The “Normandy” powers’ (Ukraine, Germany, France, Russia) latest meeting, in Berlin, on May 11, which failed to address Ukraine’s concerns, has stiffened Kyiv’s refusal to go along with local “elections” in the Donetsk and Luhansk “peoples’ republics” (DPR, LPR). That territory is Ukrainian de jure but Russian-occupied de facto. The Minsk Two armistice prescribes those elections, but does not obligate Ukraine to consent to their staging or recognize their outcome.
Russia presses for those “elections” to legitimize its DPR-LPR proxies. Key Western powers (in varying degrees and for varying considerations) are leaning on Ukraine to go along with quick-fix elections there (deadlines have moved from December 2015 to July 2016 and, now, beyond that). For the first time since 1991, Western diplomacy considers legitimizing armed secessionists in Europe’s East through “elections” by agreement with Russia, on Russia’s terms. If staged and validated, such elections would turn Russia’s aggression against Ukraine into an internal problem of Ukraine. The DPR-LPR would become “popularly elected” structures, with a special status vis-a-vis Ukraine, though under Russia’s protection at the same time. The result would make it possible for all powers to claim that this conflict has found its political solution and move on.
Staging pseudo-elections could provide a pseudo-solution to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine’s east. But those elections would need to seem legal, even quasi-democratic if at all possible; and they could not serve their intended purpose if staged without Ukraine’s consent and participation. While held in Russian-controlled territory they need to qualify officially as “Ukrainian elections.”
Ukraine’s president, government and parliamentarians are displaying growing resolve (as civil society and expert circles had all along) in resisting pressures and entreaties to authorize those local elections. Following the Normandy Group’s May 11 Berlin meeting, Kyiv has added new conditionalities, on top of its pre-existing conditionalities, for Ukraine’s acquiescence and participation in those elections. The new set of conditions are security-related, a natural response to the Normandy meeting’s indifference to Kyiv’s concerns in that regard (see accompanying article).
President Petro Poroshenko and Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin in recent days have listed the following security-related prerequisites, “without which it is impossible to talk about preparations for local elections” (UNIAN, Ukrinform, May 11, 14, 16, 19):
- a durable ceasefire (a pre-existing conditionality on Ukraine’s part);
- a commitment to introduce an armed police mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to provide security for the elections, with full access throughout the territory not controlled by Ukrainian authorities, including the Ukrainian side of the “DPR-LPR”-controlled border with Russia;
- a stop to the cross-border flow of arms, troops and military cargos from Russia to the “DPR-LPR”;
- the verified pullback and withdrawal of Russian heavy weaponry and troops from that territory to Russia;
- the full demilitarization of the territory, under the oversight of an international security mission.
According to Poroshenko (meeting with the G7 ambassadors in Kyiv) and Klimkin (speaking to the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers), those are among the basic security requirements for local elections to be held in that territory.
Russia, in word or deed, accepts none of those prerequisites. The key Western powers support the first (durable ceasefire) but want the “elections” to be staged even if the other prerequisites are not met.
In the Ukrainian parliament, a critical mass of deputies reject quick-fix elections that would legitimize the existing situation in the Russian-controlled territory. A fresh nuance has appeared in this argument, similar to that of the executive branch: namely, that secure conditions up to “de-occupation” must precede the elections. If and when held, those elections should mark the restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty as the final step in the political resolution process. Parliamentary leaders of the People’s Front, Samopomych, and Fatherland parties have advocated for this sequence in recent days (Ukrinform, UNIAN, May 10, 17, 20). Conversely, the German government and the Barack Obama administration regard those “elections” as an urgent priority, the foundation to a “political solution” or even its equivalent.
The argument of “security before elections” is one that supplements Kyiv’s earlier focus on the need for legal and democratic prerequisites to elections in that territory. Following the February 12, 2015, Minsk Two armistice, which prescribed those elections, the Ukrainian parliament enacted, on March 17, (and President Poroshenko promptly signed into law) a list of democracy criteria for such elections to be held and their outcome recognized. That list has grown longer since then, both by decisions in parliament and by the defensive actions of Ukrainian negotiators in the Minsk Contact Group (Ukraine, Russia, OSCE, DPR, LPR). There, the combined Russian side (Moscow, Donetsk, Luhansk) seeks to amend Ukraine’s electoral legislation suitably for elections to be staged in the DPR-LPR. Toward that end, French diplomat Pierre Morel is tasked to “hybridize” Ukraine’s electoral legislation with DPR-LPR’s proposals in the Minsk Contact Group. The German and French governments support this effort inside the Normandy and Minsk processes, while the Obama administration supports it to some extent from the outside.
For its part, Kyiv insists on the Ukrainian central and local electoral commissions’ prerogatives to administer those elections; for Ukrainian political parties to freely campaign in those elections; for full access by Ukrainian and international media; for the rights of internally displaced persons from that territory to participate in those elections (as voters and candidates reliably verified); for a compilation of voter registers (a herculean task after the mass-scale population displacements); for a lustration of the suspects of war crimes; for border controls to prevent an influx of ineligible “voters” from Russia; and many other legal and technical prerequisites. These can be described as basic democratic safeguards that Ukraine proposes, whether to ensure free and correct elections or (more realistically) to prevent the staging of unfree and unfair elections under Russian and DPR-LPR control.
According to the latest assessments by Ukrainian Central Electoral Commission officials and the Committee of Voters of Ukraine (a respected watchdog), establishing legal and technical prerequisites for free and fair elections in this territory would take at least two years (Ukraiynska Pravda, May 18, 19).
Russia lacks democratic credibility to press Ukraine (or any country) on the subject of elections. Western diplomacy may bring such credibility to bear, but jeopardizes it by pretending that free and fair elections are possible in that Russia-controlled territory. This resembles the West’s 1945–1946 pretense that correct elections were possible in Eastern Europe under Moscow’s control, as part of a general settlement between the West and Moscow. Instead, those elections cemented the satellization of those countries.
“Elections” in the DPR-LPR, if held under current or currently foreseeable circumstances, would reinforce these proto-states under Russia’s control. If Western diplomacy regards these elections as part of an overall compromise with Russia at Ukraine’s expense, Ukraine will face growing pressures in the run-up to December 2016, an artificial deadline. Ukraine, however, is well placed to hold out, as it increasingly does. Elections staged without Ukraine’s consent and participation (i.e., Russian-controlled elections that could not be presented as “Ukrainian elections”—see above) would be useless to their proponents.