Popov: Donbass needs elections and an independent Europe


September 21, 2016 – 

By Eduard Popov for Fort Russ – translated by J. Arnoldski –

On September 15th, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeir visited Kiev and Kramatorsk (a territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic captured by Ukrainian troops). The program for settling the conflict in Donbass voiced by Ayrault boils down to three points which, as we can recall, proceed in the following order: (1) a ceasefire and the Verkhovna Rada’s adoption of a law on elections in individual districts of Donbass, (2) the holding of elections, and only then (3) the transfer of control over the Russian-Ukrainian border over to Kiev. 

Just like other decisions of the Normandy Four, this plan remains but a dream, as Kiev refuses to adopt a special law on elections in Donbass while still demanding that control over the border be handed over. In the face of Ukraine’s arrogance, patience is wearing thin, and not only that of Europeans, but also the republics of Donbass’ patience. It is almost certain that elections will be held in the DPR and LPR in autumn of this year. 

Earlier, elections were postponed in both Donbass republics from July 24th to November 6th, 2016. On June 21st, DPR head Alexander Zakharchenko gave Kiev an ultimatum on the date of elections in Donbass. “Either Ukraine will adopt a law on local elections which will suit us before July 14th, or not. If it doesn’t, then we will decide to hold local elections independently,” Zakharchenko said.

Kiev ignored the ultimatum and, as follows, the republics took it upon themselves to assign a date for elections. As our sources from Donbass report, it is most likely that the elections will not be delayed this time. I am inclined to this conclusion as well. In a recent interview to the Russian publication “Svobodnaya Pressa” (“Free Press”), I suggested that a postponement of elections in the Donbass republics would be perceived (whether correctly or wrongly is another question) as a sign of weakness. This time, however, Donetsk and Lugansk will not offer Kiev such a favor.

The holding of elections, of course, entails certain risks for both the republics and Russia. For Kiev and the Western countries supporting it, elections offer a pretext to blame the DPR and LPR, as well as Russia (whom they stubbornly insist is a party in the conflict in Ukraine) of disrupting the Minsk Agreements. I would not be surprised if the decision to hold elections would be presented as the “main evidence” of Moscow’s disruption of the peace agreements, as if Ukraine was not shelling the cities of Donbass and was not refusing to accept a law on elections.

After all, in modern international politics, the right one is not he who adheres to the letters and spirits of the law, but Washington (and its allies and clients). Therefore, I would advise Russian diplomats to prepare for such a turn of events. 

It cannot be completely excluded that the holding of elections will become an occasion for massive bombardments by Ukrainian artillery against the cities of Donbass or even a new offensive. But one thing is certain: this event will be maximally exploited by the Ukrainian side to discredit Donetsk, Lugansk, and, of course, Moscow.

- Advertisement -

Prolonging or re-postponing the elections, despite all the risks, is still even more dangerous. Any electoral campaign in the republics will strengthen their legal legitimacy. The DPR and LPR represent “de-facto states,” and this legal status is not so tragic, as many state and quasi-state formations exist under this status. An example is the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus which is not recognized by anyone in the world besides Turkey, but which still exists as a result of the Turkish military invasion of Cyprus in 1974. 

Yet another genuinely important aspect of this dilemma is that the holding of elections in the republics of Donbass would strengthen the residents of the DPR and LPR’s consciousness of the inviolability of the choice they made in the referendum of May 11th, 2014 when they voted in favor of Donbass’ independence. 

Also important are international observers who are ready to come to the republics’ elections. The very fact of their presence would de facto strengthen the legitimacy of the republics. Despite the sanctions which Kiev threatens international observers with, the number of people willing to travel to Donbass in this capacity has only grown. What’s more, the republics of Donbass act as focal point allowing patriotic forces ready to protest the US’ diktat to be highlighted in the European political scene. Independent Europe needs a struggling Donbass just as much as Donbass needs assistance from an independent Europe.

The internal political situation in the DPR and LPR is far from ideal. These republics were formed as a result of the disintegration of Ukraine, which was ruled by an oligarchic model. The non-democratic model of governance of the former Ukraine largely affects the difficulty of realizing democratic principles in the young Donbass republics. But if the DPR and LPR lack political freedoms, then the level of civil freedoms is a whole level higher than in neighboring Ukraine. 

The current two-party model of the two republics’ parliaments does not necessarily reflect the entire spectrum of their residents’ sentiments. In the DPR, there are two real political forces. There is the Donetsk Republic social movement that was established by Andrey Purgin and has now become a party headed by the DPR leader Alexander Zakharchenko and Denis Pushilin. The second party represented in the National Council of the DPR is Free Donbass. In the LPR, there are also two represented parties: ‘Peace for Lugansk’ headed by the republic’s head, Igor Plotnitsky, and the ‘Lugansk Economic Union.’ Such a two-party system allows the political process in the republics to be stably controlled during semi-war time. In fact, this system allows at least a minimum of democratic freedoms to be realized despite semi-wartime conditions, unlike in Ukraine. 

I consistently hold the position that it is necessary to limit the participation of functionaries of the Party of Regions on the republics’ territories, as this party twice betrayed the Russian population of Donbass. First, it abandoned its campaign slogans and promises on supporting the Russian language, and then gave up power without a fight in February 2014. Then the regionalists merged into the new party and political system in Kiev after the coup d’etat and, in one way or another, thereby endorsed  the policy of genocide against the people of Donbass. 

The exception goes only for those party members who took active part in the referendum and in the subsequent state-building of the DPR and LPR. Unfortunately, as sources in Donbass report, today’s former regionals are actively penetrating the political and decision-making personnel of the DPR and LPR, pushing out the ideological supporters of the Russian Spring. 

Thus, the difficulties before the republics of Donbass are enormous. But there is no alternative to holding elections and moving forward with the republics’ statecraft. I am sure that that the republics’ positions will be strengthened in the future (perhaps through consolidating the regions of historical Novorossiya and uniting the DPR and LPR). Ukraine will continue to fragment and split up into more elementary parts. 

Eduard Popov, born in 1973 in Konstantinovka, Donetsk region, is a Rostov State University graduate with a PhD in history and philosophy. In 2008, he founded the Center for Ukrainian Studies of the Southern Federal University of Russia in Rostov-on-Don. From 2009-2013, he was the founding head of the Black Sea-Caspian Center of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, an analytical institute of the Presidential Administration of Russia. In June 2014, Popov headed the establishment of the Representative Office of the Donetsk People’s Republic in Rostov-on-Don. He has actively participated in humanitarian aid efforts in Donbass and has been a guest contributor to various Donbass media, such as the Lugansk-based Cossack Media Group

Subscribe to our newsletter
Sign up here to get the latest news, updates and special offers delivered directly to your inbox.