The March 2019 presidential elections and the October 2019 parliamentary elections could change the balance of power in Kyiv. By February 2019, it is still unclear who will govern the country in 2019-2024 and thus take responsibility for Ukraine’s conflict resolution efforts. The Minsk Agreements are likely to remain on the table as the main tool to achieve an effective ceasefire. On top of that, any successful candidate is likely to search for other additional diplomatic means to resolve the current tensions.
The Context of the Conflict
The conflict in Donbas erupted in April 2014, when pro-Russian and Russia-backed rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk regions heavily opposed the political regime, established after the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine. Public discontent and military engagement in those regions led to proclaiming the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Ukraine’s efforts at peaceful negotiations did not help much, and Kyiv launched the Anti-Terrorist Operation (since 30 April 2018 – the Operation of the United Forces) to restore order and protect civilians from the security threats in Donbas. The conflict is still burning. The UN Monitoring Mission on Human Rights reports that more than 12,800 – 13,000 people were killed in April 2014 – November 2018 in Donbas. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine - an unarmed, civilian mission, deployed in March 2014 – keeps observing and reporting on the situation there.
The only internationally legitimate option for resolving the current conflict is the set of the Minsk Agreements. They were negotiated in the so-called Normandy format by the then French President Francois Hollande, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The key points of the Minsk Agreements include ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons and foreign armed groups from Ukraine, the restoration of the Ukrainian government control throughout the conflict zone, democratic and legitimate local elections in DNR/LNR, and the special status of self-rule for the parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the framework of the Constitution of Ukraine.
Ukraine and Russia-backed DNR/LNR have different visions regarding the sequence of implementation of the Minsk Agreements. DNR/LNR want to start from holding local elections and getting the special status of self-rule. Afterwards, they promise to allow Ukraine to restore government control throughout the conflict zone. On 11 November 2018, DNR/LNR held another round of local elections that contradict the Minsk Agreements.
Ukraine seeks to start from restoring government control throughout the conflict zone to ensure that local elections meet international democratic standards and respect Ukrainian law. In September 2014, Ukraine passed the law on self-rule in Donbas: the law on the special status of self-rule for the breakaway parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which has now been in effect for three years already. It says that self-rule would be in place only after the ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons and foreign armed groups. In late 2017 and late 2018, the effect of the law was extended – each time for one additional year. The OSCE recognised that those decisions reflect Ukraine’s commitment to implement the Minsk Agreements. Also, Ukraine tried to embed self-rule for Donbas in the Constitution: on 31 August 2015, the respective constitutional draft law passed the first reading in the national parliament. However, it did not proceed to the second reading due to severe and even bloody public protests in Kyiv.
Ukraine’s attempts to invite the UN peacekeeping mission to Donbas have as of yet been unsuccessful. The key reason is that Ukraine and Russia – the latter being a veto-holder member of the UN Security Council – do not agree on the tasks of the mission. Thus, consultations go on.
The outlook for 2019
Voting in the first round of presidential elections is scheduled for 31 March 2019. According to the December public polls, two main candidates are leading the electoral race. While 13.8% respondents are likely to support current President Poroshenko to resume his role, 16.1% are ready to vote for the leader of the parliamentary fraction “Batkivshchyna” (Fatherland) Yulia Tymoshenko, who was jailed by the former President Victor Yanukovych. Poroshenko has yet to present his official platform. However, it is probable that his agenda regarding conflict resolution would most likely resemble his policy-making in 2014-2018. Poroshenko will most likely support the Minsk Agreements and the UN peacekeeping mission to Donbas. Tymoshenko’s 2019 strategy of conflict resolution suggests widening the Normandy group via inviting the leaders of those state that signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on security assurances to Ukraine in exchange for Kyiv’s consent to get rid of its nuclear weapons (in particular, China and the UK). Her official manifesto for the 2019 presidential elections suggests a formula for integrating Donbas and the Crimean peninsula that differs from the Minsk Agreements. In 2018 her party voted against extending the 2014 law on self-rule in Donbas.
The surprise rising star of the 2019 electoral campaign is Volodymyr Zelenskyi – a smart and non-partisan comic with no experience in policy-making, but some alleged connections to the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, which they both deny. His candidacy enjoys the support of 8.8% of poll respondents, and some believe that he might get to the second round of elections. Zelenskyi says he is ready to talk to Putin and his team in the Kremlin to convince them to stop Russian aggression against Ukraine. Yuriy Boyko, MP and the ex-leader of the Opposition Bloc party, with pro-Russian sentiments and a legacy of cooperation with Yanukovych, is supported by 8.4% of likely voters. In his 2019 manifesto, he promises to stop military actions in Donbas, follow all of Ukraine’s international responsibilities, and to improve relations with Russia. The ex-minister of defence (in 2005-2007) and the leader of political party Civil Position Anatoly Hrytsenko, supported by 6.8% respondents, says it is time to get rid of the Minsk Agreements and the 2014 law on self-rule in Donbas because they do not work at all. According to the poll, other candidates are less likely to gain enough votes for the second round of the 2019 presidential elections.
Whoever wins the presidential elections will face the challenge of dealing with the friendship treaty with Russia that is set to terminate on 1 April 2019. After the Azov Sea crisis, the president and the national parliament decided not to automatically renew the friendship treaty for another ten years.
The outcome of the 2019 presidential elections will likely affect the parliamentary election’s campaign strategies and outcomes. Clearly, a pro-presidential political party (whoever wins the presidency) will lead the parliamentary coalition in autumn 2019. It is unclear, however, what the parliamentary opposition will look like: it might be a party with pro-Russian sentiments. In this case, the opposition might suggest changing its attitude towards Russia: the parliament, elected in 2014, recognised Russia as an aggressor. Then the newly elected president and the newly elected parliament regarding conflict resolution in Donbas may contradict to each other. This will become evident only after the October parliamentary elections.
Conflict resolution will remain the top priority for policy-makers in 2019. It is safe to assume that the winner of the presidential elections will stick to the principle of international peace negotiations and search for further effective solutions, like the UN peacekeeping mission to Donbas or the upgraded Normandy format. All options will take time but, no matter which is pursued, all efforts will be focused on ensuring that the current conflict in Donbas does not become a frozen one.