With nod from Putin, Ukraine rebels defy peace deal with 'pseudo-election'

The elections, scheduled for Sunday, would deviate from a Sept. 5 peace deal between Ukrainian and Russian leaders. Experts say the elections will bring new uncertainty to an already fragile truce in eastern Ukraine. 

Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters
Roman Lyagin, head of the electoral commission of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, speaks during a news conference in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on Tuesday. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow would recognize Sunday's elections, which are organized by pro-Russian separatists but opposed by Kiev.

Just a week after the rest of Ukraine elected a new pro-European and anti-Moscow parliament, Russian-backed rebels in the east are holding their own elections on Sunday. 

But the eastern vote could jeopardize the fragile truce that's tamped down fighting in the war-torn region for almost two months, by deviating from the peace script written by Ukrainian and Russian leaders under the Sept. 5 Minsk accords. And, contrary to Western views of a rebel movement in sync with Russia, the vote injects another element of uncertainty into Moscow's relations with its erstwhile proxies. 

Under the Minsk deal, rebel elections were to have taken place under a Ukrainian law on "special status" for their territories signed by President Petro Poroshenko earlier this month. But the rebels have rejected that, saying they want nothing to do with Kiev and will press for full independence for their coal-mining and industrial region, known as Donbass, which abuts the border with Russia.

Mr. Poroshenko has slammed the upcoming vote as "pseudo-elections" that contradict the Minsk agreement and endanger the peace process. Western leaders have echoed this criticism and say they won't recognize the outcome. 

But Russian President Vladimir Putin told a group of foreign Russia-watchers at the annual Valdai conference last Friday that it's clear "nobody in the southeast wants to hold elections in line with Ukrainian law." He implied that the rebel populations prefer to select their own leaders before further peace talks.  

On Tuesday Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that "We hope the [rebel] elections to take place as agreed, and we will be sure to recognize their results." Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow business newspaper Kommersant, says the Russian position is going to further complicate Moscow's relations with Kiev and the West.

"Putin has become a hostage to the situation he created himself. Novorossiya [rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk] has become a factor of Russian domestic policy, and it is not politically possible to repudiate it," he says. "It's unfortunate, because Ukraine has a fresh government, one whose legitimacy Moscow cannot deny, and we should be seeking ways to normalize our ties with it. But instead we'll be squabbling over this."

Choosing representation

According to the rebel "central electoral commission," early voting is already underway by mail and Internet. Residents are voting to fill seats in the regional legislature as well as the top position in the Donetsk People's Republic, for which there are three candidates, including the "incumbent," Prime Minister Alexander Zakharchenko. The other breakaway territory, Luhansk, will be holding its own elections on Sunday.

Pro-Kremlin experts say the elections will produce local leaders with far more credibility than the unelected paramilitary men like Mr. Zakharchenko who have so far claimed to represent the rebel entities.

"Of course everyone in Kiev will say these elections just make everything more complicated, and nobody will recognize the results legally," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. "But, in fact, these new Donbass leaders will have more legitimacy. No longer will they be just guys with guns, but representatives of the people who elected them. Eventually, even in Kiev they'll have to give de facto recognition to them."

A new 'frozen conflict'?

Experts in Kiev say the appearance of rebel leaders claiming to be legally elected and recognized by Russia will only accelerate the transformation of Donbass into a new "frozen conflict." The former Soviet Union has left behind several other disputed territories, such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and the Transnistria Republic in Moldova.

Elections in the east could hobble Poroshenko's dealings with Russia. Last week his party polled narrowly behind that of Ukraine's militantly anti-Russian prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who could be the beneficiary of renewed animosity towards Russia and the rebels. 

"This will make it much harder for Poroshenko to sit down with Putin and do any deals in future. He won't be able to count on backing from parliament," says Vadim Karasev, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev.

"It will be much more likely that war will break out anew in the spring. There's really only two ways this can go now. Either Kiev takes the Donbass back under central control, or Ukraine keeps on fragmenting into smaller pieces," he says.

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