On Saturday February 15, Ukrainian President Zelensky reiterated his pledge to end the conflict in the Donbas during his tenure, in a speech that contrasts with his predecessor. President Zelensky’s priority has shifted towards the “mental return of Donbas and Crimea” an expression he coined to characterise his new policy.
A new storyline:
Former President Poroshenko repeated ad nauseam that Ukraine was containing a Russian invasion of Europe. Years of counter-productive rhetoric contributed to a standstill in the negotiations and reinforced the quasi-independent status of the self-proclaimed republics of Luhansk and Donetsk (LNR and DNR) whose reliance on Russia only increased, as Petro Poroshenko isolated them further.
In April 2018, authorities in Kyiv renamed the anti-terrorist operation in the Donbas region, calling it an operation to deter Russian aggression. Designating Russia as an aggressor state barely altered Russian position and its relation with Ukraine, yet the most important consequence of rewording the operation in the Donbas is the indirect acknowledgement that LNR and DNR authorities are not terrorists. As a matter of fact, the LNR and DNR have never been listed on any list of terrorist organisations, be it in Ukraine, Europe or the United States.
Already in April 2018, the peace organisation based in the Netherlands, Pax highlighted the opportunity of the Donbas Reintegration Bill as a way “to direct the process of conflict resolution in Ukraine towards peace-building instead of further escalation of violence.” This assumption was somehow ascertained by a July 2019 poll conducted by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation. According to this poll, only 17% of Ukrainians support establishing peace in the Donbas by means of force, and 49% believes that some compromises should be made for the sake of peace. The door was opened for President Zelensky.
A change of characters
President Zelensky opted for an approach that radically contrasts with his predecessor who abused of his anti-russian stance to hide the lack of socio-economic improvement in Ukraine. The May 2019 presidential election, followed by parliamentarian elections constituted a reminder of the root causes that drove Ukrainians to revolt several times since 2004, namely the thirst for functional institutions. A recent NDI study confirms that:“Ukrainians remain united in the desire that their country becomes a fully functioning democracy.“
During the election campaign, Volodymir Zelensky promised to resolve the conflict, understanding that there is no development without peace. Consequently, authorities engaged in an epistemological change readjusting state priorities by first winning back the Donbas. After years of war, it is obviously taking colossal efforts to overcome doubts and reticence, as some hardliners still constitute potential spoilers towards reconciliation. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the population, including in the security forces and voluntary battalions are inclined to explore new options, as their daily problems are now listened to. For example, turning words into practice, new authorities decided to extend the provision of public services to Ukrainians living in the Donbas and Crimea. Equally, the Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs, Temporarily Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons provides aid to those who have fought and those who are suffering from the conflict.
In October, the Cabinet of Ministers decided to recognize birth certificates issued by the self-proclaimed authorities in the Donbas. Such symbolic inclusive gesture is a statement to welcome back its newborn citizens, granting them basic rights under Ukrainian Law. According to a September report, UNICEF estimates that 750 schools were damaged, affecting the education of 700’000 children since 2014. Therefore, new authorities pay special attention to education, understanding that the young generation is central in building peace.
At the end of October, the city of Mariupol hosted a Unity Forum, attended by the highest instances of the country. Participants, including diplomats from the US and UK openly discussed unity and reconciliation. Interestingly, an entire session was devoted to transitional justice and basic principles for post-conflict settlement. Authorities are resolutely engaged in efforts to reducing human rights violation and restoring the rule of law all over Ukraine. All of this does not go unnoticed; the UN human rights watchdog, the UNOHCHR welcomed the positive changes in the country in its latest report, and endorsed governmental support towards transitional justice.
Today, transitional justice is increasingly debated tanks to the top-down policy to engage in a unity dialogue. Professor Senatorova, member of the Legal Reform Commission under the President of Ukraine, has recently launched a Centre for International Humanitarian Law and Transitional Justice. According to her: “It is today, and not after the conflict is over, that we have to formulate our vision for tomorrow. People living in the occupied territories and all those who suffered because of this war should get clear answers on post-conflict rebuilding and transitional justice measures. Unfortunately, mistrust remains high due to the presence of proxy elements, mistakes made by Ukrainian authorities, but also due to the lack of expertise in formulating clear social, legal and humanitarian response. The task of the experts working in the Centre for International Humanitarian Law and Transitional Justice is to build such expertise and overcome hindrances towards peace and reconciliation. We stand for the elimination of discrimination of the people living in the occupied territories, IDPs and all those, who became the victims of this conflict. Our objective is also to create mechanisms for establishing the responsibility of both sides for crimes committed since 2014. Among these mechanisms we advocate for a truth commission. People on both sides have suffered enough, and they deserve to get reparations, satisfaction, transparency and peace.”
Prior to the 2019 elections, the international community was perplexed about Ukraine’s lack of reform and the general stagnation. Recently, the EU has praised the implementation of reforms and the fight against anti-corruption. In a virtuous circle, Ukraine and Russia settled their gas dispute, agreed on gas transit, prisoners are exchanged and talks under the Normandy format have resumed. At the Munich Conference, President Zelensky voiced his intention to organise elections across Ukraine, including in the Donbas. Surely, no major breakthrough or peace deal is to be expected in the near future because trust, pardon and justice will take time. Yet, as authorities understand that there is no violent resolution to the situation in the Donbas, they are focusing on the solution rather than the problems.
“If in five years, we will end the war, bring our people back, then I did (became president) for a reason”, concluded the President Zelensky at the Munich Security Conference.