Separatists Vote To Maintain Status Quo In Donbass

Sunday’s elections in the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk have been widely condemned as a sham and a violation of the Minsk Agreement. The Ukrainian Government in Kiev has refused to recognise the legitimacy of these latest elections which occur in the shade of a conflict which has remained simmering since 2014 and claimed 10,000 lives.

The elections resulted in the Donetsk region’s acting head Denis Pushilin, whose predecessor was assassinated in August, being confirmed as leader while Luhansk voted for Leonid Pasechnik. Pushilin in talking to Reuters described the result as a turning point in the Donbass regions history. “We have proved to the whole world that we can not only fight, not only win on the battlefield but also build a state based on real democratic principles.” Pushilin and Pasechnik are both considered Russian proxies, and there is strong evidence of the outcome being predetermined and voters being manipulated. NATO said in a statement that the elections “undermine efforts towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict” and called again on Russia to end all support to militant groups.

Freedom of the press is a prominent issue in Eastern Ukraine with media coverage making it very clear who the preferred candidates were. The lead up to the elections developed in such a way as to clear the road for the eventual winners. In Donetsk, well-known rivals Alexander Khodakovsky and Pavel Gubarev were removed from the ballot paper. These curtailments of freedom of the press and association in the Donbass region are egregious and do nothing to support the goals of the Minsk agreement. Russia refuses to accept responsibility for intervention in the region despite clear evidence of Kremlin support for insurgents and propaganda designed to foment support for Pro-Russian separatists. It has become clear that any agreement over Donbass has failed to hold as skirmishes continue daily in direct violation of the ceasefire. To help ensure the safety and security for people living in the region, a move away from the status quo is required. If Donetsk and Luhansk are to be recognised as legitimate republics, then referendums administered by the UN must be carried out to help ensure a fair process consistent with the rule of law. Measures should be taken to ensure the Minsk agreements are respected, and security and civil liberties are maintained for all.

Separatists seized territory in Donetsk and Luhansk in early 2014 following the ousting of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich. The War in Donbass began after the separatist’s failure to recognise the legitimacy of the government in Kiev. There have been several attempts to negotiate ceasefire arrangements since the first elections in 2014, but none have held, and the conflict remains ongoing. Increasingly frustrated by Russia’s perceived involvement in the region, the U.S. introduced new sanctions against individuals and groups associated with Russia’s Ukrainian campaign.

Just what further steps the international community will take in response to this remains to be seen, but the primary focus should be an end to the continuing skirmishes. Only if the security situation improves and safety resumes will meaningful discussion begin on the future of these regions. Debate should be encouraged but it should always be orderly with both sides having their opinions respected. Any outside influence which incites violence and fear must be prevented.