From 1991 to date, armed secessionist authorities in Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Karabakh staged numerous “elections.” None were ever recognized internationally as valid. The OSCE and other international organizations declined even to monitor those elections, so as to avoid lending them even a semblance of legitimacy. Moldova, Georgia or Azerbaijan were never asked to accept the results of elections staged in those secessionist territories. This is now changing in Ukraine’s case, as a consequence of Russia’s war against that country.
Under the February 12 agreement (Minsk Two), Ukrainian and Donetsk-Luhansk forces must, first, withdraw to certain distances on either side of the demarcation line. Whereupon “On the first day following the withdrawal, to start the dialogue on the modalities of holding local elections, in accordance with Ukrainian legislation,” in the Donetsk-Luhansk territories (article 4). The local elections are about legitimizing the authorities on the level of districts and municipalities (Osce.org, February 12).
In parallel with that “dialogue,” Kyiv must negotiate with Donetsk-Luhansk about “de-centralizing” Ukraine generally and about a “special status” for Donetsk-Luhansk in particular (article 11). The modalities of holding local elections there shall also be “discussed and agreed” by Kyiv with representatives of those territories. Following such an agreement, “Elections shall be held in compliance with the relevant OSCE standards and monitored by the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR)” (article 12) (Osce.org, February 12).
The Minsk diplomatic process has, to some extent, legitimized the “DPR-LPR” and their Moscow-installed leaderships, but only de facto. Local elections are intended to legitimize them politically and even from a purely formal “democratic” standpoint. The secessionist authorities are pre-programmed to win elections in the existing circumstances. Kyiv is supposed to consent, actively or passively, under the Minsk agreement and the follow-up process in the Contact Group.
Elections staged by the Kremlin’s proxies cannot conceivably conform to OSCE/ODIHR standards. Russia has disabled this organization from monitoring elections in Russia itself. Yet the OSCE/ODIHR is supposed to prepare the DPR and LPR for holding elections that could then be recognized as valid.
The DPR and LPR had staged “parliamentary” and “presidential” elections on November 2, 2014, breaching the Minsk One agreement signed on September 18 that year. Minsk One had envisaged a special status for these districts as parts of Ukraine, not for “republics” with their “parliaments,” “presidents,” and armed forces. Russia semi-officially recognized the November 2 elections as valid, declaring that Russia “respect[ed] the elections’ results.” A handful of pro-Kremlin observers from Europe pronounced those elections as democratic. No country (other than Russia) and no international organization accepted that outcome or that assessment.
The Russian and proxy forces’ offensive in January and February 2015, however, led to the Minsk Two armistice, which envisages local elections in the occupied territories. The Russian side has expanded those territories through military operations beyond the Minsk One demarcation line. Holding local elections in these territories would ratify those military conquests, in breach of both the Minsk One and the Minsk Two agreements (Russian special forces captured Debaltseve six days after the signing of Minsk Two).
Politically, local elections in the “DPR-LPR” would help legitimize the “parliaments” and “presidents” elected on November 2, 2014. Although the local elections are about district- and municipal-level authorities, holding OSCE-prepared elections and an OSCE-validated outcome (“conforming with OSCE’s standards”) would suggest that there is, after all, democracy in the “DPR-LPR.”
This would clearly enhance the political standing of the leaderships “elected” on November 2. Although the authority of “presidents” Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky would not be officially or fully recognized, they would gain a stronger hand in the negotiation process following elections deemed “democratically valid” in the “DPR-LPR.” Negotiations could then start on a fresh basis with these same secessionist leaders. Their quest for co-equal status would gain new strength in the “dialogue” with Kyiv and in the Minsk process of negotiations. They could also gain a stronger voice in debating Ukraine’s constitutional reforms, in which the “DPR-LPR” are authorized to participate under the Minsk Two agreement.
President Petro Poroshenko almost certainly remembers an analogous situation from an earlier stage of his political career, when he headed Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council. In 2005, Moscow induced Ukraine’s then-president Viktor Yushchenko to approve a Russian plan for “democratizing” Transnistria. The idea was to stage new, OSCE-supervised elections to Transnistria’s Supreme Soviet, re-name it as parliament, and re-launch negotiations between Moldova and Transnistria on a fresh basis, with “legitimized” Transnistrian authorities. Transnistria’s “president” (Igor Smirnov at that time), unrecognized internationally, would have gained a measure of legitimacy through OSCE-accepted parliamentary elections. This would have strengthened Russia’s and Transnistria’s hand vis-a-vis Moldova. That proposal was rejected by Moldova and its Western partners at that time. Admittedly, Germany had not substituted itself for the European Union at that time on matters of conflict resolution in Europe’s East.
On May 13, the DPR and LPR jointly presented their proposals for the modalities holding local elections to Ukraine’s Verkohvna Rada and to the participants in the Minsk Contact Group (Donetskoye Agentstvo Novostey, LuganskInformTsentr, May 13).
The armistice signed in Minsk on February 12, 2015, (Minsk Two agreement) opens the way for staging local elections in the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (“DPR, LPR”) and the possible validation of those elections’ outcome by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). This scenario, if carried out as proposed against Ukraine, would be an unprecedented one in the 25-year history of Russia’s conflict undertakings in former Soviet territories (“frozen” conflicts). It would, for the first time, lend the appearance of international political legitimacy to secessionist leaderships armed and controlled by Russia.
On May 13, the “DPR” and “LPR” jointly presented their proposals on the modalities of conducting those local elections, to Ukraine’s Verkohvna Rada and to the participants in the Minsk Contact Group (Ukraine, Russia, OSCE) (Donetskoye Agentstvo Novostey, LuganskInformTsentr, May 13).
Apart from its title, the proposed law stops short of referencing the “people’s republics”; instead, it uses the terms “certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts [provinces],” in line with the Minsk agreement’s terminology. Their proposals are framed as a legislative initiative, titled “DPR-LPR’s draft of a law of Ukraine on the special features of holding local elections” in these territories. The Verkhovna Rada is supposed to adopt, and President Petro Poroshenko to promulgate, such a “law” (a blank space is even reserved for Poroshenko’s signature). However, the unrecognized DPR-LPR have no right of legislative initiative in Ukraine (they currently seek such a right with Russia’s support through changes to Ukraine’s Constitution).
These election process shall be administered by temporary electoral commissions, formed locally by the secessionist authorities, “in accordance with the OSCE’s standards.” The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) “and other international organizations” (unnamed) shall monitor these “elections.” If so, the OSCE would monitor and potentially validate a secessionist election for the first time ever, instead of refusing to monitor it as the OSCE has always done. Those refusals, moreover, adhered to the OSCE’s usual practice of monitoring country-wide elections, not local elections. Making an exception for the “DPR-LPR” might be construed as treating these as would-be states.
Under this “draft law,” parties and political blocs may neither run nor enter candidates in these elections. This provision would exclude Ukrainian parties from participating. Only individual candidacies are eligible to be registered by the electoral commissions.
Candidates must have resided in “DPR” or “LPR” localities for at least ten years, including at least one year immediately preceding the elections. This residency requirement is intended to disqualify politicians of the former Party of Regions who have fled from the “DPR-LPR” to Ukrainian-controlled territories. That party and its component factions used to control the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces (collectively known as the Donbas region) until Russia’s proxies took over in the spring of 2014, wielding, in part, anti-“oligarchic” slogans. The most prominent survivors of the old Donbas regime are currently in Kyiv, affiliated with the Opposition Bloc in the Verkhovna Rada. The Opposition Bloc and its candidates won the elections held in the liberated parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in October 2014, as part of Ukraine’s parliamentary elections. The “DPR-LPR” evidently intend to preclude a comeback of that former nomenklatura to the secessionist-controlled territory.
Local registered voters who are currently residing “beyond Ukraine’s border” would be voting at their current place of residence. This would mean hundreds of thousands of ballots being cast on the territory of Russia, beyond the oversight of Ukrainian or international electoral authorities.
Mass media outlets deemed to “intentionally spread unreliable information about the situation (in these territories)” shall not be accredited to cover these elections by the electoral commissions.
The “draft law” includes an itemized list of localities where these “elections” would be staged. The localities include: a) those seized by Russia’s proxies beyond the Minsk One armistice line (the shift of which was ratified by the Minsk Two armistice); b) Debaltseve and nearby towns, captured beyond the Minsk Two armistice line (as tacitly accepted by Germany and France in the “Normandy” forum); and c) Peski and Shyrokyne, two key Ukrainian outposts to which the “DPR” lays claim.
Such elections, if staged, look pre-programmed for the “DPR” and “LPR” to win. Ukraine has built some legal safeguards against the consequences of such elections. Under legislation initiated by President Poroshenko and adopted by the Verkhovna Rada on March 17, any elections in the occupied territories may not be deemed valid until illegal armed forces have left Ukraine’s territory and Ukraine has regained control of its side of the Ukraine-Russia border. Furthermore, those elections may not be deemed valid unless conducted under Ukraine’s electoral law, Ukrainian parties compete there in a level playing field, and mass media have full access to inform voters and to cover the elections. Moscow and “DPR-LPR” retort that Ukraine adopted that law “unilaterally,” instead of negotiating it with Donetsk and Luhansk in the spirit of the Minsk process. They want Ukraine to revoke the March 17 legislation with its safeguards (Interfax, May 13).