Parties satisfied with latest talks on ending Ukraine conflict

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande (L) and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko speak to media after their meeting in the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, August 24, 2015. Source: Reuters

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande (L) and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko speak to media after their meeting in the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, August 24, 2015. Source: Reuters

Russian observers are voicing cautious optimism after another round of talks between the leaders of Russia, Germany, France, and Ukraine aimed at resolving the Ukrainian conflict. The issue of local elections in the Donbass remains the main stumbling block on the path to finding a political solution to the crisis in eastern Ukraine.

Four-way talks in Paris on resolving the conflict in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine appear to have yielded progress on carrying out the implementation of the peace accords signed in Minsk in February, in particular regarding the issue of local elections, which has threatened to derail the peace process in recent months.

One of the main issues on the agenda at the meeting between the leaders of Russia, Germany, France, and Ukraine, which took place in the French capital on Oct. 2, was local elections in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk “people's republics” (DNR and LNR) of the Donbass. The two entities broke away from the central government in Kiev in spring 2014 after rebels took control of key cities and buildings.

A war between government forces and the pro-Russian rebels is now over 18 months old, though the ceasefire agreed in Minsk, which for months was practically ignored, now appears to be holding relatively firm. Russia, which is widely suspected of providing the rebels with military support, officially denies any role in the conflict.

For the time being, both unrecognized republics plan to hold their elections separately from the rest of Ukraine, a step to which Kiev is categorically opposed since it says this contravenes the terms of the peace agreements signed in Minsk.

According to the Minsk accords, regional elections must take place in line with Ukrainian law and be held on the same day nationwide – Oct. 25. However, the two rebel republics have declared that they will hold votes on Oct. 18 (in Donetsk) and Nov. 1 (in Lugansk).

As German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande said at a news conference (both Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko left the Élysée Palace right after the talks), elections in the rebel regions should be postponed and held under Ukrainian law.

However, Russian experts stress that the interests of the rebel regions are nevertheless expected to be taken into account too.  

Elections likely to wait for reform

As Hollande explained at the post-meeting news conference, the elections scheduled for October and November in the Donbass will “probably” not be held yet, but advised Kiev to adopt a new law on elections that would permit the votes to go ahead, after discussing the issue with the DNR and LNR.

There should also be an amnesty that would allow rebel representatives to take part in the polls. Voting in the Donbass should take place 80 days after the Ukrainian parliament adopts a law on elections and under OSCE observation.

Angela Merkel also pointed out the link between the elections and the necessity of the adoption of a law by Kiev on the special status of the Donbass and constitutional reform.

The same was noted by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in his summary of the meeting. Peskov also said that participants in the talks had noted positive changes as regards the withdrawal of light weapons from the line of contact, which began at midnight on Oct. 3.

Merkel said that there is “a hope that despite the delays in implementing [the Minsk agreement], steps have been made” and that the four leaders can be pleased with the outcomes of the meeting.

However, in view of the slow pace at which negotiations have proceeded so far, the implementation of the Minsk accords may have to be extended till 2016, although previously it was expected that the set of measures envisaged in the agreements would be carried out by the end of this year.


Progress being made

According to Andrei Suzdaltsev, deputy head of the world economy and politics department at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, participants in the meeting noted progress in the implementation of the Minsk accords (Hollande said that the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine was "largely holding") but at the same time pointed out that neither side was fully compliant.

Suzdaltsev pointed out that this meeting was notable for the fact that Russia was not openly criticized by the other parties: "No threats posed by Russia [were mentioned]. That is to say that formally there was no anti-Russian context," he said, at the same time adding that the discussion must have been tough since Putin did not stay for the news conference.

However, Mikhail Alexandrov, an expert with the Center for Military and Political Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, warns that it is also possible that the deal on Donbass elections reached at the talks could be used to foil the voting scheduled to take place in the DNR and LNR.

Even after the elections in Donbass have been canceled and the elections bill has been submitted to the parliament in Kiev, the bill may be blocked over protests by parliamentarians instigated by Poroshenko himself, said Alexandrov, citing as an example the difficulties that all draft laws on the Donbass to date have come up against in the Ukrainian parliament.

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