The Other Ukraine Votes

Close on the heels of a parliamentary election that handed a decisive victory to pro-Europe parties, separatist rebels held elections of their own this weekend in the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk:

Election organizers declared that rebel leaders Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky won sizable majorities in Donetsk and Luhansk respectively, reports Radio Free Europe. Both men have led rebel groups in the fight against the Ukrainian government in Kiev. But the elections have been controversial from the start, with Kiev and Western powers calling them a violation of a peace agreement drawn up in Minsk, Belarus, in early September. Under the Minsk agreement, Kiev would enact legislation that would grant Donetsk and Luhansk considerable autonomy, but under the auspices of Ukrainian law. Sunday’s elections do not comply with Ukrainian law, Kiev argues, and are therefore illegal.

Russia, predictably, endorsed the elections as legitimate today. Bershidsky notes just what a farce they were:

In Donetsk and Luhansk, people bring submachine guns to restaurants and polling stations alike. Since the rebels did not have access to electoral rolls, it was laughably easy to register as a voter. One woman apparently filled in the requisite questionnaires for a cow, putting down “Ear Tag MOO-123321, issued on 01.01.1998 by shepherd Semyon Ivanovich,” as identifying document, and received a number allowing her to cast a vote online. When the OSCE refused to observe the elections, a group calling itself the Association (or Agency, to hear its different members talk) for Security and Cooperation in Europe popped up conveniently and gave a press conference in Donetsk, praising the votes. The delegation consisted of far-right politicians from Austria, Belgium, Italy, France and several eastern European nations, as well as two Greek Stalinists.

But Linda Kinstler isn’t laughing:

The rebels, of course, claim that the elections were entirely legal under the provisions of the Minsk agreement. “It was said there [in the Minsk protocol] that we have the right to hold our own elections. The date was not specified,” Zakharchenko said on Sunday, RIA Novosti reports. It is abundantly evident that the Ukrainians had no plan for how exactly “early local elections in accordance with the Law of Ukraine” could possibly be held in rebel territory, just like it is also painfully clear that the government has no plan for how that territory will ever be re-integrated into the rest of the country.

Glenn Kates worries that the vote will embolden the separatists to escalate their conflict with Kiev:

Large swaths of separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine both blame Kyiv for the violence and hope their votes will bring stability to the region. But for the self-proclaimed separatist leadership and their backers in Moscow these two thoughts may paradoxically be a signal to continue fighting. Ukraine is unlikely to restore pension payments or energy provisions, which were cut off in the summer. Meanwhile, separatists will now have to back up the claims that they can govern without Kyiv by providing some of the resources that have been so sorely lacking. If claiming territories is seen as a way to do so and they believe any violence will be blamed on Kyiv, fighting, in a purely political sense, may not have a downside.

Sebastian Smith weighs Kiev’s options for dealing with the separatists at this point. As he sees it, the government can either choose to write off the breakaway regions and let them be Russia’s problem, or wage a costly war to restore control over them. Neither option is terribly palatable to Ukrainians:

Not many Ukrainians are ready for all-out war, says Glib Vyshlinsky, deputy director of GfK Ukraine marketing company in Kiev. “If you’re talking about fighting, with thousands of casualties being lost in order to win back these regions, then there is not support. Ukrainians are not such an imperial people as Russians and consensus will be against this,” he said. …

A GfK poll in September showed that 31 percent support a “bad peace,” including giving up some territory to Russia. Fifty four percent were for fighting on. One concrete sign that Ukraine’s government is preparing to sever at least some ties with the east is the suggestion from top ranking officials in recent days that gas supplies may be ended to rebel territories — which would turn to Russia for help. “Those announcements are trial balloons to test Russia,” said Taras Berezovets, head of Berta Communications in Kiev. “Russia doesn’t want to have to pay for Donbass.”