Small Steps Along the Contact Line: Local Approaches to Peace in Donbas

09 October 2020   ·   Anonymous Author

A political settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine in the near-term seems out of reach. Therefore, Germany should support the Ukrainian government with stabilisation measures that do not depend on agreement with Russia – such as enhanced communication with conflict-affected populations – and feed the results of local dialogue initiatives into official negotiations.

The Minsk Agreements, Minsk Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) negotiation process, and Normandy Four process, which constitute the overall framework for conflict settlement in eastern Ukraine, have not provided enough momentum to reach a sustainable and comprehensive peace. The election of President Zelensky in 2019 has seen a reinvigoration of negotiations, with the President coming to power on a promise to ultimately end the war in the Donbas. Since then, some compromises have been reached, including prisoner exchanges; restoration of the bridge and crossing point between government controlled (GCA) and non-government controlled areas (NGCA) at Stanitsiya Luhanska; and a fragile yet significant ceasefire since 27 July 2020. However, the overall movement on crucial security and political steps that would eventually lead to the reintegration of the NGCA into Ukraine has hit the same roadblocks as before, with the red lines of Ukraine and Russia seeming to be mutually exclusive.  

Focus on the Reality on the Ground and Not Just Political Negotiations  

It is important that all sides remain at the negotiating table, and the TCG and Normandy Four provide the place for this. The OSCE-mediated TCG format meets fortnightly, currently over video teleconference, to negotiate the details of implementation of the Minsk Agreements. Participants include representatives from Russia, Ukraine and NGCA. At the highest level, the Normandy Four gathers the presidents of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine to frame negotiations on conflict settlement. Yet there has been a tendency to over-rely on these political platforms for problem-solving. In the absence of sustained and comprehensive settlement, donors and the Ukrainian government could focus on other conflict stabilisation measures that do not depend on the negotiations and political will of others. Although ultimate settlement would require real compromise, and withdrawal of Russian support for the so-called republics, there has been very little indication that either is likely to happen in the short-term. Therefore, a more localised and ‘bottom-up’ approach for government-controlled areas (GCA) of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions is needed. Although there has been policy thinking on issues such as economic development and hypothetical plans for ‘safe’ reintegration of the non-government controlled areas into Ukraine, some of the basic immediate needs of people, particularly in the government controlled areas, have been neglected for years.

A part of this is the need to engage citizens still residing in the NGCA, although this is more challenging given the lack of control over territory and concerns over personal security. President Zelensky has acknowledged that Ukraine must humanise peaceful citizens residing in the NGCA and that an important approach is to show them at the contact line that life is better under the Ukrainian government. COVID-19 has further complicated matters, as far fewer people can cross the contact line due to quarantine, exacerbating hardships already faced and further disconnecting families. Yet, again, arguably more could be done to show that the Ukrainian government is acting on Zelensky’s rhetoric. Straightforward things, such as easing the process by which NGCA citizens can obtain Ukrainian passports in GCA or enabling a simplified administrative process for registration of births and deaths for those residing in NGCA, would be effective. These are not new ideas for the Ukrainian government and have been advocated for repeatedly by international and national humanitarian organisations. They are in themselves sensitive issues to some who are against easing the lives of those in the NGCA, claiming it is Russia’s responsibility. Implementing these ideas subsequently becomes a question of political will, clear communication and ultimate strategy.  

Practical Questions Should be Addressed in Government Controlled Areas of Donbas  

There are arguably easier things within the Ukrainian government’s power in the government controlled areas. Less politically sensitive, they would signal more strongly that Kyiv is interested in protecting citizens’ rights. For example, although there has been progress on draft legislation for a compensation mechanism for damage to housing and property by civilians affected by conflict, this legislation has not been finalised. Moreover, international organisations have criticised the proposed approach for failing to cover internally displaced persons (IDPs) who no longer reside in the area where their property was destroyed. Logically, many of these people had to flee these areas, without the documents proving ownership due to destruction of their property, to ensure their own safety. There are still cases of members of the Ukrainian military using civilian property in the GCA without lease agreements, with civilians facing challenges in obtaining compensation for utility bills or damage caused to private property. Slightly tangential, but still connected to the conflict, the decision by various civilian-military administrations not to hold upcoming local elections in certain GCA cities and communities (hromada) disenfranchises part of the conflict-affected population. Worryingly, the logic and criteria for these decisions are non-transparent. Although the motivation is not clear, experts consulted assume that the decisions are politically motivated based on the fact that the ruling party Sluga Naroda will not do well in upcoming elections in GCA, where the pro-Russian Opposition Platform – For Life enjoys more support.  

Listen To the Population Affected by the Conflict    

A key complaint from the conflict-affected population on both sides of the contact line, linked to all the above-mentioned issues, is that they are not listened to by authorities and their views are not considered in political decision-making on conflict issues often enough. For those residing in the GCA, where Ukrainian authorities control the territory, there is a need for an improved channel of communication to allow these voices to be heard. The Ukrainian government could use such a channel to take views of the population of GCA into account and shape policy where relevant and possible.  

This could also be used in the negotiations. In a creative move, the Ukrainian government recently added four ‘real’ people to the Minsk TCG in a bid to seem more inclusive, and as a tactic against the Russian insistence to engage directly with the members of the so-called republics. These four civilians are originally from what is now NGCA but are currently mainly based in Kyiv. In Minsk they are supposed to represent society and give voice to the region. This move is a start, but still goes nowhere near addressing the range of real grievances, misunderstanding and frustration felt by the local population, particularly in territory controlled by the Ukrainian government. The fact that this ‘inclusive’ measure did not involve adding any women to the process speaks for itself.  

Germany Can Support Discrete Dialogues Across the Contact Line and Feed Results Into Official Negotiations  

Therefore, the German government should explore ways to further empower conflict-affected populations in gaining policy attention for their grievances, particularly on the GCA side where impact is more feasible. Without their trust, a politically negotiated peaceful settlement is unlikely to work anyway. There is a diversity of views on the conflict on both sides of the contact line but a uniting feature is that they often feel a lack of agency in political decisions that directly affect them. Through consultation and dialogue, particularly between conflict-affected people and local government in GCA, a more direct and nuanced evidence base with recommendations can be produced on the reality of issues facing citizens.

In terms of engaging people from the NGCA, there are some cross-contact line dialogues already happening, yet they are small and seem fragmented. This is inevitable due to the sensitivity and security risks around conducting these dialogues. However, Germany could further support the development of a coordinated mechanism to scale up the messages discretely to decision-makers without risking the identities of the participants of cross-contact line dialogues. This should help guide and prioritise policy, ideally resulting in practical change that shows the Ukrainian government is serious about putting policy behind rhetoric. 

Friedensförderung Osteuropa Ukraine

Anonymous Author

The author is an international consultant working in Ukraine.