This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum
Ukraine held its parliamentary elections on 26 October, and the self-proclaimed separatist Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic followed suit by holding their own polls on 2 November. The two different votes have served to widen the split between Ukraine’s west and its pro-Russian east. This is making compromise increasingly difficult in a conflict that has already claimed more than 4,000 lives. And Russia is now left with very few good options.
For the first time in years, the parliament elected in Ukraine in the 26 October elections will have no representatives either from the Party of Regions or the Communist Party. These parties had traditionally given Russia opportunities to exercise influence within the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada.
For the first time in years, the parliament elected in Ukraine in the 26 October elections will have no representatives either from the Party of Regions or the Communist Party.
According to the official results, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk’s People’s Front took a surprising lead over President Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc, winning 22.14 percent of the vote as against the president’s party’s 21.81 percent. The Self-Help party of Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi came in third, with 10.97 percent, and the Opposition Bloc came in fourth with 9.43 percent.
This means that the only political force that can represent the interests of the Russian-speaking east in parliament is the 29 elected MPs of the Opposition Bloc, which consists of former members of the Party of Regions, together with a handful of their supporters who were voted into parliament as individual representatives of constituencies.
In and of itself, this does not drastically change the playing field in negotiations for Russia. In recent months, Russia has either dealt directly with the leadership or conducted back-door negotiations with powerful Ukrainian businessmen who have vested interests in the east. But, as the final step cementing the new Ukrainian government as the ruling authority of an independent pro-Western state, the election’s result will mean that there are fewer avenues for dialogue between Kyiv and the war-torn east, which could exacerbate the armed conflict that Russia is accused of fuelling.
[T]he election’s result will mean that there are fewer avenues for dialogue between Kyiv and the war-torn east.
It is indicative (although to be expected, given the ongoing clashes between rebels and the Ukrainian army and the militant attitude of the rebel leadership) that voting in the 26 October poll did not take place in the electoral districts of Donetsk and Lugansk regions controlled by separatists. This deprived some 3 million people of a chance to take part in the election.
Meanwhile, the separatist vote on 2 November bolstered the self-proclaimed leadership of the separatist Donetsk and Lugansk regions, where in recent months there has been a number of changes among the rebel leaders. The vote was conducted as an attempt to legitimise the self-appointed leadership, and the absence of candidates who were not separatists further limited any chance of compromise between east and west. Donetsk Prime Minister Alexander Zakharchenko became head of the Donetsk People’s Republic in August and was viewed as someone Moscow that would find easier to influence. He has been confirmed in his position by the rebel polls, and he is unlikely to emerge as a conciliatory figure. Last month, he threatened to quit, claiming that the ceasefire brokered in September by Russia, the European Union, and the rebel leadership as part of the Minsk Protocol was a “betrayal”.
Kyiv and Brussels did not recognise the separatist vote, with Poroshenko calling it a “farce” and the EU saying it violated the Minsk Protocol. But in an apparent attempt to leave itself room for manoeuvre, Moscow has taken a careful, moderate stance on both elections.
In an apparent attempt to leave itself room for manoeuvre, Moscow has taken a careful, moderate stance on both elections.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after the Rada election that Moscow would recognise the vote, commenting that while violations took place, Moscow would at least “have someone to talk to” both in parliament and in the government. His reaction to the separatist vote was more complex. Initially, both Lavrov and Putin’s hawkish chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, said they would recognise the vote. But the foreign ministry’s official statement of 3 November said that Moscow “respects the declaration of the will of people in southeastern Ukraine.” The next sentence of the statement echoed what Lavrov had said earlier of the Ukraine parliamentary elections: “The elected representatives now have the authority […] to normalise life in these regions.”
While it may have appeared that this statement signalled Moscow’s recognition of the separatist vote, a presidential aide later clarified that this was not exactly the case. Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s foreign policy aide, said that “respect” and “recognition” are “two different words. The word ‘respect’ was chosen deliberately. […] We fundamentally respect the will of the voters.”
Since further sanctions could have a catastrophic effect on Russia’s already plummeting rouble, this backtracking was initially interpreted as an attempt by Moscow to back away from its initial plan of installing a separatist region, “Novorossiya”, in Ukraine’s south-east. Yet Moscow has made such statements in the past. It apparently intends to maintain some sort of support for the rebels, but its statements indicate that it also wants to maintain as much flexibility as possible – because all of its options in Ukraine are starting to look equally bad.
These latest developments are a nail in the coffin for the unsteady ceasefire brokered on 5 September as part of the Minsk Protocol.
The leadership in both Kyiv and Donetsk is becoming more polarised, and hopes for compromise are diminishing. Poroshenko threatened to withdraw the special status for Donetsk and Lugansk that was granted in the wake of the Minsk Protocol agreement, if the separatist leadership carried on with its elections. The threat was brushed off, with the separatists saying the special status made little difference anyway. But the new, pro-Western parliament elected on 26 October makes it more than likely that Kyiv will withdraw the regions’ special status, which will complicate plans for decentralisation.
These latest developments are a nail in the coffin for the unsteady ceasefire brokered on 5 September as part of the Minsk Protocol. Sporadic clashes continued during the ceasefire, but last week, fighting intensified in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. Heavy artillery and a large number of military vehicles were spotted in and around Donetsk, amid reports that Russia was once again massing troops and materiel on the Ukrainian border. Moscow has denied allegations it has boots on the ground in Ukraine. But given the growing pressure and the increasing difficulty of reaching a compromise, Russia looks likely to be blamed for a continuing conflict regardless of its actions.
Russia has no way of cleanly exiting the conflict that it helped to fuel, while at the same time avoiding what would be perceived as defeat back home. If it lends further support to the rebels, it could face more crippling sanctions, and if it abandons the idea of Novorossiya entirely, it could be confronted with a domestic backlash. All of this makes negotiations harder for Russia: with the situation out of its control, it has little leverage to use to gain a solution that would be to its advantage. And if it has little to lose, deeper involvement will become more tempting.
Anna Arutunyan is a Moscow-based writer and journalist, formerly of @themoscownews. She is the author of The Putin Mystique and has contributed two fiction pieces to ECFR’s recent publication “Russia’s Pivot to Eurasia”.