Minsk of distorting mirrors

28 August 2020
Minsk of distorting mirrors
Home > Analysis > Minsk of distorting mirrors

Nazar Zabolotnyi, analyst of the Centre of United Actions

Almost six years have passed since the first Minsk Protocol was signed in the aftermath of the military disaster under Ilovaisk. Everything has changed significantly since that time: military situation, names of the negotiators, and even the Ukrainian government. Still, the conditions under which we are supposed to restore our sovereignty over the occupied territories of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts have not so changed.

Both Petro Poroshenko and his successor Volodymyr Zelensky repeatedly claimed that Minsk Agreements have no alternative and the only way to resolve the conflict and free Donetsk and Luhansk is through diplomacy. In line with this approach, Ukrainian representative in the Trilateral Contact Group Leonid Kravchuk recently appealed to the Verkhovna Rada to adapt a resolution on local elections so it will comply with the Minsk Agreements.

The Minsk agreements are not formal international agreements. They have never been ratified by the Verkhovna Rada and as such are just political documents that exist until both parties think they should exist. For that reason alone, they cannot force our authorities to make any decisions whatsoever. On the other hand, even if the Minsk Agreements were implemented, they do not give answers to the problem of restoring Ukrainian sovereignty over the territories occupied by the enemy. They would rather create an even more favorable environment for Russia to tighten its grip over Ukraine.

So the question, naturally, is what other routes to deoccupation should we chose instead of Minsk. To understand in which direction to move, we should look back at how the agreements appeared and how we tried to implement them, try to understand their content and find out what mistakes we should avoid in our quest to deoccupy Eastern Ukraine.

Remembering the past

First Minsk Agreements were signed at the beginning of September 2014, in the aftermath of the defeat in the battle of Ilovaisk by Leonid Kuchma from the Ukrainian side, Russian ambassador Mikhail Zurabov, the representative of OSCE Heidi Tagliavini, and heads of civil-military administrations of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Among other things, they envisaged a ceasefire, an exchange of prisoners and captives, prohibition to prosecute collaborators, and the special status of local government on the temporarily occupied territories.

Since the Verkhovna Rada has never considered a question of ratifying this agreement or gave consent to recognize it as binding, the agreement was no more than an element of the political process and not an international treaty. Nevertheless, on September 16, 2014, the Ukrainian Parliament adopted two draft bills: 1) on prohibition to criminally prosecute the members of the occupational army and occupational administrations, 2) on the special status of local government on the TOT. Both bills were adopted in line with the Minsk Protocol.

The first bill has never been signed neither by the Speaker of the Parliament nor by the President — and thus has never been enacted. Most of the provisions of the second draft bill will not be enacted until local governments on the TOT are elected uner the Ukrainian Constitution, the laws of Ukraine, and international standards.

Both bills were clearly unconstitutional. The so-called amnesty bill defies the rule of law, infringes the right to a fair trial (it prohibits even initiating criminal investigations) and thus renders it impossible to establish the truth. The bill on special status contradicts the unitary status of Ukraine because it obliges the state to act not in a direct way but through the agreements and initiatives of the TOT’s local governments. A demand to get the approval from the TOT’s authorities for appointing prosecutors and judges goes against the independence of justice and creates space for political influence on state prosecution and judiciary.

Minsk II appeared after the Ukrainian military defeat in the battle of Debaltseve. As the result of negotiations in the Normandy Format involving the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France, a Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements has been signed by the same representatives as the Minsk Protocol.

According to Minsk II, Ukraine had to change its Constitution and, as a part of decentralization, to introduce a special status for local governments on the TOT.

In July of 2015, President Poroshenko submitted to the Parliament his draft bill with proposals to change the Constitution, including the provision that granted special status for the TOT. Parliament’s attempt to take a vote on the bill resulted in mass protests near the parliamentary building and the deaths of four national guardsmen.

To sum up the legal aspect of the Minsk process, their implementation will cause the destruction of the foundation of the state: its unitary status, independence to make decisions and implement them on its territory. On top of that, Minsk Agreements pose a considerable threat to the rule of law and administration of justice. Only 16% of Ukrainians support unconditional compromises for the cause of peace. For the majority that wants to see their country a part of the Western democratic world and not a weak client state of Russia, on the other hand, every article of the Minsk Agreements is unacceptable even on paper.

Thus, it is hard to imagine the conditions under which our society will accept the implementation of such articles of the Minsk Agreements like TOT’s special status or “people’s militia” there. The reasons behind this refusal are easy to understand if we read between the lines of the Agreements.

True nature of Minsk Agreements

The Minsk Agreements were signed at the point of a Russian assault rifle. They first appeared as the result of the massive invasion of the Russian regular army at the end of summer of 2014 and later — in February of 2015 near Debaltseve. No wonder that the Agreements are just Russian demands to Ukraine. To grasp their true meaning is easy: just substitute “TOT” with “Russia” and read the text once more. Russia is at war with Ukraine and Russia has occupied a part of our territory.

Do people living on the temporarily occupied territories really need more independent local governments than people living in the communities throughout Ukraine after the decentralization? It is doubtful, to say the least, because in practice territorial communities unite reluctantly and very slowly, especially in Eastern Ukraine. People often do not understand what to do with their community councils, much less with raion or oblast level governments. Therefore, it is obvious that Minsk is not about granting more powers to local governments. Other clauses of the Minsk Agreements sounds no less grotesque if we think about them from the perspective of people living on the occupied territories.

If we look at the agreements from the Russian perspective, though, everything fits. Russia needs the reintegration without real deoccupation to preserve its influence over the captured territory and expand it over the whole of Ukraine. That is the real purpose behind the special status, elections, and “people’s militia”: to create a Russian reservation inside of Ukraine.

The same is true about reestablishing trade with the occupied territories. It is not included in the Minsk Agreements but is often mentioned as a possible compromise on the road to peace. We have to understand clearly that the real beneficiaries of this trade will be Russia and its cronies on the occupied territories: they control almost every aspect of the economy on the occupied territories.

So the fairy tale about a compromise with the people of Donbas is just a fairy tale aimed at selling Ukrainians compromises with Russia as an act of humanism. From almost every TV channel we hear: “It’s our people out there.” Yes, our people are out there, but they are not a side in Minsk negotiations or politics as such. Russians made them a tool, a bargaining chip to implement Moscow’s plans for Ukraine. They try to appeal to our humanism and turn it into an instrument of aggression against us by talking about compromises with people on the occupied territories and not concessions to the enemy.

That is why we have to understand the nature of the Minsk Agreements clearly. Without such understanding, we cannot go further and realize what we should do and what actions we should avoid if we want to bring Donbas back home, back to Ukraine.

Multivariable peace formula

We live in a globalized world where many things lay beyond the reach of our powers. For that reason, it is almost impossible to find a solid and stable formula to deoccupy Crimea and Donbas. Whether we want it or not, we will have to adjust our strategy and tactics in the light of what happens in the world around us and our economic, political, and defense capacities. Our politics will inevitably be influenced by events in Russia. If it becomes weaker, we can make some positive action, if it becomes stronger, such an option will be inconceivable.

Overall, the policy of deoccupation has to be flexible and long-term oriented since, given the circumstances, chances to free the territories occupied by the Russian Federation in the nearest future seem almost unreal. Still, there are some basic lines of actions we should avoid if we do not want to threaten our sovereignty.

First of all, we have to reject ideas like exchanging Crimea for Donbas. That covers not only the unacceptable idea to recognize Russian authority over the peninsula, but any concessions that will make occupants’ life there easier. For example, under no circumstances Ukraine should provide them with water from the Dnipro river as Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal recently suggested. According to international law, Russia as the occupant has to bear the full burden of providing people of the territories it has occupied with everything they need, including water.

No economic concessions to the occupants. The example of Moldova that legalized the business of Transnistria demonstrates that such decisions only make the occupants stronger. It makes it easier for the aggressor to support territories it has captured and creates an illusion for local inhabitants that they can live a normal life under the new regime.

Our situation is even worse because Ukraine does not control a part of its border with the Russian Federation. If we reestablish the trade without proper control over our border, we can get a gigantic problem with our customs. Russian goods will slip duty-free through first on the occupied territories and from there — anywhere in Ukraine. The scheme is simple: stick some tags “made in Donetsk”, and there will be no way for Ukrainian authorities to check whether that is true. Without proper customs control, we will allow Russian economic expansion on our market.

Russian military aggression, not an internal conflict. Russia is trying to pretend that its invasion into Ukraine is an internal conflict between Ukrainian citizens. To achieve this goal, it encourages Ukrainian authorities to start direct negotiations with its puppets in Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukraine should continue to avoid any direct negotiations or any other actions that imply that occupational administrations are independent of Russia.

Otherwise, we will lose even the dim chance to hold Russia responsible for starting the war, committing war crimes, and causing property damage to the Ukrainian state, local inhabitants and companies.

Humanitarian ties with people on the occupied territories. The connection with people on the occupied territories has to be preserved. That includes not only the free entry from the occupied territories but also providing possibilities for self-actualization for people, from the occupied territories, especially young people. First of all, free and accessible education in Ukrainian universities without the stigmatization of these students.

The Government, unfortunately, has allowed children and students from the temporarily occupied territories to enroll without competition and thus created the reason for other students to envy them. Instead of launching some online or offline pre-entry courses to help prospective students to prepare for the external independent evaluation, the Cabinet decided to introduce a privilege in knowledge.

More than six years have passed since the occupation started. It means that now we have a whole generation that does not remember times when Crimea, Sevastopol, Luhansk, and Donetsk were free from the Russian occupants. Thus, Ukraine needs to maintain its cultural ties with people on the occupied territories: when we will free our land from the Russian enemy, it will be easier for our people to return to Ukrainian society.