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Peace Talks, Decentralization and Local Elections: Ukraine’s challenges ahead of October 20206 min read

 In Analysis, Eastern Europe, Politics
When Volodymyr Zelensky won the Presidential election, one of his key promises was to end the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Upon his unconventional methods and a more moderate stance than Poroshenko’s, Zelensky seemed to be in a better position to deliver changes. So far; however, little has been achieved. The Normandy Four summit in Paris merely led to a hostage swap and the Minsk agreements continue to be violated on a daily basis. Despite continued shelling over the contact line, the Minsk agreements remain the only recognized basis for the resolution to the conflict. Initially signed in Minsk by representatives of the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and separatist Donetsk and Luhansk, the agreements were last renewed in 2015.

One could hardly blame this lack of results on Kyiv only. If Russian President Vladimir Putin respected Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the war would be over tomorrow. With Russia’s policy unlikely to change, Ukraine has been forced to get creative in its peacebuilding efforts, in which a decentralization reform is the key element. A carefully managed decentralization would, in the hopes of the Ukrainian government, provide a platform for cooperation between civil society and the government, boost reconciliation efforts by improving social cohesion, and avoid federalization and fragmentation of the State.

The decentralization process started at the end of 2014, but it is mainly regarded as Ukraine’s response to the 2015 Minsk II agreements, as these include provisions for free and fair elections in non-government controlled areas (NGCAs) as well as the appointment of a special status for Donetsk and Luhansk. As usual, the devil is in the details. While Kyiv sees this special status as a crucial element of decentralization, Moscow has long been advocating for the federalization of the country.

The Moldovan precedent worries Ukraine: after the military occupation of the Moldovan region of Transnistria and creating a puppet state, Moscow sought to impose the federalization of Moldova with the so-called “Kozak memorandum” of 2003. While the proposal failed, its intent was clear: through a Russian-dominated Transnistria, Moscow would have been able to have total control on the politics of a federalized Moldova. The decision to appoint Dmitry Kozak as Russia’s chief negotiator in relations with Kyiv and Moscow-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine only reinforced this suspect. One of the main issues with federalization in Ukraine would be the status of the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics, as it is unlikely that separatist claims fostered by Moscow would stop there.

Against the background of an ongoing conflict, Kyiv sees decentralization as an alternative to Russian-sponsored federalization. Successful implementation of the decentralization reform as envisaged by Kyiv would allow for greater resilience within local communities, improved coordination between state agencies and local communities, as well as improved state functioning on the ground.

As the October 2020 elections approach, the prospect of conducting the elections in non-government controlled areas (NGCAs) has been a thorn in Kyiv’s side as it has long been unsatisfied with the proposals put forward by its counterparts at the negotiating table. The Steinmeier formula, initially advanced by then German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, would require elections to take place under Ukrainian law without a withdrawal of Russia-backed separatist forces, while still allowing for the presence of international election observers. The Steinmeier formula fails to address some of the most pressing issues on Kyiv’s agenda, such as the need to regain military control over NGCAs and the right to vote for internally displaced persons, let alone the definition of the “special status” to be granted to Donetsk and Luhansk.

The current impasse exposes the weakness of the Normandy Format, the platform Putin prefers to the failed Geneva Format. Consistently with his vision of international relations, in which a “concert of great powers” takes all decisions concerning smaller states, the Russian President has only sought to negotiate with France and Germany, sidestepping the European Union. This allows him to bypass strongly pro-Ukrainian states such as Poland and deal with Paris and Berlin on a semi-bilateral basis, strengthening Russia’s position at the negotiating table.

As a result of the Steinmeier formula, Kyiv was supposed to provide a new legislative framework that would have allowed for the election process to run smoothly while taking into account the special status to be granted to the territories of Donetsk and Luhansk. However, while warming up to the idea of local elections in Donbas, Zelensky repeatedly clarified that no constitutional changes would take place to negotiate with Russia-backed separatists. In turn, Moscow has not handed over military control of the territories behind the contact line, thus preventing any chances of conducting local elections under Kyiv’s control. As local elections in NGCAs in the near future seem unlikely, the decentralization process appears to be at an impasse too. Ukraine cannot proceed with the reform without addressing the future of the Donetsk and Luhansk, and Russia doesn’t seem too keen on withdrawing its military forces just yet.

COVID-19 pandemic notwithstanding, several bills providing a legal basis for the decentralization reform process were either submitted for discussion or passed this spring. Last April, the Verkhovna Rada adopted the draft law n. 2653 on amendments to the law of Ukraine “On Local Self-Government in Ukraine”, which establishes new legislative mechanisms for the effective completion of the decentralization reform. On June 17, the Rada approved a bill on land use planning, granting Hromadas the authority over urban and regional development policies.

Nevertheless, the reform process is far from the finish line. The Rada recently approved a resolution setting local elections for 25 October 2020. According to the bill, Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea will be excluded from this round of elections, possibly freezing an already unbalanced power structure for five more years. While the Central Election Committee retains the last word on the matter of setting local elections, it is highly likely that the provisions included in this resolution will be final.

Zelensky’s enormous popularity is now facing ever-increasing challenges. “Servant of the People”, the big-tent party that backed his Presidential bid and that dominates the Rada, is showing internal fractures, and the inability to deliver on the central promises of his campaign could significantly damage the President’s image. At the same time, Zelensky’s attempt at complying with his “turbo regime” of reforms has often resulted in hasty reforms that the Rada frequently rejects, as many don’t take into sufficient consideration civil engagement in policy talks.

The next few months will prove crucial for the future of Zelensky’s coalition and the country’s path to reform. Alongside the decentralization process, peace talks and continued shelling on the contact line, the most pressing issues on Kyiv’s agenda are the judicial, land market and health reform, the country’s economic recovery in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, and the new direction of the National Bank of Ukraine following the appointment of new head Kyrylo Shevchenko. But these are stories for another time.

Featured image: A woman casts a ballot during the 2014 parliamentary election / Vasily Fedosenko for Reuters
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