Positive talks at Paris summit on Ukraine

French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko attend a meeting in Paris.

French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko attend a meeting in Paris.

Observers in Russia are cautiously optimistic after the latest four-way summit-level talks between leaders of Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine, aimed at ending the Ukraine conflict. Local elections in Ukraine’s Donbass remain the key stumbling block in arriving at a political resolution to the crisis.

French President Francois Hollande, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko met for four-way talks in Paris over the weekend to try and resolve the conflict in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. The discussions appear to have yielded progress while reviewing implementation of the peace accords signed in Minsk in February, particularly regarding the issue of local elections, which had threatened in recent months to derail the peace process.

A major issue on the agenda of the four leaders was local elections in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk “people's republics” (DNR and LNR) of the Donbass. The two regions broke away from the central government in Kiev in spring 2014, when rebels took control of key cities and buildings.

The conflict between Ukrainian government forces and the pro-Russian rebels is now over 18 months old. The cease-fire agreed upon in Minsk in February 2015, which was largely ignored in the initial months, appears to be holding relatively firm now. Russia, which is widely suspected of providing the rebels with military support, officially denies any role in the conflict.

Meanwhile, both the unrecognized republics plan to hold their elections separately from the rest of Ukraine, a step to which Kiev is categorically opposed, saying it contravenes the terms of the peace agreements signed in Minsk.

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

German Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande said at a news conference after the meeting that elections in the rebel regions should be postponed and held under Ukrainian law. Both Russian President Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart left the Élysée Palace right after the talks. Russian analysts, however, insist that interests of the rebel regions are likely to be taken into account also.  

Elections likely to wait for reform

Elections scheduled for October and November in the Donbass will “probably” not be held yet, President Hollande said, but advised Kiev to adopt a new law on elections that would permit the polls 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.

Chancellor Merkel emphasised the link between elections and the necessity for Kiev to adopt  a law on the special status of the Donbass and constitutional reform.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the same in his post-meeting summary. Peskov also said the summiteers at the talks noted positive changes being made, like withdrawal of light weapons from the line of contact, which began from midnight on October 3.

Merkel said there is “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, given the slow pace at which negotiations have proceeded so far, implementation of the Minsk accords may have to be extended till 2016, although earlier the deadline to carry out measures envisaged in the agreements was slated to be 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 also 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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