November 2 was election day in the Donbas, the second election in the history of the “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk (henceforth the DNR and LNR). On May 12, 2014, following referendums the previous day, the republics declared their independence from Ukraine. Ukraine’s acting president at that time, Oleksandr Turchynov, referred to these elections as a “sham” and the Western governments maintained that they violated international law.
Much has happened over the past six months. Following the takeover of eastern cities by armed militias, a lengthy conflict developed in which pro-Russian leaders fought against the Ukrainian army in what was termed by Kyiv an “anti-terrorist operation.” More than 4,000 died before the two sides agreed to a ceasefire on September 5, that was brokered by Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE, and held in Minsk, under the unlikely mediation of Belarusian president Aliaksandr Lukashenka.
The resulting document was known as the Minsk Protocol. It permitted “special status” for Ukraine’s two breakaway republics, the creation of a security zone on the Ukrainian-Russian border, the removal from the area of “unlawful military formations,” and the holding of pre-term local elections. It was signed on behalf of the OSCE by the Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, by former president Leonid Kuchma for Ukraine, and for Russia by its Ambassador to Ukraine, Mikhail Zurabov (who together formed what was called, somewhat clumsily, the “Trilateral Contact Group.” Below their signatures—with a slight spacing in between—were those of DNR leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko and LNR leader Igor Plotnitsky (http://www.osce.org/ru/home/123258?download=true).
At a follow-up meeting two weeks later, the parties agreed to a 30-kilometer (18.5 mile) buffer zone between the two sides, and bans on offensive operations and military flights over the area (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-29290246). The ceasefire, however, barely held, and shortly afterward a new conflict arose for control of the Donetsk airport, which unlike the capital city of the region has remained in the hands of the Ukrainian forces. The DNR leader Zakharchenko expressed his wish to recapture cities and towns lost during the ATO advance (particularly Slovyansk and Kramatorsk), which preceded a direct Russian intrusion into the conflict—as opposed to earlier Russian support for the rebels, which has always been fiercely denied by Moscow. Zakharchenko also wished to capture the port of Mariupol, the second largest city in Donetsk Oblast (http://news.rin.ru/eng/news///68375/).
The Kyiv government under President Petro Poroshenko maintains that the DNR and LNR elections violate the Minsk Protocol (http://www.citynews.net.ua/news/37929-poroshenko-schitaet-chto-vybory-lnr-i-dnr-stavyat-pod-ugrozu-peremirie.html). The Ukrainians fear that Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky plan to renew the conflict and remove their regions permanently from Ukraine. Following the Ukrainian parliamentary elections of October 26, pro-EU parties dominate the assembly, and the opposition, which includes former members of the Donbas-based Regions Party, has been reduced to a bloc of 29 seats, shorn of its former heartland of Crimea and the two major Donbas cities. The result isolates the DNR and LNR, but also offers the disputed republics an opportunity to forge a new path toward independence or union with Russia.
Oddly the two breakaway enclaves do not work in unison. There were even differences in how the elections were conducted. In the DNR, those 16 or over were permitted to vote, whereas in the LNR the minimum age was 18. Moreover, there were other oddities that reflected the makeshift nature of the event. Since a large part of the two republics remains under Ukrainian control, residents were allowed to vote on the Internet. Five polling stations were opened for refugees from the area in three regions of Russia—Rostov, Voronezh, and Belgorod. There was no registration list of voters and in the LNR voting was extended until 10pm, allegedly because of lengthy line-ups at polling stations (http://e.itar-tass.com/world/757386). Armed militia present in the area were also allowed to vote (http://www.dw.de/separatist-controlled-regions-of-eastern-ukraine-go-to-the-polls/a-18035057).
Over 3.1 million residents were declared eligible to vote for the “People’s Councils” and for their respective republican leaders. From exit polls, however, it was clear that Aleksandr Zakharchenko had a healthy lead over his two rivals in the DNR, Aleksandr Kofman (first deputy prime minister of the so-called parliament of Novorossiya), and Yuri Sivokonenko (a veteran of the Berkut special police forces). Zakharchenko’s party, Movement of the Donetsk Republic, likewise was well ahead of its rival Free Donbass, led by Yevgenny Orlov (http://en.itar-tass.com/world/757892). In Luhansk, Plotnitsky was leading his “rivals” Oleg Akimov, the leader of the Federation of Trade Unions, and Viktor Penner, a businessman who was born in the city (http://en.itar-tass.com/world/757913).
All factions declared their wish for peace and offered humanitarian aid to their lands and the restoration of “normal life.” Voter turnout was declared to be very high—over 50% in the LNR (http://www.pravda.ru/news/world/formerussr/ukraine/02-11-2014/1233896-donbass-0/). The Russian Federation gave its backing to the elections even before the vote took place and declared that they did not violate the Minsk Protocol (http://www.pravda.ru/news/world/formerussr/ukraine/30-10-2014/1233439-minsk-0/). The Ukrainian side reported also that at the time of the elections, Russia was sending troops and heavy weapons into the rebel-held territories (http://www.inquisitr.com/1580820/russia-sending-more-troops-heavy-weapons-into-ukraine-as-conflict-intensifies/). The ostensible goal was to ensure that the elections ran smoothly without “provocations.”
The DNR and LNR are essentially makeshift entities that are unlikely to achieve international recognition anytime in the near future. Most residents of Ukraine do not believe that they represent a majority of voters even in the territories under their control. According to a recent survey conducted by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, on the other hand, only 15% of Ukrainians are satisfied with Poroshenko’s handling of the conflict in the east, despite general confidence in the president (68%) and his coalition partner Arseniy Yatsenyuk (60%). In the Donbas itself, 94% “believe the situation [has become] definitely or somewhat worse” over the past six months (http://www.ifes.org/Content/Publications/Press-Release/2014/IFES-2014-Ukraine-Survey-Press-Release.aspx). The dissatisfaction reflects mostly the economic decline of this old industrial center.
The DNR and LNR leaders’ real problem is their perceived (even self-perceived) lack of legitimacy. They are trying in painstaking fashion to carve out the symbols of a separatist government, with a central bank and taxation office, and forcing locals to register their businesses and pay their taxes to the breakaway regimes rather than to Kyiv. The businesses in question are obliged to comply in order to avoid dissolution or bankruptcy (http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/30/us-ukraine-crisis-east-idUSKBN0IJ22G20141030). Already Zakharchenko has declared his wish to sell coal to Ukraine and that his region would refuse to deliver coal to the cities of Kharkiv and Lviv without payment (http://zarusskiy.org/novoross/2014/10/30/prodavat-ugol/print/). How much coal is actually being produced under the current circumstances is a moot point.
Yet Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky are at best compromise figures who have taken over from the former Russian leaders who were in place during the summer. Their chief asset is that they are natives of their regions, unlike Igor Girkin (Strelkov) who was more obviously an outsider who had played a role for the Russian Federation in several earlier conflicts (https://ukraineanalysis.wordpress.com/2014/06/13/igor-strelkov-moscow-agent-or-military-romantic/), or the Russian-born Valery Bolotov, Plotnitsky’s predecessor in the LNR. The new leaders embrace the concept of Novorossiya, initially espoused by Russian president Vladimir Putin after the takeover of Crimea last March, but it is a symbolic and distant goal, given the economic collapse of the Donbas following the severe battles and shelling.
Ultimately, the survival of the DNR and LNR depends on the degree of Russian support, not only military, but also material. The attitude of Moscow toward them has been somewhat ambivalent. During the summer, Girkin came very close to complete defeat, fleeing with his troops from Slovyansk in busses. In the last two weeks of August, however, Russian intervention changed the course of the war around Ilovaysk, forcing Poroshenko to seek terms after serious losses of troops (see, for example, http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2014/sep/05/ukraine-catastrophic-defeat/).
Yet the level of Russia’s direct involvement has remained limited for a number of reasons. Moscow recognizes the unpopularity of a full-scale invasion, and that outside the Donbas, residents are loyal—even fiercely loyal—to Ukraine, despite the economic hardships brought by the Yanukovych presidency and the war. The Donbas itself is a complex case: it has long been suspicious of the nationalism in the western regions of Ukraine and of the Euromaidan and its consequences. It has seen the rule of clans and oligarchs, and the deep corruption of Yanukovych and leaders of the former Regions Party. It has also been at the heart of the decline of Ukraine’s traditional industries: coal, steel, and chemicals. It has often expressed its differences from both Kyiv and Moscow, its uniqueness and multinationalism (see the poignant essay by Hanna Perekhoda at http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article32923).
Many voters have no doubt would prefer that order and stability should be attained at all costs, but the regimes of self-appointed gangster leaders in military uniforms are more likely to bring lawlessness, chaos, and potential starvation. On the other hand, while the Ukrainian government may not have lost these regions permanently, after the ATO-led attacks and tragic losses it may be some time before it can convince residents that it represents the ideal alternative. It has not in fact offered such a choice, preferring instead to embrace the European project to take Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit. In turn, the cynical policies of Vladimir Putin seem geared to promote further conflict to undermine the Kyiv government rather than seeking solutions.
The 6.5 million residents of the Donbas now face a winter in dire conditions. Their homeland is a devastated war zone, mostly without water, power, or heating, and often without a ready supply of nutritious food. The victories of Zakahrchenko and Plotnitsky offer little respite and seem more likely to exacerbate their dilemma than to provide any viable solutions.
Featured Image credit: @SputnikATO, Twitter.