Europe

Ukraine conflict: Can election deal in east finally bring peace?

Ukrainian soldiers fire on pro-Russian separatists in the eastern town of Avdiivka. Photo: 31 March 2017 Image copyright AFP/Getty Images
Image caption At least 13,000 people have been killed since the conflict in Ukraine's east broke out in 2014

Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has backed in principle an agreement to bring elections to the territories controlled by Russian-backed separatists in the east.

It is hoped that the deal will eventually lead to peace in the Donbas region devastated by more than five years of fighting.

But thousands of Ukrainian nationalists have held protests, describing the agreement as a "capitulation" to Russia.

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After triumphing in Ukraine's presidential election in April, Mr Zelensky said his main goal was to bring peace.

On 1 October, Ukraine, Russia and the separatists agreed in principle to hold local elections in the separatist-held east and then - if the poll is seen as free - Ukraine would grant special status to the region.

Image copyright AFP/Getty Images
Image caption President Zelensky faces some tough choices over the Donbas

But Ukrainian nationalists say the deal allows the elections before Russian-backed forces have pulled out, and before Kiev has control of the border with Russia.

They say Mr Zelensky must ditch the deal which they condemn as "capitulation".

An imminent breakthrough is considered unlikely.

President Zelensky has said he is ready to talk even to "the devil" to bring peace to Ukraine.

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Media captionSurviving the chaos - and living with the memories

The deal he has agreed, known as the "Steinmeier formula", would grant special status to the separatist-held parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, collectively known as the Donbas.

The agreement aims to break the impasse over a 2015 peace deal (the Minsk agreements).

Proposed in 2016 by Germany's then-foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the plan details free and fair elections in the east under Ukrainian law, verification by the OSCE international security organisation, and then self-governing status in return.

Russian politicians described the signing of the deal in principle as a victory for Russian diplomacy.

This was Moscow's key pre-condition before a summit of the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany - known as the Normandy format - could be held.

But Ukrainian nationalists fear this could result in the legitimisation of the Russian occupation of the Donbas, with a vote before Russian-backed forces withdraw and before Kiev regains control of the 400km (249-mile) stretch of border with Russia.

They are unconvinced by Mr Zelensky's promise that such elections cannot be held "under the barrel of a gun".

There have been skirmishes between Ukrainian police and war veterans, who have been trying to prevent the troop pullout from two Ukrainian towns as agreed in the deal.

Russia's Vladimir Putin believes Ukraine's president is "unable to guarantee the pullout" so there is little chance of a leaders' summit any time soon.

The conflict in the east broke out in April 2014, a month after Russia annexed Ukraine's southern Crimea peninsula.

Moscow denies sending its regular troops to Donbas, but admits that "Russian volunteers" are fighting there.

At least 13,000 people have been killed and more than 1.5m people are internally displaced.

President Zelensky is still riding high in opinion polls in Ukraine, six months after he thrashed incumbent Petro Poroshenko with more than 73% of the vote.

Millions of Ukrainians wanted to get rid of what they saw as corrupt political elites, but they also put their faith in a 41-year-old comedian-turned-politician who offered a route to peace after more than five years of fighting.

His first weeks in office proved that he was certainly trying.

In June, Ukrainian troops and separatists withdrew a kilometre from the frontline town of Stanytsia Luhanska.

The following month, work began to restore the destroyed bridge in the town - a key crossing used every day by thousands of people on both sides of the line of separation.

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Media captionFreed Ukrainians meet families after months of separation

In September, a long-awaited delayed prisoner swap with Russia was finally completed.

And then on 1 October, Ukraine, Russia and the separatists agreed the deal to bring special status to the separatist-held parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk.

There have been different interpretations of the so-called Steinmeier formula by Moscow and Kiev, but Russian media have published what they said was the text of the deal for a vote in the east followed by self-governing status.

They say the plan envisages that:

  • The law on special status comes into force on the temporary basis at 20:00 local time on the day of elections
  • The law becomes permanent after the OSCE international security organisation verifies that the elections were free and fair, and in compliance with Ukrainian law.

Russian politicians described the signing of the deal in principle as a victory for Russian diplomacy.

"It is our serious success," Senator Aleksey Pushkov said.

The signing of the deal was Moscow's key pre-condition for a summit of the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany - known as the Normandy format.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Nationalists accused the president of capitulating to Russia, in a protest outside his office

But Ukrainian nationalists say the deal amounts to a surrender to Russia.

The nationalists are unconvinced by Mr Zelensky's promises to safeguard Ukraine's interests and not to cross his "red lines", set out in an urgent news briefing after the deal was signed:

  • There must be a full ceasefire before any elections are held in the east
  • Elections are impossible "under the barrel of a gun"
  • Candidates from Ukrainian political parties must be allowed to stand - not just pro-Russian parties
  • Ukraine must regain control over the stretch of its border with Russia

He has also demanded the return of all Ukrainian prisoners held in Russia.

Despite his guarantees, protests have been held across Ukraine, with Mr Zelensky's opponents arguing that implementation of the deal could result in the legitimisation of the Russian occupation of the Donbas.

On 9 October, shots were fired into the air and there were skirmishes between Ukrainian police and war veterans, who tried to prevent the troop pullout from two Ukrainian towns (Zolote and Petrivske) as agreed in the deal.

A destroyed house in Stanytsia Luhanska, eastern Ukraine. File photo
AFP/Getty Images
Conflict in east Ukraine

2014 - present

  • 13,000people killed

  • 40,000people wounded

  • 1,500,000internally displaced

Source: UN estimates

Former President Poroshenko is also damning of the deal, referring to it as "Putin's formula", arguing that Russian President Vladimir Putin is simply trying to interpret the deal in Moscow's favour.

Former Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin was also dubious about the chances of free and fair elections.

"Society will be demanding answers, and these answers should not be solving the issue of Donbas occupation at Ukraine's expense," he said.

One former Ukrainian negotiator warned it was a "path to war, not to peace", while rock singer Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, who leads the Voice party in Ukraine, called on the president to explain the concessions he was ready to make.

The BBC's Jonah Fisher in Kiev says it is hard to see how the proposed elections would be fairly contested, even if held under Ukrainian law.

Most people with strongly pro-Ukrainian views left the occupied areas long ago, and Mr Zelensky's critics in Ukraine warn that such a deal with the separatists and their Russian backers could amount to a capitulation.

Analysts believe a breakthrough in the coming days is unlikely. Despite pressure from France and Germany, the presidents of both Russia and Ukraine have indicated there is little hope of a summit in the immediate future.

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