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Ukraine conflict: Can election deal in east finally bring peace?


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Ukraine conflict: Can election deal in east finally bring peace?

Image copyright AFP/Getty Images Image caption At least 13,000 people have been killed since the conflict in Ukraine’s east broke out in 2014 Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists have begun pulling back from a town on the front line in eastern Ukraine. The withdrawal comes more than five years since conflict in the east began…

Ukraine conflict: Can election deal in east finally bring peace?

Ukrainian soldiers fire on pro-Russian separatists in the eastern town of Avdiivka. Photo: 31 March 2017Image copyright
AFP/Getty Images

Image caption

At least 13,000 people have been killed since the conflict in Ukraine’s east broke out in 2014

Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists have begun pulling back from a town on the front line in eastern Ukraine.

The withdrawal comes more than five years since conflict in the east began and months after Ukrainians elected a new president.

President Volodymyr Zelensky has backed in principle an agreement to bring elections to the territories controlled by the separatists amid hopes that it will eventually bring the conflict that has claimed more than 13,000 lives to an end.

But Ukrainian opponents see the deal as a «capitulation» to Russia.

The story is moving fast. Let’s break it down.

After triumphing in Ukraine’s presidential election in April, Mr Zelensky said his main goal was to bring peace.

On 1 October, Ukraine, Russia and the separatists agreed in principle to hold local elections in the separatist-held east and then — if the poll is seen as free — Ukraine would grant special status to the region.

Then, on 29 October, Ukrainian troops and separatists began withdrawing from the frontline town of Zolote.

Image copyright
AFP/Getty Images

Image caption

President Zelensky faces some tough choices over the Donbas

But Ukrainian war veterans and nationalists oppose the pull-out.

They complain the deal allows elections before a complete separatist withdrawal and before Kyiv has control of the border with Russia.

President Zelensky has said he is ready to talk even to «the devil» to bring peace to Ukraine.

Once troops have left the frontline town of Zolote, the plan is to pull out of nearby Petrivske too.

The deal backed by President Zelensky, known as the «Steinmeier formula», would grant special status to the separatist-held parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, collectively known as the Donbas.

The agreement aims to break the impasse over a 2015 peace deal (the Minsk agreements).

Proposed in 2016 by Germany’s then-foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the plan details free and fair elections in the east under Ukrainian law, verification by the OSCE international security organisation, and then self-governing status in return.

Russian politicians described the signing of the deal in principle as a victory for Russian diplomacy.

This was Moscow’s key pre-condition before a summit of the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany — known as the Normandy format — could be held. If the withdrawal from Zolote and Petrivske works out, that summit could go ahead as early as November.

But Ukrainian opponents fear this could result in the legitimisation of the Russian occupation of the Donbas, with a vote before Russian-backed forces withdraw and before Kyiv regains control of the 400km (249-mile) stretch of border with Russia.

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Media captionSurviving the chaos — and living with the memories

They are unconvinced by Mr Zelensky’s promise that such elections cannot be held «under the barrel of a gun».

War veterans and nationalists tried to stop the troop pullout going ahead in Zolote and days before the withdrawal they confronted the president on a visit there.

The conflict in the east broke out in April 2014, a month after Russia annexed Ukraine’s southern Crimea peninsula.

Moscow denies sending its regular troops to Donbas, but admits that «Russian volunteers» are fighting there.

At least 13,000 people have been killed and more than 1.5 million people are internally displaced.

President Zelensky is still riding high in opinion polls in Ukraine, six months after he thrashed incumbent Petro Poroshenko with more than 73% of the vote.

Millions of Ukrainians wanted to get rid of what they saw as corrupt political elites, but they also put their faith in a 41-year-old comedian-turned-politician who offered a route to peace after more than five years of fighting.

His first weeks in office proved that he was certainly trying.

In June, Ukrainian troops and separatists withdrew a kilometre from the frontline town of Stanytsia Luhanska.

The following month, work began to restore the destroyed bridge in the town — a key crossing used every day by thousands of people on both sides of the line of separation.

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Media captionFreed Ukrainians meet families after months of separation

In September, a long-awaited delayed prisoner swap with Russia was finally completed.

On 1 October, Ukraine, Russia and the separatists agreed the deal to bring special status to the separatist-held parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Then, after several false starts, Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists began to disengage from the frontline town of Zolote on 29 October, launching green and white flares as they prepared to move out.

There have been different interpretations of the so-called Steinmeier formula by Moscow and Kyiv, but Russian media have published what they said was the text of the deal for a vote in the east followed by self-governing status.

They say the plan envisages that:

  • The law on special status comes into force on a temporary basis at 20:00 local time on the day of elections
  • The law becomes permanent after the OSCE international security organisation verifies that the elections were free and fair, and in compliance with Ukrainian law.

«It is our serious success,» said Russian Senator Aleksey Pushkov.

The signing of the deal was Moscow’s key pre-condition for a summit of the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany — known as the Normandy format.

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AFP

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Nationalists accused the president of capitulating to Russia, in a protest outside his office

But Ukrainian nationalists say the deal amounts to a surrender to Russia.

The nationalists are unconvinced by Mr Zelensky’s promises to safeguard Ukraine’s interests and not to cross his «red lines», set out in an urgent news briefing after the deal was signed:

  • There must be a full ceasefire before any elections are held in the east
  • Elections are impossible «under the barrel of a gun»
  • Candidates from Ukrainian political parties must be allowed to stand — not just pro-Russian parties
  • Ukraine must regain control over the stretch of its border with Russia

He has also demanded the return of all Ukrainian prisoners held in Russia.

Despite his guarantees, protests have been held across Ukraine, with Mr Zelensky’s opponents arguing that implementation of the deal could result in the legitimisation of the Russian occupation of the Donbas.

Shots were fired into the air and there were skirmishes with police, when war veterans first tried to prevent the troop pullout from Zolote and Petrivske.

A destroyed house in Stanytsia Luhanska, eastern Ukraine. File photo

AFP/Getty Images

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Conflict in east Ukraine

2014 — present

  • 13,000people killed

  • 40,000people wounded

  • 1,500,000internally displaced

Source: UN estimates

When Mr Zelensky visited Zolote, he told veterans that Ukrainians wanted a withdrawal and something had to be done to end the war.

Former President Petro Poroshenko has warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin is simply trying to interpret the deal in Moscow’s favour.

Ex-foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin warned: «Society will be demanding answers, and these answers should not be solving the issue of Donbas occupation at Ukraine’s expense.»

One former Ukrainian negotiator warned it was a «path to war, not to peace», while rock singer Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, who leads the Voice party in Ukraine, called on the president to explain the concessions he was ready to make.

The BBC’s Jonah Fisher in Kyiv says it is hard to see how the proposed elections would be fairly contested, even if held under Ukrainian law.

Most people with strongly pro-Ukrainian views left the occupied areas long ago, and Mr Zelensky’s critics in Ukraine warn that such a deal with the separatists and their Russian backers could amount to a capitulation.

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