After Separatist Elections, What’s Next for Eastern Ukraine?
Photo: Pro-Russian rebels fill their ballots in voting cabins at a polling station set up inside a rebel military base during rebel elections in the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine Sunday, Nov. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
A week after pro-Western parties won big in Ukraine’s parliamentary elections, the separatist-controlled regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine held their own elections to choose prime ministers for their self-declared states.
The separatists announced on Monday that Alexander Zakharchenko, a rebel commander, won in Donetsk People’s Republic with nearly 80 percent of the vote, and Igor Plotnitsky won in Luhansk with around 63 percent of the vote. Most media reports noted a lack of international observers, the presence of armed men at polling stations and other irregularities.
Hostilities between Ukraine’s central government and the Russian-backed rebels in the east that began six months ago have continued, although at a slightly lower level since a ceasefire agreement in September in Minsk, Belarus.
Ukraine and Western countries criticized Sunday’s vote as a further move towards and refused to recognize the results, while Russia said it would accept the results.
The death toll from the conflict in eastern Ukraine has surpassed 3,500 according to the United Nations’ latest figures.
FRONTLINE spoke to Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director and fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies’ Russia and Eurasia program, about what the elections mean and what comes next for the separatists and Ukraine.
What do we know about the conditions under which Sunday’s elections took place?
The conditions were basically that these areas are under the de facto control of the separatist rebels backed by the Russians, so the writ of the Ukrainian state does not extend. Legitimate international observers were not participating, so we don’t have a good read on exactly how “free and fair” the elections were.
That’s apart from the bigger question of how legitimate is it to hold elections under these conditions at all given that the regions in question are essentially under what amounts to foreign military occupation.
And what can you say about the people who ostensibly won in each area? What are their governing priorities, their allegiances?
They come from the rebel movement, carrying out the insurgencies, which means that their priorities lie in securing the perpetuation of the separatist movement and the detaching of Luhansk and Donetsk from the Ukrainian state.
There’s also obviously a Russian connection. How much autonomy these guys have from the Kremlin is an open question, but it’s clear that the continued existence of the separatist movement, and therefore the political authority of the separatist leaders, is pretty much entirely dependent on Russia.
Who is ultimately going to be calling the shots, we don’t entirely know. But there’s going to be a substantial degree of Russian influence, one way or another.
Where does this leave the ceasefire agreement reached in September in Minsk?
There are competing readings of the Minsk ceasefire. The Russians have said that the recent elections in Luhansk and Donetsk were basically authorized by the Minsk agreement, and the international community said that’s not the case.
What is clear is that the military maneuvering continues. There were reports of Russian military maneuvers over the weekend [of Oct. 26], as Ukraine prepared to carry out its own parliamentary elections, and then as the separatist votes were carried out.
At this point it’s still pretty tenuous. I think everybody pretty much has an interest in the ceasefire holding, and that includes the Russians, the Ukrainians and the West.
But that assumes all of these players have full control over events on the ground, and I’m not sure that that’s the case.
Is there a possibility that Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko will work with these self-declared, and now nominally elected, governments? Or has he given up on these regions?
I don’t think the answer is either of those. Poroshenko and the Ukrainian government don’t recognize the separatist authorities, and still consider Luhansk and Donetsk to be part of the Ukrainian state.
They’re going to be developing initiatives to promote their reconciliation with the rest of the Ukrainian state, but in doing that, I think, will probably do as much as possible to bypass the separatists.
That’s not going to be a 100 percent possible. You mentioned the Minsk negotiations. The separatists were represented at those talks, so to the extent that they have agency they can’t be completely sidelined. But Poroshenko and the Ukrainian government are not going to recognize them as actors any more than is absolutely necessary. They’re going to try and implement policies to accelerate the re-integration of the two provinces, and do it in a way that’s designed as much as possible to sideline the separatists.
A couple of reports have mentioned how seniors in Luhansk and Donetsk haven’t been getting pensions, and Ukraine hasn’t been able to or been willing to send humanitarian aid. Do you think that’s playing a part in the reaction to the separatists in those areas?
Because of the Russian military presence, I don’t think it’s been easy for the Ukrainian government to send assistance.
The flip side of it is, of course, if the separatists are the ones who wield de facto authority in these areas, then whatever failures of governance occur are in a lot of ways their problem. If pensions aren’t getting paid and aid is not getting through, and there’s generalized insecurity — it’s a problem for the Ukrainian state, but it’s a bigger problem for the separatists, because they’re the ones who are going to have to own these problems at some point.
What happens next? Both in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and in Ukraine’s central government?
In Ukraine as a whole, you have a pretty strong, pro-Western, pro-reform majority in parliament that’s backing Poroshenko, which means he’ll have the authority to hopefully push through some stalled reformist measures on the debt, the energy situation, and the general economic malaise the country’s suffering from.
[He’ll also be able] to promote measures to encourage the separatist regions to come back into the fold. I saw some reports earlier today that were talking about creating a free economic zone in the separatist regions, which would allow them to have a special trade relationship with both Russia and the European Union.
If that passes, it creates something of a quandary for the separatists and for Moscow. If they accept it then they’re accepting Ukraine’s continued sovereignty over these regions, and if they reject it that puts them in a difficult position where they have to justify rejecting the offer.
Anything else you’d like to add to better understand this situation?
The energy agreement that was recently signed is going to be a big indicator of how things are going. It was an agreement that required concessions from both the Russians and the Ukrainians. It was signed under a lot of pressure from the European Union, of course.
If the agreement holds, and that’s a fairly substantial if, then it could be the first step towards some kind of normalization of the relationship between Moscow and Kiev, which of course isn’t going to be possible until the separatist issue is dealt with. But at the very least, it would create a platform for ending the active, military component of the crisis and moving to a new phase — whatever that’s going to be.