Donbas local elections remain elusive for Ukraine

Donbas local elections remain elusive for Ukraine
A member of Ukraine's Kyiv-loyal Donbas Battalion mans a grenade launcher in the Donbas combat zone.
By bne IntelliNews January 29, 2016

Hopes for progress towards holding local elections in Ukraine's breakaway Donbas region, a key requirement of the Minsk II peace agreement, were dashed on January 27 after rebel leaders put forward an impossible list of demands.

This was despite an obvious recent change in the mood music in the international community, which clearly would like to bring the Ukraine conflict to an end as soon as possible.

Talks in the Belarusian capital Minsk between the Ukrainian government and representatives of the rebel fighters in the eastern Donbas region ran onto a rock over terms under which local elections are to be held.

There were also fresh locally generated problems in Kyiv over a vote to change Ukraine’s constitution, another key demand of the Minsk II agreement, that was supposed to have happened by the end of last year.

The Trilateral Contact Group, comprised of representatives of the rebels and Kyiv authorities, are tasked with defusing the Ukraine crisis and meet regularly in Minsk.

Forced to deal with a growing pile of economic problems at home and military problems in the Middle East, both Moscow and Washington have signalled more strongly they would like to bring the conflict to an end.

Expectations for progress at the latest round of meetings in Minsk were high. The expectations come first of all after a meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin's aide Vladislav Surkov and US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland on January 15, the first high level meeting between the two sides this year.

As one of the key elements of Minsk II, local elections were supposed to be help in the region to give all residents there a chance to vote on how their relations with the centre (and by implication also with Russia) should be organised.

Rebel leaders who have in effect imposed a military command over the region made five demands on Kyiv that were rejected out of hand.

The first says that the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), the rebel command, should be given a "quota in the parliament of Ukraine under Ukraine's Constitution". This clearly flies in the face of the idea of democratic representation not only in the region, but the country as a whole.

The second demand is not much better, which asks for the right to "coordinate" all adopted laws as well as a veto over any new legislation.

Both these demands would entrench the existing rebel command in the region and effectively permanently cut off control by the centre in Kyiv.

The most blatant power-grab bid demands the rebels put forward in Minsk was the right to set up their own police and security forces which would ensure, together with the other demands, not only the right to run the region as they like but also the muscle to enforce that control.

Of the other demands, the third, which calls for a full amnesty for fighters, is actually already part of the Minsk II framework. A bill on the provision of a full amnesty  was passed last year – although it contains a caveat for "war crimes" which remains controversial, but as President Petro Poroshenko has not signed it it has yet to become law.

The fourth demand calls for broad economic and political rights for the local authorities to set their own economic policy – in effect to be allowed to independently trade and receive aid from Russia, as well as a guarantee of official status for the Russian language.

Western leaders will have been alarmed by the content of the memo. Both Moscow and Brussels have signalled they want an end to the fighting in Ukraine as neither side has the time or money to allocated to resolving the conflict now. However, the rebels, smelling the change in the wind, are likely to be sacrificed by the Kremlin in any deal and appear to be digging in their heels to give themselves a negotiating position. There are already reports that several leading rebel leaders have been killed in action or simply disappeared.

At the same time, this week a group of 51 Ukranian parliamentary deputies from the president's eponymous Petro Poroshenko Bloc and the People's Front filed a motion with Ukraine's Constitutional Court asking it to confirm that the next vote on a bill to decentralise the country should take place at the very next parliamentary session and not some undetermined future session.

Depending on the ruling of the Constitution Court, the parliament will have a vote either before February 2 or at a later stage.

This would be the last chance to hold the vote before the current parliamentary session comes to an end. The next possibility to hold the vote will not come until the summer, which means the vote on changing the constitution would probably not happen then until this autumn.

On January 23, Poroshenko called on the Verkhovna Rada parliament in Kyiv to adopt amendments on the country's decentralisation at the next session. The president has been desperately trying to rally the deputies to pass the resolution but reportedly has only raised 280 of the minimum 300 votes he needed to get the bill through parliament.