Im­i­tat­ing de­oc­cu­pa­tion

The Ze­len­skiy team is slowly adapt­ing to the frozen con­flict in oc­cu­pied Don­bas

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Maksym Vikhrov

How Ze­len­skiy's team is slowly adapt­ing to the frozen con­flict in Donetsk and Luhansk

De­spite the hoopla, Volodymyr Ze­len­skiy re­turned with pretty much empty hands from his first Nor­mandy for­mat talks. The agree­ment to con­tinue the ex­change of pris­on­ers and with­drawal of troops was more of a par­tic­i­pa­tion award, as th­ese pro­cesses were al­ready go­ing on. In fact, Pres­i­dent Ze­len­skiy has failed to achieve the se­ri­ous progress in the Don­bas promised dur­ing his elec­tion cam­paign. It looks like the Pres­i­dent has learned first-hand that “sit­ting down and meet­ing some­where in the mid­dle” with Moscow will not work, so the cur­rent law on the spe­cial sta­tus for ORDiLO, the oc­cu­pied re­gions of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, was ex­tended for an­other year.

Sluha Nar­odu, his party, pledges a new bill to re­place it this com­ing spring, but how close it will get to ac­tual im­ple­men­ta­tion in the Don­bas is un­clear. Re­gard­less of what laws are passed in Kyiv, ev­ery­thing will de­pend on whether Moscow com­plies with its sup­posed com­mit­ments un­der the Minsk Agree­ments, as Rus­sia has made it clear that it is will­ing and ready to do ev­ery­thing to drag out the peace process while test­ing the po­lit­i­cal re­silience of Ukraine’s new lead­er­ship.

Given the re­al­ity on the ground, freez­ing the con­flict in the Don­bas is not the worst case out­come for Ukraine. Un­for­tu­nately, this is not the most con­ve­nient op­tion for Ze­len­skiy’s team, as it fails to ful­fill his elec­tion prom­ises and voter ex­pec­ta­tions. Now, that the myth of 73% sup­port for Ze­len­skiy is fad­ing, it’s time to think about rat­ings. Ac­cord­ing to the Kyiv In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute of So­ci­ol­ogy, sup­port for the pres­i­dent’s ef­forts shrank from 64% to 54% be­tween Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber 2019, the Gov­ern­ment’s pop­u­lar­ity dove from 51% to 37%, and the Verkhovna Rada sim­i­larly went from 53% to 36%. To­day, 51% of Ukraini­ans be­lieve that their gov­ern­ment is not work­ing ef­fec­tively on the Don­bas ques­tion. Un­til the Nor­mandy talks bring se­ri­ous progress, the gov­ern­ment will des­per­ately need any small suc­cess sto­ries in the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries that it might present to in­creas­ingly ir­ri­tated vot­ers.

Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with the res­i­dents of the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries was a key plank in the Ze-team’s plat­form. As can­di­date, Ze­len­skiy talked about launch­ing a “pow­er­ful Rus­sian-lan­guage TV chan­nel” to “fight for hearts and minds” in Crimea and the Don­bas. This is now a pri­or­ity state pol­icy.

“The main goal is psy­cho­log­i­cal rein­te­gra­tion, then the restora­tion of the ter­ri­to­ries,” said Ok­sana Ko­li­ada, Min­is­ter for Veter­ans, Tem­porar­ily Oc­cu­pied Ter­ri­tory and IDPs, at the lat­est UN Gen­eral Assem­bly. Ac­cord­ing to Cul­ture, Youth and Sports Min­is­ter Volodymyr Boro­di­an­skiy, the TV chan­nel will be set up on the ba­sis of UA:TV, Ukraine’s ex­ist­ing pub­lic tele­vi­sion chan­nel, at a cost of UAH 440mn. Boro­di­an­skiy claims that it will cover 80% of ORDiLO by Fe­bru­ary. What po­lit­i­cal mes­sages this TV chan­nel will broad­cast is any­one’s guess. It looks like the ac­cent will be on rec­on­cil­ia­tory rhetoric now be­ing ac­tively tested by Ser­hiy Sy­vokho, ad­vi­sor to the Na­tional Se­cu­rity and Coun­cil Sec­re­tary

“Our goal is di­a­log and rec­on­cil­ing peo­ple, not fu­elling the con­flict like the old gov­ern­ment did,” he says, call­ing on every­one to quit us­ing pe­jo­ra­tive nick­names, such as sep­ary for sep­a­ratists or ukry for Ukraini­ans. In ad­di­tion to this, the Coun­cil plans to cre­ate “a plat­form of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and unity,” whereby ORDiLO res­i­dents will be spo­ken to in “the lan­guage of sports, cul­ture and busi­ness,” Sy­vokho claims. Th­ese mea­sures re­ally can be seen as an ex­am­ple of proac­tive pol­icy for the Don­bas. The ques­tion is what prac­ti­cal re­sults they will bring. The pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion sim­i­larly por­trayed the Min­istry for In­for­ma­tion Pol­icy as a proac­tive in­stru­ment, but its per­for­mance was unim­pres­sive.

As to the “rec­on­cil­i­a­tion plat­form,” the main task is to make sure it does not turn into a plat­form for di­rect di­a­log be­tween Kyiv and “lead­er­ship” of the self-pro­claimed re­publics. This would be a clear step to­wards ca­pit­u­la­tion, as it is pre­cisely what Moscow has been push­ing Ukraine to do since the very first Minsk talks in Septem­ber 2014. The threat of this hap­pen­ing is very real. Since any po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­ity in ORDiLO is strictly con­trolled, it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine any­one but pup­pets of the oc­cu­pa­tion ad­min­is­tra­tion rep­re­sent­ing this ter­ri­tory in a “rec­on­cil­i­a­tion plat­form.” That means that any di­a­log will au­to­mat­i­cally lose pur­pose: the rep­re­sen­ta­tive s of the “re­publics” will voice Moscow’s mes­sages, not the real sen­ti­ments of the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion. Of course, there’s noth­ing that can keep Ukraine’s lead­er­ship from claim­ing even this mock “di­a­log” as an ac­com­plish­ment.

Re­form­ing check­point pro­ce­dures at the line of con­tact is an­other pos­si­ble suc­cess story. The cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion is pay­ing spe­cial at­ten­tion to this, which is why one of Ze­len­skiy’s first projects was restor­ing the bridge at Stanyt­sia Luhan­ska. “The first thing our cit­i­zens from oc­cu­pied Crimea and Don­bas see when they en­ter the rest of Ukraine is our check­point,” Pres­i­dent Ze­len­skiy has said. “It’s very im­por­tant for this to be as com­fort­able as pos­si­ble. Be­cause this is ac­tu­ally our win­dow show­ing that Ukraine is cool, safe and friendly.”

In fact, there are quite a few prob­lems at the con­tact line. Ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry for Veter­ans, Tem­porar­ily Oc­cu­pied Ter­ri­tory and IDPs, 1.15 mil­lion peo­ple crossed it both ways in Novem­ber 2019 alone. Ac­cord­ing to Pravo na za­khyst [The Right to Pro­tec­tion], a char­ity, the prob­lems aren’t lim­ited to long queues, but elec­tric­ity, heat­ing, ven­ti­la­tion and other con­di­tions are also poor. Solv­ing th­ese is­sues will likely be the pres­i­dent’s pri­or­ity. Re­con­struc­tion has al­ready started at the Kalan­chak and Chon­gar check­points on the bor­der with oc­cu­pied Crimea.

If troops are with­drawn in the Don­bas, new cross­ing points will open and the rules for cross­ing will be sim­pli­fied un­til passes are fi­nally abol­ished. This process has al­ready be­gun:

ZE­LEN­SKIY HAS QUITE A BIT OF ROOM TO MA­NEU­VER ON THE DON­BAS. WHAT'S NOT CLEAR IS HOW THIS WILL AF­FECT THE GOV­ERN­MENT'S POP­U­LAR­ITY. THE TAR­GET GROUP FOR TH­ESE PO­TEN­TIAL IN­NO­VA­TIONS HAS LIT­TLE ELEC­TORAL WEIGHT, AND ORDILO RES­I­DENTS DON'T VOTE IN UKRAINIAN ELEC­TIONS AT ALL

the Cab­i­net sim­pli­fied the rules in early Novem­ber, and an­nual passes be­came passes with no ex­piry date last March. For­eign Min­is­ter Vadym Prys­taiko has sug­gested that rail­way traf­fic to ORDiLO, in­clud­ing cargo traf­fic, could re­sume. The ques­tion is how all this will be adapted to se­cu­rity needs which it’s far too early to drop.

The most con­tro­ver­sial – and most striking – suc­cess story of the Ze-team so far is prob­a­bly the pay­ment of pen­sions to res­i­dents of oc­cu­pied Don­bas. In fact, such pay­ments never stopped, but the oc­cu­pa­tion com­pli­cated the process of re­ceiv­ing them. Un­til now, it has been han­dled through phe­nom­e­non known as “pen­sion tourism,” mean­ing that Ukrainian pen­sion­ers from ORDiLO reg­is­tered as IDPs while in fact con­tin­u­ing to live in the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory. In or­der to re­tain their IDP sta­tus and re­ceive their ben­e­fit, they had to reg­u­larly cross the con­tact line. Pen­sion tourists ac­counted for nearly 60% of the traf­fic at check­points.

The pro­ce­dure was both hu­mil­i­at­ing and ex­haust­ing, so not every­one was able to be a pen­sion tourist: ac­cord­ing to the UN, some 560 pen­sion­ers in ORDiLO were not col­lect­ing their pen­sions be­cause of bu­reau­cratic bar­ri­ers. Apart from that, this prac­tice added chaos to the records of IDPs and of­fered count­less op­por­tu­ni­ties for cor­rup­tion. In Novem­ber, a bill was sub­mit­ted to the Verkhovna Rada to sim­plify the rules for pen­sion pay­ments to ORDiLO res­i­dents and abol­ish manda­tory reg­is­tra­tion as IDPs. It was spon­sored by MP Te­tiana Tre­ti­akova (SN), Chair of the VR Com­mit­tee for So­cial Pol­icy and the Pro­tec­tion of Veter­ans’ Rights, and a num­ber of other MPs. Of course, the bill does not en­vis­age the dis­burse­ment of ben­e­fits in ter­ri­tory not con­trolled by Kyiv, so pen­sion­ers will still have to cross the check­points. If the Verkhovna Rada sup­ports the bill, Pres­i­dent Ze­len­skiy will be able to claim yet an­other suc­cess story in front of both Ukraini­ans and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing the UN, which has long been push­ing Kyiv to do this.

In a nut­shell, Ze­len­skiy has quite a bit of room to ma­neu­ver on the Don­bas. What’s not clear is how this will af­fect the gov­ern­ment’s pop­u­lar­ity. The tar­get group for th­ese po­ten­tial in­no­va­tions has lit­tle elec­toral weight, and ORDiLO res­i­dents don’t vote in Ukrainian elec­tions at all. For other Ukraini­ans, a sim­ple fact will re­main ob­vi­ous: any di­alogs, plat­forms and re­pairs to check­points – all done with the taxes they pay – as well as other con­cil­ia­tory steps to­wards ORDiLO res­i­dents, won’t bring the lib­er­a­tion of the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory any closer, as Moscow, not the peo­ple of oc­cu­pied Don­bas, de­cides things there. And the Ze-team’s proac­tive ap­proach will have no ef­fect on the Rus­sians.

Of course, Ze­len­skiy will be able to present th­ese suc­cess sto­ries to the western al­lies at the next Nor­mandy talks, as proof of his de­ter­mi­na­tion and good­will. But it’s un­likely to be enough to jus­tify new sanc­tions against Rus­sia. So, un­less there is a ma­jor break­through in the Nor­mandy talks, all Kyiv can do in the Don­bas is take small steps on sec­ondary is­sues that will bring real de­oc­cu­pa­tion of the re­gion nei­ther closer nor fur­ther.

A kind of warm-up. Ser­hiy Sy­vokho is send­ing po­lit­i­cally risky mes­sages re­gard­ing the Don­bas – ob­vi­ously test­ing the wa­ters be­fore the ex­ec­u­tive makes any de­ci­sion

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