Written by Nikolaus von Twickel
The signing of the “Steinmeier Formula” did not result in a change of tone in the separatists’ statements versus Ukraine. Their leaders adamantly rejected President Zelenskiy’s conditions and insisted on self-determination. It was not immediately clear if a signal from Russian President Putin to tone down aggression towards Ukraine in Russian media would affect them. Meanwhile, both “People’s Republics” began their first census since 2014 and a former “DNR” leader suddenly surfaced as a city official in Russia, prompting protests from local activists.
Separatists step up demands after “Steinmeier Formula”
The signing of the so-called Steinmeier Formula by all parties at the Minsk Contact Group talks on 1 October was met with triumph and defiance from separatist leaders, who claimed that it confirms their right for self-determination and rejected President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s condition to give Ukraine control of the border with Russia.
The “Steinmeier Formula” is a compromise on when exactly political autonomy (“special status”) goes into force in the “Certain Areas” of the Donetsk and Luhansk Regions, as stipulated in the Minsk Agreement. According to the Formula, whose final text was published on Facebook by Ukrainian delegation spokeswoman Daria Olifer, the status begins preliminarily on the eve of local elections and becomes permanent only after OSCE election observers approve the vote.
Its signing represents a breakthrough because it is the first significant progress on the political part of the Minsk Agreement of 2014/15. Negotiations about the “Steinmeier Formula” had been ongoing for three years without success.
In Kyiv, where granting the separatists “special status” inside Ukraine is widely seen as a sellout to Russia, some 10,000 protested against the Formula on 6 October. However, there were no reports of any public reaction inside the “People’s Republics”, whose leaders have long championed integration with Russia and demonize Ukraine.
Pushilin and Pasechnik reject giving Ukraine control over border with Russia
In a rare joint declaration, Donetsk and Luhansk separatist leaders Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik argued that by signing the Formula, Ukraine “recognized the special right of the people of Donbass to determine their fate themselves”. The two added that they would decide themselves “which language we speak, how we run our economy, how we form our judiciary, how our people’s militia will protect our citizens and how we will integrate with Russia”.
While this sounds difficult to reconcile with the Agreement’s aim of reintegration with Ukraine, these points are contained in the footnotes to paragraph 11 of the Minsk “Package of Measures”, which circumscribes the special status Ukraine should grant via constitutional amendment.
Zelenskiy made it clear in two addresses after the 1 October signing that he wants foreign (Russian) troops out and control of the border with Russia – i.e. Ukrainian control of the “People’s Republics” before the elections – so that these can be held under Ukrainian law, by Kyiv election commission staff and with the participation of Ukrainian politicians. The Ukrainian President added that he wants parliament to pass a new special status law to be passed after the end of 2019, when the original law of September 2014 expires.
The Pushilin-Pasechnik declaration outrightly rejects this, saying that Mr Zelenskiy should not dictate conditions and that the separatists will decide when to hold the elections themselves. “There is no way that Kyiv will get control of the border,” the declaration says. The separatist leaders also demand that any changes to the special status law must be agreed with them, as stipulated by the Minsk “Package of Measures”.
Most western experts agree that democratic elections are not possible with the current regimes in the “People’s Republics”, as shown in a recent survey for the ukraineverstehen.de website (German). They argue that for a proper vote, Russia would have to hand over control to Ukraine well in advance.
Ukraine dropped demand for full disengagement
Signing the Steinmeier Formula was also a key demand by Russia for agreeing to a new summit in the Normandy Format, which includes Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany, and has not convened since 2016. The Zelenskiy administration has signaled that it wants such a summit to happen soon. The 1 October Minsk Contact Group meeting also agreed on the other conditions set by Russia for such a summit, namely the implementation of the Disengagement Agreement in two further locations – Zolote and Petrivske. That Agreement, signed in 2016, stipulates the withdrawal of military forces from the Line of Contact (frontline).
Ukraine on 7 October cancelled a planned beginning of the withdrawal because no seven-day ceasefire has held beforehand. The postponement came among protests from activists who warned that civilians in Zolote will be left vulnerable to separatist attacks. MPs from Zelenskiy’s Sluha Naroda party denied this and stressed that police would patroul in the frontline settlements. However, activists from the nationalist Azov group on October 9 vowed to prevent a military withdrawal in Zolote.
The Luhansk separatists accused Kyiv of actively sabotaging the Disengagement Agreement.
Disengagement began in June in Stanytsia Luhanska, allowing repairs of a badly damaged bridge there, the only crossing point in the entire Luhansk region. Zelenskiy’s spokeswoman Iuliia Mendel said on 5 October that the repairs are expected to be finished on 15 November.
Ukraine seemingly dropped its demand to implement disengagement along the whole Contact Line, which it made during the last Contact Group talks on 18 September (see Newsletter 59).
At the Normandy Format summit, a date for which has not been set, leaders are expected to adopt a joint declaration, which is currently being drafted. According to a Russian media report, the text does not touch upon Ukraine’s demand for control of the border with Russia nor on an international peacekeeping mission, which has been proposed to provide security during the elections.
Putin sends signal to Russian media
Despite the fact that a real political solution remains a vague possibility, Ukrainian law enforcement officials were already looking at scenarios for a power handover. During a roundtable in Mariupol on 4 October, members of the police, military and the security service SBU discussed how to hold elections after “deoccupation”, the regional branch of the Interior Ministry said. Some 800 police officers have been trained in the Donetsk region alone to work in the region’s currently non-controlled areas.
And in a first sign of real rapprochement from the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested on 4 October that Russian Television should tone down its criticism of Ukraine. Speaking at the annual Valdai Conference for Russia experts, Putin argued that the Ukrainians were “a brotherly people” and that it was sufficient to criticize their current government.
However, there were no immediate signs of a policy change, neither in Russia nor in the “People’s Republics”. In Donetsk, Separatist leader Pushilin on 5 October presided over the oath-taking of 225 police academy graduates, who swore allegiance to the Donetsk “People’s Republic”, something that hardly squares with reintegration.
Separatists begin censuses, activists warn of seizures
Pushilin was notably absent from public view when both “People’s Republics” began their first census on 1 October, while his Luhansk colleague Pasechnik appeared on camera with a census enumerator (albeit without his wife). Official media in both “DNR” and “LNR” accompanied the censuses with propaganda campaigns, calling on people to take part in order to help authorities plan and implement policies more accurately.
Ukrainian activists warned that the census could help the separatists to seize property from locals who fled their homes. Vera Iastrebova, the head of the Eastern Human Rights Group, said in an interview with Hromadske Radio that questionnaires asked for information about relatives living outside the “republics” and that this might be used to confiscate their property and even to arrest people. The Eastern Human Rights Group said on 27 September that there have been more than 300 instances of property seizures in the People’s Republics” since the beginning of 2019.
Both “republics” announced the census independently and made no reference to each other, making it likely that the counts are being coordinated from outside, i.e. Russia (see Newsletter 61). Donetsk and Luhansk also seemingly made more attempts to move closer to each other. On 30 September, the “LNR” and “DNR” Emergency “Ministers” and speakers of both “Youth Parliaments” signed a cooperation agreement in Donetsk. The Public Chambers from Luhansk and Donetsk made a similar move in late August.
Apart from such symbolic gestures, the “republics” have shown little enthusiasm for joint projects. A grand “cross-border” railway company that was set up earlier this year has been mentioned only in passing by official media so far (see Newsletter 63).
Tapeznikov defies protests in Kalmykian capital
Meanwhile, Dmitry Trapeznikov, the almost forgotten deputy of slain Donetsk separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko, suddenly popped up in the Russian region of Kalmykia, where he was installed as head of the administration of the capital city Elista.
Trapeznikov served for one week as “DNR” leader after Zakharchenko was killed in a bomb explosion on 31 August 2018. He dutifully resigned on 7 September that year, when the Kremlin backed Pushilin as new separatist leader. A relatively shy administrator who played the guitar and served as Zakharchenko’s deputy as head of the “cabinet of ministers”, Trapeznikov had not been seen or heard in public afterwards.
Suspicion that his sudden appointment in Elista was a reward for his loyalty was indirectly confirmed when Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s point man for the Donbass “republics”, publicly congratulated Trapeznikov, adding that he was proud “that our Donetsk cadres are in demand”.
Buddhists pray to evict “evil DNR spirit”
However, not all local elites in Kalmykia, a Mongolic-speaking Buddhist republic bordering the Caspian Sea, approved of Trapeznikov’s job and a few hundred protesters demanded his ouster during demonstrations in central Elista the following days. Participants said that they wanted to evict the “evil DNR spirit” by reciting Buddhist prayers. Kalmyk opposition activist Valery Badmayev accused Trapeznikov of being “a criminal from the self-declared republic DNR who is serving Putin and whom we do not need,” the Eurasiadaily news site reported.
The protests against Trapeznikov were also carried by the semi-official local RIA Kalmykia news site and otherwise loyal Russian media like lenta.ru, signaling that not everybody in the Kremlin backed Trapeznikov’s appointment. However, the protesters’ initial deadline 1 October passed without any signs that Trapeznikov was giving up. He told a press conference on that day that he would seek a constructive dialogue with his critics.
Another former “DNR” official, Larisa Polyakova, who served as education “Minister” until being sacked by separatist leader Zakharchenko in March 2018, surfaced in northern Russia in September, where she heads a university in the Arctic mining city of Vorkuta.