The elections in the two self-proclaimed republics in eastern Ukraine on November 2 resulted in the victory of Aleksandr Zakharchenko in Donetsk and Igor Plotnitsky in Lugansk. The outcome was never in doubt, since the two leaders faced less prominent candidates whose programs were also based on the demand for complete independence from Kiev. In reality it was a plebiscite.
I was invited to Donbas by the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) authorities a month ago to monitor the election as part of a team of 38 observers from 21 countries, and readily accepted the invitation. In my view it was highly desirable to have some elected authorities in place which could be Kiev’s negotiating partners, if and when the Ukrainian government realizes that a political problem demands a political rather than military solution.
Traveling through “Novorossiya” entails passing through numerous checkpoints, but life away from the ceasefire lines has the appearance of normalcy. Steel works have not ceased operating, and the theater in Donetsk advertises numerous winter season performances. The overall impression after visiting six polling stations is that the people were eager to vote. They were prepared to stand in long lines in order to do so, notably so in Novoazovsk, 80 miles south of Donetsk. The atmosphere was relaxed, even though the shaky ceasefire lines were only ten miles to the west. There were Cossack veterans; there was music, ranging from old Soviet estrada to a women’s choir in traditional dress performing Russian folk songs, to the delight of little girls and their grandmothers. In Telmanovo, 40 miles south of Donetsk, hundreds of people turned out to greet our team of foreign observers.
You cannot force people to act in this manner: the claim that this was a vote “under the barrel of the gun” is simply untrue, although there were armed guards at most precincts. These simple folks, mostly miners and farmers, are adamant that they have no future under the current Kiev authorities. They say that nobody here thought of secession until the “putchist” regime came to power last February – not even under the nationalist “Orange” government which came to power a decade ago. Months of indiscriminate shelling of the civilian areas by Ukraine’s armed forces, which is continuing on a daily basis, has hardened the sentiment beyond the point of no return.
The voting rolls were based on the Verkhovna Rada elections two years ago, we were told by exit pollsters, and they were supplemented in recent weeks with the names of new voters who have of age in the meantime. The refugees from the region who are now in Russia, estimated at over half a million, were able to cast absentee ballots at three locations there. Overall, the process appeared to be as democratically valid as could be expected under the extraordinary security circumstances: democratic process as commonly understood in the West is impossible in a war zone. It was essentially legitimate, however – quite apart from the uncertain legality of the exercise, which the Western powers and the Kiev regime strongly dispute. Considering the fact that the government in Kiev itself came to power in a coup d’etat last February 22, in reality both sides in this conflict have revolutionary rather than constitutional credentials.
While Washington, the European Union and Ukraine deny the validity of the election, it has nevertheless created a new reality on the ground. Russia accepts its outcome and it is to be expected that the Kremlin will now gradually withdraw from the negotiating process and urge the Kiev authorities to talk to the newly elected leaders in Donetsk and Lugansk. That would be a bitter pill to swallow for President Poroshenko and his team. In view of the long, cold winter on the horizon and Ukraine’s ongoing financial and economic collapse, however, they may heed the dictate of expediency. After all, as some observers note, the government of Ukraine has already attached its signature to the Minsk ceasefire agreement in September, which was also signed by Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky.
The alternative to a political settlement, based on Kiev’s acceptance of some form of loose federal arrangement, is not Ukraine’s renewed military offensive: it would probably collapse like the one in August, and Russia is said to have supplied the “Novorussian Armed Forces” with all the hardware they need (manpower is not a problem). It is the creation of yet another post-Soviet frozen conflict, which would not be in the interest of either side. As it happens, it is also the most likely medium-term outcome.