Donbas cannot have free and fair elections in the foreseeable future; there is no framework for this, says Dr Natalia Mirimanova, international consultant, and director of Eurasia Peace Initiative, one of the biggest conflict resolution experts in the post-Soviet countries. According to her, people in Donbas are not all pro-Russian and their receiving Russian passports both in Donbas and Crimea is not necessarily a political, but a pragmatic act. The expert thinks that Ukraine’s decision to prepare a strategy for de-occupation and reintegration of Crimea is right, but it won’t resolve the most important issue around the peninsula – geopolitical and military standoff between Russia and NATO.

The Ukrainian side says that local elections in non-government-controlled areas of Donbas can take place only after the full de-escalation of the conflict. The elections are planned for October. Do you think it is feasible to hold them? 

Of course not. I seriously doubt that any elections, any activities of that sort would be possible in Ukraine, first and foremost due to the COVID epidemy uncertainty. We have sadly two examples at least – one was in France with municipal elections and the second one was with this pseudo constitutional vote in Russia. And in both cases, these decisions were criticised not least because of the likelihood of the spike of coronavirus infection. So, even setting aside the political considerations, I don’t think that from an epidemiological point of view it makes any sense.

Nevertheless, the issue of elections, some kind of elections some time, is still there. I pay particular attention to a possibility for internally displaced persons to vote in the local Ukrainian elections. I think this was a major change from the previous policy, where all these people could vote in presidential elections, but not in the local elections where they actually came to settle. In my view, this was not a very smart strategy because these people are pro-Ukrainian, people that voted with their feet, many who literally walked to the government-controlled areas. So, it is a positive sign that they can vote in the elections. This way a part of the NGCA population (non-governmental-controlled areas – ed.) is represented in the all Ukrainian vote.

If we talk about the elections on the other side, I doubt it would be possible in the foreseeable future to have elections up to the standards there. First, people there might not risk voting the way they want – this is one obstacle. This concerns both, pro-Ukrainian and anti-Ukrainian voters. Second, no matter how they vote, the outcome would be manufactured if it is not controlled by international observers, by the media, if there is no proper electoral campaign by all candidates, if local opponents of the current authorities cannot openly compete with those who are close to the current authorities, internally displaced persons or other candidates from the governmental-controlled areas cannot campaign remotely. So, basically we do not have a framework there that allows for free and fair elections. It is a big question. Where do you start in this type of a situation? I do not have a readymade answer to that because it is like a chicken and an egg puzzle. On the one hand, you need to start with some kind of a public vote, if we talk about democracy and democratic procedures of re-integration, if it is still on the agenda, right? Relationships between the Ukrainian state and the population in the NGCAs is separate from the relations with Russia. If people are to re-integrate or re-enter the democratic Ukrainian political space, it should be done by democratic means, as is the norm in the rest of Ukraine. So, if somehow mysteriously these conditions could be fulfilled, that would be perfect or the best way to proceed. But we do not have these conditions.

So, are there alternatives to free and fair elections in the NGCAs? One option is to go ahead with semi-democratic or non-democratic elections in terms of representation, access to vote, transparency, etc, and then build policies based on the results of such elections. Another option would be to wait, not to sit and wait, but to give it more time, till some conditions for free campaigning and voting are created. If we are talking about a clear procedure of democratic local elections, their prospects should be assessed on the basis of thorough analysis and not on the basis of ideology or political expediency. When I design mediation and/or dialogue or peace processes in the conflict situations, I always try, as much as I can, to base my suggestions on the empirical analysis to the extent possible. According to my studies, public opinion in the non-controlled parts is divided. I cannot tell you statistically because it is impossible to do a survey, a representative survey on that side. But based on 100+ interviews with politically and ideologically different clusters of that society I can tell you that the division is close to fifty-fifty.

You mean pro-Russian vs pro-Ukrainian mood?

Among the general population, there is no such thing as a clear pro-Russian mood. It is a very interesting combination. I would say many people, over 50% definitely, are for re-integration in Ukraine. With different conditions – this can be discussed, but they view themselves as Ukrainians, and they view themselves as being artificially separated from the rest of Ukraine. This does not mean that they support Poroshenko or Zelensky or they are in agreement with this or that political course, policies of Ukraine. In terms of identity, in terms of belonging, in terms of where they are, who they are – they definitely see themselves as part of Ukraine. Another part is people who are very-very-very bitter about Ukraine’s course of action and, in particular, the military course of action. And these people see Ukraine as having sent its troops against civilians. They may still feel Ukrainian, but the war has averted them away from Ukraine. Because of that, they see an option of joining Russia as the only way available to them. I would like to underline that my findings, without generalising them, indicate that this pro-Russian choice is mostly pragmatic. These people do not feel they belong to Ukraine. They feel rejected, and Russia is the most practical alternative to statelessness. So in my view, it is not fair to say that these people are all pro-Russian. That is not true, not at all. When I ask whether they would you like to integrate into Ukraine or Russia, many say – what do you mean? We live in Ukraine. We need to understand that people in the NGCAs may have diverse views on what Ukraine should be internally, on where Ukraine should be geopolitically, what kind of policies should exist in Ukraine, which in my view is normal in any democratic society. Had there been free and fair elections or a referendum vote on that territory I think that the outcome would not have been definitely pro-Russian. No, not at all.

You mentioned anti-Ukrainian mood as well. Do you think that these people have a strong influence from Russian propaganda? 

No, I don’t think so. Russian propaganda works to those who are completely delusional and don’t see what’s happening around them. The places there are small, and basically, everyone knows someone who was killed or who was wounded, died at the crossing or became homeless. Their resentment towards Ukraine is not ungrounded. Civilians there lived through war, they spent time in the basements-turned shelters with newborn children and experienced horrible things. Of course, they probably cannot clearly distinguish between the Ukrainian or Russian drones or bombs, but the situation of war is not something that they learnt from TV. It was their daily life. Now the war is not over, and civilians are a target. Of course, there is also a question of how people analyse this situation, make sense of it and what they think about who is guilty. And here, certainly, the Russian media framing of events makes people connect their personal experience with a particular analysis. Russian TV is very active in that.

However, according to the people I know from that side, less and less people watch TV news. And it is the same as in Russia, by the way. It is an illusion that every single person sits there before a TV set and watches the First channel. People do have alternative sources of information. People know that “everyone lies,” so they don’t believe either Russian or Ukrainian channels, but use other sources, the Internet, personal stories. They cross-check even. So, TV is increasingly less influential there as everywhere. That’s why I kept always saying that Ukraine does have entry points. Ukraine does have windows of opportunity to engage with these people, change its rhetoric, explain itself better, express condolences to the civilian victims there. This is something that I think is extremely important because the state bears responsibility for its citizens regardless of who they are and what they think.

For example, I can tell you that in December – early January I did a survey in the non-government controlled areas and people felt quite hopeful about Zelensky. They indeed expected him to turn to them, amend policies, use different words. And some even said that when he came to Stanytsia Luhanska to see the repaired bridge, he could have crossed to the other side. People would have spoken to him. So for me, it was an indication that people did not give up on Ukraine.

What about now? Do these people still believe in Zelensky? 

Now, I don’t know. Because of the situation, I could not travel; I could not do any research. It is really hard to say. But I know that the escalation of military hostilities – I am not a military observer and I cannot say who fired first – that led to new civilian victims in the “grey zone” was met with an outcry. The chaotic inhumane situation at the crossings due to COVID was also quite disappointing for the population. A minimal technical cooperation to let people go home could not be implemented. Some important opportunities there were missed. The “window of opportunity” is closing.

I would like to emphasise that people there do follow what is happening in Ukraine proper. People there still do wait for some kind of a change, and they saw Zelensky as someone who would be able to turn the course of events. Some other politicians like Medvedchuk and similar, they are being mentioned, but I think that people still look at the president – the main person, the main guy in power. That’s why expectations from Zelensky were much higher than expectations from Medvedchuk, for instance.

Public opinion there is changing, it is not fixed. I would like to repeat that this means that the situation is not hopeless and with the right strategy change of opinion there is possible.

Compulsory passportization in Crimea and Donbas: what can we say about it in terms of human rights? What do human rights defenders say about that? 

I said somewhere in an interview that giving passports or giving citizenship is a political act on behalf of the state that does so, while it is a pragmatic act on behalf of those who receive the passports. People in Crimea and in non-controlled Donbas were left to their own devices, many of them could not cross to Ukraine proper to get their Ukrainian passports. Some were public servants that changed their allegiance, others did not have the means to travel yet. Others were children at the time. In Crimea it is impossible, it is literally impossible, to live with a Ukrainian passport. People get deprived of all their rights, altogether, as a result. They become non-residents.

Do they have to leave Crimea if they refuse to get Russian passports?

Legally speaking, they don’t. In every country in the world, there are non-residents, so you can live in almost any country without being a citizen. However, people can be forced out under political or economic pressure. And we know that happens. But on legal grounds even Russia cannot evict them because they have Ukrainian passports, they should go through a procedure of registering as a non-resident. However, from the practical point of view, this entails enormous problems.

Politically, they become a target straight away, and we have seen that. You know, people being prosecuted for their political views, and their Ukrainian passport was part of the pretext. In practical terms, it is impossible to function there without a Russian passport. Medical help, pensions, school, and other issues cannot be resolved otherwise. So, there is an array of pragmatic considerations that essentially convinced the overwhelming majority of Crimeans, irrespective of their political views, to take Russian passports. In Donbas the situation is not as harsh and people do live with their Ukrainian passports. People cross regularly. The majority hold Ukrainian passports. But we cannot blame people for taking Russian passports there because they can get a Russian pension and, given a desperate economic situation, they don’t have many options.

Knowing also other cases in other places, I say that taking someone’s passport is not necessarily a political act. I would even say that it is not a political act, it is a pragmatic act. Normally, the more passports you hold, the better you are. It is some kind of common sense. Look at the UK citizens looking for opportunities to obtain a EU country citizenship as Brexit was happening. Sadly, some passports are very much politically loaded, but from a practical point of view, holding several passports is not necessarily illegal. In Ukraine it is not legal. People cannot hold dual citizenship, so it is a question of how Ukraine will be dealing with the situation and whether it will treat them like a special case. But for the time being, I would not worry that much about Russian passports that Ukrainians hold in those territories. It is not necessarily an act of their abdication of their Ukrainianness.

The Ukrainian authorities are working on a strategy for de-occupation and reintegration of Crimea. Do you think it is a realistic goal? 

It is necessary because it is a matter of a statehood, and every state would have done the same. It does not mean that this can happen tomorrow or in 100 years. No one can tell whether it is possible in this respect. But not doing that is not an option, I would say. It is a matter of sovereignty in the end. So it is absolutely ok, it is right that this strategy exists. However, Crimea is a particular case simply because the annexation of Crimea did not happen as a result of a conflict between Russia and Ukraine or Ukraine and Crimean separatists. Crimea is part of the rivalry between Russia and NATO, and not that much between Russia and Ukraine. So, it has nothing to do with the protection of the Russian-speaking population. It has nothing to do with any kind of humanitarian matters. It is a very clear geopolitical attack on behalf of Russia, a pre-emptive attack in the face of the existential threat as Russia likes to see it. In this sense, it is different from Donbas. Donbas does not have any strategic geopolitical value for Russia or economic value. It is a burden. For Russia, it is a matter of exerting its influence onto Ukraine.

In the case of Crimea, in my view, a primary consideration of Putin’s Russia was its military and geopolitical rivalry with NATO. That’s the only reason. All the rest is like a salad to the main course. So that’s why the issue of Crimea cannot be decided only by the strategy of re-integration. The issue of Crimea is a big international and geopolitical issue. And that’s why in this case the position and the behaviour of the European states, of Turkey and others is extremely important. But there are no moves to open the Crimea file because collectively, as a world, we are in the worst place ever, and no one is ready to start this discussion. This strategy is important, but in the case of Crimea it is to the minimal extent a question of relationship between Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking parts of the society – these are all issues that can be resolved. There is a major geopolitical and military component that cannot be resolved with this type of strategy.


Natalia Mirimanova is a conflict resolution scholar-practitioner. She has more than 25 years of mediation, research, dialogue and peace process design, peacebuilding initiatives and advocacy experience in Russia, South Caucasus, Central Asia, Moldova, Ukraine, Western Balkans, Eastern Europe and Cyprus. Natalia received her PhD from the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University, USA. Natalia served as a consultant for various international, national and local organisations, including the UN mission in Cyprus and Tajikistan, UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA), UNDP Eurasia Regional Hub, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and Conflict Prevention Centre, EU, Aga Khan Foundation, SIPRI, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and others.

Natalia carried out numerous research projects, such as on the prospects for trade regulation across contested boundaries and ‘peace dividend’ of re-opening railways in the South Caucasus, assessed political economy in the war zone in Eastern Ukraine, pursued policy research on the role of the European Union in building peace in the Eastern and Southern Neighborhood and in peace mediation globally.

She is the founder and director of the Eurasia Peace Initiative.

Interview by Natalia Richardson

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