© Gaëlle Girbes – Avdiivka, Ukraine, February 2017 « Chasse Royale », once the spa hotel of President Ianoukovitch and the pre-war oligarchy, is now a Ukrainian front line. The site is in ruins; the trees of the former luxury hotel have been split in two by heavy artillery fire.

In November 2013, in response to then-President Victor Ianoukovitch’s decision to suspend the signing of an Association Agreement with the European Union, protests began on the capital’s central square. The protestors’ demands were at first directed at a foreign policy issue. Confronted by regime repression, they broadened into challenging the authorities’ legitimacy. Having turned into a national protest movement against the generalized corruption of the political system and the government’s authoritarianism, the protests led the President to resign on February 21st, 2014, after 80 protestors had been killed in Kiev town center. The revolution was portrayed as a coup by Russia, which then supported the separatist movements that developed in the south and east of Ukraine. In March 2014, the Russian Federation annexed Crimea after the takeover of Ukrainian military bases and the organization of a referendum that was held without the presence of international observers.

In April 2014, armed groups took over public administrative buildings in several cities in Ukraine’s east and proclaimed the creation of secessionist republics: the “Donestk People’s Republic” and the “Luhansk People’s Republic.” “Novorussia”1—“New Russia”—was imposed by force, in particular by repressing calls to keep Ukraine united. Despite the Russian regular army intervening during the summer of 2014, the war is officially designated as being an “internal security” operation, launched in April 2014 by Ukrainian authorities and mobilizing hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians. Daily exchanges of fire and bombing occur along a 400-kilometer-long border between territories outside Ukrainian government control and zones where the Ukrainian army is deployed, causing a dozen casualties a week. The Ukrainian population, extensively mobilized through six waves of conscription between April 2014 and April 2016, has paid a heavy price for the consequences of the conflict and the consequent economic crisis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has tallied 31,690 victims (9,553 dead and 22,137 injured) between mid-April 2014 and the end of July 2016. The situation has also produced a massive flow of internally displaced persons (IDPs); 1.7 million people have fled the conflict zone according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center’s latest estimate.

Alexandra Goujon is a specialist of the post-Soviet space, Assistant Professor at the Université de Bourgogne and the author of Political and Identity Revolutions in Ukraine and Belarus2. In the interview below, she lays out some key variables to grasp the current political situation.

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We are currently witnessing a fresh outbreak of clashes in the Donbass region. In this context, what stage have negotiations reached between the players on the ground?

François Hollande, Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin had a phone conversation on January 24 regarding the Minsk Agreements that were first signed in September 2014 and renegotiated in February 2015. At the time, the key players restated that the Minsk Accords were to remain the priority framework for resolving the conflict in the Donbass.3 The various ceasefires have never been fully respected4: the parties accuse one another of fanning the flames of the conflict, especially through heavy weapons fire on each side of the “line of contact”. The term is used to avoid the overly “war”-like concept of a front line: the official terminology speaks of an “anti-terrorist operation” (anty terorystychnoyi operatsiyi). It is, however, impossible to speak of a “frozen conflict”, since this one produces casualties on a regular basis; rather, it may be most accurate to speak of a low-intensity conflict—but a persistent one.5

The Minsk Agreements consist of a 13-point roadmap, and the key parties involved—Ukraine and Russia—differ as to the order of priority these points come in. The Ukrainian side envisages a distinct legal status of political autonomy for the separatist regions, which could no longer be called the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. To the Ukrainian authorities, the primary condition of the establishment of such a status is making the territory secure through a demilitarization process, and re-establishing the border with Russia. Conversely, the Russian government, like the representatives of the secessionist republics, prioritize the political process before demilitarization. Lack of consensus on the order of priorities in the Minsk Agreements prevents the conflict’s resolution. Taking a broader perspective, another important variable is that the political players’ intentions are hardly clear—especially the Russian president’s and his desire to resolve the conflict at all, given the precedents in other regions of the post-Soviet space. At issue here is a separatist-state phenomenon with which other states have been confronted, including Transnistria in Moldova, and Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia in Georgia. These entities emerged from conflicts that became frozen conflicts: they have been de facto separatist states for nearly two decades, unrecognized by the international community and benefiting from Russian political, financial and military support.6

What are the political consequences of conflict in the Donbass on the rest of the country?

Russian support for these separatist states aims at destabilizing the countries concerned, which Moscow considers as being within its sphere of influence, and where Russian leaders believe they have the right to a say in political matters: Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The resolution of these conflicts is prevented by Russia’s strategy of undermining these states’ territorial integrity in order to exercise permanent pressure on their domestic and foreign policy choices. These are the three states whose leaders push for and act in favor of closer relations with the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Beyond serving the purpose of internal destabilization, separatism leads to a certain suspicion from European and Western political players towards states that fail to control all of their own territory. The situation in Ukraine is more recent than elsewhere, and fighting there never really ceased. Ukraine’s leaders are thus subject to various constraints. With respect to its geopolitical situation, not only is Ukraine under Russia’s military and diplomatic pressure, but it also endures diplomatic pressures from the West which, given Ukraine’s position at the edge of Europe, wants the swiftest possible resolution to the conflict. But domestic political stakes are also in play. Beyond calls for political reform, the question of the future legal status of the separatist regions divides both Ukrainian society and its political leaders. One possibility would be to relinquish the regions that have escaped central control, and that cover only 7% of Ukraine’s territory. This solution has not, however, been openly entertained by Ukrainian authorities. Regaining control of these territories would require profound economic and social transformations and a wholesale restructuring of what is an industrial area, especially of damage caused by the fighting. The cost for Ukraine would be massive. Another option would be recovering these territories—but opinions diverge as to the means and ends of such a process. While some entertain the use of military force, the outcome seems uncertain while Russian military support remains on a massive scale; this is before even taking into account the considerable costs, including in terms of human lives.

Were the scenario of the Minsk Agreements to come to fruition—namely, restoring the border with Russia and the holding of elections in the Luhansk and Donestk regions—, what standing would be granted to the political and military elites of these regions? The amnesty provisions in the Minsk Agreements exclude participation in military and criminal activities. In practice, is it conceivable that Alexandre Zakhartchenko (President of the “Donestk People’s Republic”7) should someday govern the region once it is reintegrated into Ukraine, and exercise influence on central state institutions? That outcome seems unthinkable to some political leaders, but also, all the more so, for fighters on the Ukrainian side and their families. Ukraine’s President has to contend with, on the one hand, international injunctions concerning the application of the Minsk Agreements—and on the other, internal players who do not see the Agreements as a viable solution.

What have the key local or national political developments been in Ukraine since the Euromaidan Revolution of the winter of 2013-14?

A range of political players and civil society activists in Ukraine consider that the government’s priority should be tacking political, social and economic transformation. This would improve quality of life and make Ukraine more attractive to foreign investment in spite of the conflict which should, to their minds, not be a pretext to slow the reform process. This viewpoint faces a range of difficulties. Both participants in the revolution and those who lay claim to its inheritance put the struggle against corruption front and center, and consider that progress on that front is insufficient. Transforming the Ukrainian political system requires deploying enormous means in order to dissociate the political and financial interests that coalesced in the 1990s around several oligarchic groups. A large share of politicians and parliamentarians are also businessmen, as is Ukraine’s current President. Despite an increasingly constraining legislative framework, old political corruption and clientelist practices endure at both national and local levels. Political players are linked to major economic and financial groups that influence local decision-making and act as a brake on systemic changes. These reconfigurations are interesting to observe at the local level, especially in the Donbass areas under Ukrainian administration. From 2010 until the revolution, with Viktor Ianoukovitch as President, the Donbass was in thrall to a vertical exercise of power managed by the pro-Presidential party, the Party of Regions. The party fractured after the President fled, but a large part of the elites affiliated to it reconvened in a new party, the Opposition Bloc. At the local level, the renewal of political elites is weak, including after the 2015 local elections.

What is the nature of political and social developments in the Donbass under Ukrainian administration?

In Slaviansk, a town of over 100,000 people around 100 km from Donestk that was taken by the separatists then administered by them between April and July 2014, the political elite associated with the Party of Regions mostly sustained itself in power. But it required central-state-level support to preserve security and public order, and to obtain any budgetary support. Further, in order to keep this region under its control, the government had to find new local allies among those who were at the time close to the Party of Regions and were affiliated to businessmen. The Presidency and government’s interlocutor is the regional administration based in Kramatorsk, 20km from Slaviansk, with which local authorities have to compromise. Slaviansk’s mayor, elected in 2015, is a former municipal councilor and a member of the Party of Regions. He enjoys close political relationships with a parliamentarian and businesswoman from the Opposition Bloc. Clientelist practices persist and are denounced by a minority of activists who invoke the revolution’s legacy and pressure local authorities to obtain greater transparency within the municipal budget and decision-making. These activists are often backed by a handful of newly-elected municipal councilors in favor of reforms. Starting online petitions for certain issues to be debated in the municipal council is considered progress in promoting citizen participation in local political life. But transformations are slow, in a region in which government intervention cannot be avoided to extract such benefits as refurbishing a stairwell or a children’s playground. To show their disapproval and press their claims, civil society activists also organize demonstrations prior to meetings of the municipal council.

In the areas of the Donbass under Ukrainian administration, civil society is also very active in humanitarian aid, whether with respect to IDPs or to people living near the Line of Contact that stretches for nearly 400km and passes through many villages. Many of the inhabitants, especially the most vulnerable such as the elderly, have been unable to leave the region given the lack of a policy to evacuate civilians from the combat zones. Humanitarian aid is currently managed from the areas in which no fighting takes place, with local or international NGOs distributing food rations, medicine and clothes and reconstructing buildings. Strong mobilization is also displayed by mutual help initiatives at the local level. In Slaviansk for instance, where a Protestant community settled at the beginning of the 1990s, several churches that previously conducted activities to integrate orphans or rehabilitate drug users have mobilized since the onset of the conflict to evacuate residents of towns and villages under bombardment, assist IDPs and those who live next to the Line of Contact. They currently go to the small towns close to the frontline every week, to provide humanitarian assistance to residents who chose not to leave their homes despite the fighting.

Alexandra.Goujon

Alexandra Goujon is an assistant professor of political science at the university of Bourgogne (Dijon, France). She is also an adjunct professor at the Undergraduate College of Sciences Po (Paris) and at Sorbonne university. Her academic work focuses on contentious politics, regime change, and politics of memory in the Post-Soviet states, notably Ukraine and Belarus. She published a book entitled Révolutions politiques et identitaires en Ukraine et en Biélorussie (1988-2008) (Paris, Editions Belin, 2009).
Research topics : Russia; Ukraine; Belarus; Revolutions; Political mobilisations
  1. The “New Russia” project invoked by the separatists and the Russian Federation encompassed the south-east of Ukraine, in order to link up with Crimea and Transnistria. In the wake of self-determination referenda organized on May 11, the authorities of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics had signed an agreement to form a confederation to be named “New Russia”. The separatist forces, which are economically and politically backed by Russia, abandoned this project after the Minsk Agreements were signed in February 2015.
  2. Alexandra Goujon, Révolutions politiques et identitaires en Ukraine et en Biélorussie, Belin, 2009
  3. In the wake of the failure of the first Minsk Protocol signed in September 2014, an agreement was renegotiated at an emergency Minsk summit on February 11, 2015. The second version of the Minsk Agreements featured a constitutional reform project. This included granting a special status to the territories outside government control; organizing elections with international observers present; setting up a demilitarization process by withdrawing heavy artillery from the frontline; and a ceasefire’s coming into force.
  4. The latest ceasefire was negotiated through a “Normandy format” meeting. Supposed to come into force on April 1, it was broken the same day (source: http://ur1.ca/qyfk9).
  5. Fighting in Adviivka at the end of January 2017 has since led to dozens of (mainly civilian) deaths.
  6. The scenario through which secessionist republics are created was already used in the post-Soviet space in Moldova, with the republic of Transnistria; and in Georgia, with the republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These republics were militarized by the Russian Federation in the early 1990s; they depend on Moscow’s financial support and are not recognized by the central governments of Chisinau and Tbilissi, that call for the withdrawal of foreign troops.
  7. Zakhartchenko commands a paramilitary unit that organized the takeover of the Donestk administration building, then became head of the town’s military self-defence forces. He succeeded Alexandre Borodaï, a citizen of Russia, as Prime Minister of the Donestsk republic in August 2014, and was elected its President on November 2nd, 2014.