kyiv’s civil society. The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Public Council, an accredited group of some 14 independent experts, aired this proposal through the press (Ukraiynska Pravda, April 24). Apparently won over at least in part by this view, Yermak conveyed it to Western ambassadors in Kyiv (Ukrinform, May 15).
The guiding ideas are, first, that the delegates from Donetsk and Luhansk in the Minsk Contact Group are illegitimate because the two accrediting “republics” are themselves illegitimate. And second, to break their monopoly on representing that territory in negotiations to implement the Minsk “agreements,” Kyiv can seek out legitimate representatives and negotiate with them.
The Ukrainian government’s most senior policymaker regarding the occupied territories, Oleksiy Reznikov, has reached out for this purpose to representative figures among internal refugees (forcibly displaced persons) from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Reznikov, a lawyer specializing in conflict mediation, has recently been appointed to the multiple posts of deputy prime minister (newly created specially for this activity), minister for reintegration of the temporarily occupied territories, and first deputy chief of delegation to the Minsk Contact Group (Kyiv’s chief of delegation, former president Leonid Kuchma, has announced his intention to step down).
As detailed in some of his interviews with Kyiv-based media (Interfax-Ukraine, May 18, Liga.net, June 9), Reznikov coordinates the interaction of the Ukrainian government with the new and incoming members of the delegation to the Contact Group. While the delegation in toto represents the government, the new entrants are meant to represent the rights and interests of their native Donetsk and Luhansk regions as well as those of the forcibly displaced.
Four representative figures have joined Kyiv’s delegation to the Contact Group since June 9 (see below), and more will follow. They shall participate as invited members of the Ukrainian delegation with the title of advisors. They are there not as government employees but as independent citizens; to represent not the Ukrainian state but the people of the Donetsk-Luhansk territory, displaced or not displaced; and are free to express their own views during the four working groups’ sessions and the plenary sessions (see EDM, June 15).
The first to have joined the Ukrainian delegation are the well-known journalists Denys Kazanskyi and Serhiy Garmash (both from Donetsk Province), the traumatologist surgeon Kostiantyn Libster, and the lawyer Vadym Goran (both from Luhansk Province), all based in Kyiv at present. They took part in the Contact Group’s June 9–15 extended session. (The Minsk-based Contact Group has been holding its sessions by video-conference since March 24, due to the COVID-19 coronavirus emergency).
Russia’s delegation and its Donetsk-Luhansk proxies have reacted, on the whole, with restraint to the entry of these new members of the Ukrainian delegation. In one revealing moment, however, Gryzlov deprecated them as merely “former residents” of their native birthplaces (TASS, June 12).
Even as Kyiv pays due lip service to the Minsk process, it currently seeks to improve that process through a strict-constructionist approach. In short, Kyiv is loyal to the Minsk process as this process should be (or should have been), not as it is. Thus, Kyiv is prepared to negotiate with “representatives of certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions (ORDLO),” but not with those representatives whom Russia brought into the Contact Group on behalf of the two “people’s republics.” Kyiv takes the position that it cannot negotiate with those who have blood on their hands and usurped local power against even the letter of the Minsk “agreements,” thanks to the Russian „occupation“ (this term has returned to Kyiv’s official vocabulary). Kyiv would, instead, reference the new entrants to its delegation as legitimate interlocutors.
Two (if not more) potential pitfalls are discernible on the road ahead. One concerns the possible public airing of divergent views among the Ukrainian delegation’s new members. They are not government employees, not bound by hierarchical discipline, and retain their freedom of expression as part of the arrangement for their participation in the Contact Group. One other concern is that some among them might, through their mere presence, indirectly justify serious unilateral concessions by Kyiv, if the Ukrainian government chooses that path. Conversely, however, the same new delegates could serve as watchdogs or alarm bells to safeguard against such a negative scenario.