The last few months were behindhand in the active work of the Trilateral Contact Group on the settlement of conflict in the Donbas. Almost all the news came down to the fact that Russian party was blocking the negotiation process in the political subgroup and demanding that the Verkhovna Rada cancel the resolution on holding local elections in Ukraine.
The situation changed after the local elections. Now the Russian Federation is demanding a resolution of the Verkhovna Rada approving the "road map" for the settlement of conflict in Donbas, developed within the TCG framework. Beforehand, Russian puppets from Donetsk and Luhansk "leaked" their version of the document to the media (special status, transfer of control over the border after the elections and so on). Head of the Ukrainian delegation to the TCG Leonid Kravchuk introduced his version of the "Plan of joint steps" for discussion a week later. The bullet points of this plan are:
- withdrawal of foreign troops, illegal armed groups and mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine at the beginning of 2021;
- cancellation by Russian authorities of a number of decisions and documents that are direct interference in the life of CADLO, for example, on a simplified procedure for granting residents of these territories Russian citizenship;
- restoration of control over the corresponding section of the Russian-Ukrainian state border with the help of the OSCE SMM;
- a four times increase in the size of the OSCE SMM mission (by 1 500 people);
- only if the first four conditions are met - preparation and conduct of elections on the territory of CADLO (with the help of the OSCE).
Despite the fact that Russian party criticized the Ukrainian plan, the parties agreed to seek a middle ground.
In addition, at the last meeting of the TCG, which took place on November 11, the parties were unable to agree on the opening of all checkpoints on the contact line. Ukraine opened them on a unilateral basis.
Representative of certain areas of the Donetsk oblast in the Trilateral Contact Group Serhiy Harmash told OstroV how a new plan of actions to resolve the conflict in the Donbas was being discussed, why Volodymyr Zelensky would not abandon "Minsk" and when to wait for the full launch of the checkpoints on the contact line.
- Since November 10, Ukraine has resumed the operation of all checkpoints on the demarcation line in the Donbas, including the opening of new checkpoints of entry-exit - Shchastya and Zolote. But occupation "authorities" of CADLO continue to block their work. How this is connected?
- It should be noted that in addition to the opening of new checkpoints in the Luhansk oblast, Ukrainian party resumed the operation of all other checkpoints in the Donbas. We have removed all restrictions that were previously introduced in connection with the pandemic. As for the occupation authorities, there is still only one checkpoint in the Donetsk oblast, operating in Olenivka only two days a week. They let in to the CADO territory by the decision of a certain "headquarters", and let out there only those who have registration in the controlled territory of Ukraine and only after they sign the paper that they will not return until the coronavirus epidemic ends. At the same time, their situation with coronavirus is much worse, there is no medicine, but they have closed people in this coronavirus ghetto and do not give them the opportunity to save their lives. I think this is purely for political reasons. In turn, Ukraine has provided all possible conditions for the movement of its citizens.
Situation in the Luhansk oblast is strange. At the TCG meetings, all parties have repeatedly confirmed the opening date - November 10 - of two new checkpoints (Shchastya and Zolote) in the Luhansk oblast. The Russians themselves focused on this date, they were outraged when Deputy Prime Minister Reznikov said that the final decision on the crossing mode would be made on November 6, after his personal inspection of the new checkpoints. And suddenly, November 10 comes, we open the checkpoint, but they do not… Moreover, they regard the opening of the checkpoints on our side as a provocation. What kind of provocation, if the date was agreed upon, they were warned in advance, the OSCE was warned, and everything was as public as possible.
- Why did Ukrainian party start passing people without receiving confirmation that CADO were ready to accept them?
- Because then it will turn out that we also closed our checkpoints. And by doing so, we will break our obligations not only to the TCG and the OSCE, but to the Normandy Four as well. We cannot keep people out, because the checkpoints on our side are open. We warn people at the checkpoints, on the JFO website and in the media that the other side is not letting in. This is a person's choice - to go or not. Some went in the hope that they could somehow persuade the militants and they would be allowed to pass. But people came back. As comrade Danego (the representative of Russia from CALO in the Minsk TCG - ed.) stated at the TCG, people were not allowed through "from the humanitarian viewpoint". That is, our families are divided, people go through this difficult path for some important needs, but they are not allowed into their homes, to their relatives - "from the humanitarian viewpoint"… That side comes up with some new technical conditions, because of which, supposedly, it does not open its checkpoints.
- What conditions?
- For example, they want their buses to enter the controlled territory. Naturally, this will significantly complicate the passage of people through the checkpoints, because the buses will be checked by the military. This will increase the time and decrease the traffic capacity accordingly. I am not even talking about security threats and military aspects… Also, you see, there is not enough turnaround for the buses. Then the question is: what is the problem - broaden it…
In general, I see no problems to carry out a pass on the same conditions as in the Donetsk oblast. Their arguments are completely contrived. I repeat once again: Ukraine has fulfilled all the obligations it took upon itself to open new checkpoints in the Luhansk oblast.
- What do you think is the real reason that CALO does not open the checkpoints?
- There is testimony from people from the other side that CALO just did not have time to prepare for the opening of checkpoints technically. That is, they did not build what they were supposed to build. Perhaps, there was not enough money, or they spent it to the wrong place. Therefore, they simply extend the time, coming up with new conditions to hide their dishonesty. I think, unlike CADO, there is no political factor here. CALO is interested in opening a vehicle checkpoint, so I think they will open it by the end of the month.
- Is there any difference between CALO and CADO in this regard?
- The economic situation in CALO is much worse than in CADO. If earlier, the leaders of the occupation regimes justified the difficult economic situation by the fact that hostilities were taking place, demanding almost all the budget, now this argument is no longer valid due to the absence of active hostilities. The situation is only getting worse, especially due to the coronavirus pandemic. The economy of the "republics" has died. They coal and metal are no longer even at dumping prices, because the economic contraction is all over the world. Accordingly, they have become even more dependent on Russia. Russia has its own problems, so the Russian Federation has greatly reduced its investments in these territories. This is noticeable. The salaries are delayed, the enterprises are closed and the delays in social payments have begun there. But if CADO is more developed economically, then CALO is much more depressing. Therefore, CALO are especially interested in a vehicle crossing - there was not a single one in the Luhansk oblast until November 10. In addition, they are awaiting humanitarian aid from the International Committee of the Red Cross, which should come from Ukraine.
- Are CADO going to lift the restrictions?
- They said at the TCG that they were not going to do this. But, regardless of their decision, our policy is not to make the demarcation line a state border, citizens must have conditions for free movement within their country. Maybe, that is why they do not open them - so that people do not feel like a part of Ukraine. Blocking of the checkpoints in CADO is a purely political factor, they purposefully close them. It is just that the Pushilins and other leaders of the occupation regime do not care how people live, it is important for them that Russia is happy with them. This means that the logic is simple: the worse the living conditions, the fewer people remain on the territory (they leave or die); the fewer people - the less money Russia spends on the occupation; the less money Moscow spends on the Donbas, the more satisfied it is with its occupation administrations. In general, worse is better…
- According to your forecasts, when will the checkpoints in the Donbas be fully operational?
- Unfortunately, I think that it will never be in the same mode as it was before the spring of this year.
- This is politics, coronavirus is just an excuse. They carry out certain segregation this way. They remove people who have registration in controlled Ukraine from their territories and close "theirs" from us. Thus, conditions are being created for distance from Ukraine and integration with Russia. After all, people have to go to Russia even to enter a university, get a job or establish some kind of business - since the road to Ukraine is closed. I think this is largely Russian policy. Moscow thus solves the problem of demography and a shortage of workers, and the Donbas has a low-cost skilled labor. People have no choice but to go to work at the Russian mines and factories.
- Does Ukraine somehow monitor the situation with the spread of coronavirus in CADLO?
- I cannot speak on behalf of Ukraine, but I think that we do not have such a tracking tool (except intelligence, of course), we have no real statistics. I think the statistics are being hidden. And what is published does not correspond to reality. Opening of the checkpoints on our part is the answer to COVID-19, - so that people who do not receive medical care there and cannot buy medicines, can come to the controlled territory of Ukraine for treatment or buy the necessary medicines.
- Let us talk about the Ukrainian "Plan of joint steps" from Leonid Kravchuk. How did the idea of creating it come about?
- It is important to understand where this plan came from. Russian party proposed its "road map", ostensibly in order to break that deadlock into which, in their opinion, we brought the negotiations due to the reluctance of the Verkhovna Rada to cancel the resolution on local elections. When this resolution became irrelevant, they came up with a new "trick" in order to keep their front going. Also, with the involvement of the Verkhovna Rada, that is, striving to secure Ukraine's new obligations for "Minsk" already at the highest level, - now they want the Verkhovna Rada to approve this plan by its resolution.
- What was your reaction?
- First of all, we are against the term "road map", because we consider the "road map" to be prerogative of the Normandy format. It was decided to develop a "road map" at the 2016 Berlin Summit. In my opinion, the fact that Russia is imposing the name "road map" on us is one of the elements of Moscow's purposeful policy aimed at diminishing the role of the Normandy format and transferring the solution of all issues to the TCG. It is just that in the TCG, Ukraine is alone against the Russian Federation, its representatives from CADLO and, sometimes, the OSCE. Whereas we have the support of Germany and France in the Normandy format, and there is no CADLO and the OSCE. Therefore, for example, exactly the name of this plan was stumbling block at the last meeting of the TCG political subgroup. One might wonder what difference does it make, but this is essential.
Secondly, when they proposed their plan, we had the opportunity either to discuss only it, or not to discuss it at all, and this would block the negotiation process, which we were not interested in. Therefore, Leonid Kravchuk found a wise decision and said that we were ready to discuss their document, but Ukraine would offer its own, the alternative one, and the result of the work should not be a plan of Ukraine or the Russian Federation, but a compromise plan that will be developed by the political subgroup and which will be approved by the TCG. This plan must comply with the Minsk Agreements.
Incidentally, this is also an imperceptible, but diplomatically very significant moment: using the mouth of its puppets from CADLO, Russia insists that the plan be in line with the Minsk Package of Measures of February 2015. We insist that the Minsk Agreements are a set of documents, including those of September 2014. Unfortunately, moderator of the political subgroup from the OSCE, Ambassador Pierre Morel took the side of Russia in this regard. Although, the OSCE Special Representative to the TCG Heidi Grau gave a clear instruction to prepare a document in full compliance with the Minsk Agreements.
- Why is it so important?
- The documents of 2014 are unprofitable for Russia, so it is trying to "forget" them in every possible way. However, they give us more opportunities. For example, the creation of a security zone in the border regions of the Russian Federation and Ukraine is recorded in the fourth paragraph of the Protocol of September 5. Not only in the border regions of Ukraine with the Russian Federation, but also of the Russian Federation with Ukraine. Everyone has forgotten about this now, but it exists. If this is implemented, it will secure our border to a large extent.
- How did you personally react to Russia's "plan"?
- I believe that the purpose of this document is not a real discussion in order to end the conflict, but destabilization of the situation in Ukraine, an attempt to impose new obligations on us without the obligations of the other side, and the subjectivation of CADLO. Their plan is not even close to being a compromise. Some of its positions are defiantly unacceptable for Ukraine. Kravchuk's plan is completely opposite, and I cannot imagine how it will be possible to make a compromise option out of these two plans. But the dialogue is needed, and we will talk.
- You were not involved in the creation of Kravchuk's plan?
- Are you satisfied with the contents of this plan?
- It can become the basis for a settlement when the political will appears in Russia to end the conflict. But if we talk about the time frame indicated in it and the political conditions that exist at the moment, I do not think it is realistic. However, I am satisfied that it contains no betrayal - Leonid Kravchuk actually repeated those red lines that were voiced earlier.
- In this regard, it is proposed to hold elections in the occupied territories on March 31. What is your attitude towards this date?
- I understand perfectly well that holding elections in the occupied territory of Donbas on March 31 is unrealistic. At least in the course of negotiations, Russia does not give signals of its intention to leave the Donbas, and without this, elections are impossible there. But like any plan, it should record some dates, so that there is a criterion for assessing the effectiveness of its implementation. Kravchuk proposed this date to show that we are ready for a quick resolution of the conflict. If Russia decides to transfer the borders to us and disband the illegal armed formations, then we undertake to adopt certain laws by March 31. I personally believe that the Russian Federation will not agree to these conditions in the coming months. But setting specific dates and declaring our intentions is the right step.
- How did the Russian Federation react to the Ukrainian plan?
- They claim that it does not correspond to "Minsk" by 90%. And they refuse to intensify the process of working on the plan if we do not give guarantees that the Verkhovna Rada will approve it by its resolution.
- Whose plan exactly?
- The one that will be developed during the discussion and approved by the TCG.
- What was your response?
- We said that this is unrealistic, because we cannot dictate to the Verkhovna Rada what and when to approve. In addition, Ukrainian parliament can respond to this plan only by adopting certain laws that will be developed in the process of implementing the plan. But it is very important for Russia that the Verkhovna Rada adopts this resolution and thus legitimizes both "Minsk" and the agreement with CADLO, because Russia submits its plan as the plan of CADLO. The OSCE has taken such position up as well.
- It turns out that Russian party is confident that a compromise version of the plan will be worked out at the TCG, isn't it?
- Maybe, it is not confident, but it sets itself such goal. This is my subjective opinion, but I believe that they are confident in the support of the OSCE, which has taken a stand on the subjectivization of CADLO in the negotiations. If the Russian Federation, CADLO and the OSCE are against Ukraine as subjects of negotiations, then it will be difficult for us. Apparently, Moscow reckons on this.
Therefore, I am sure that there will be no approval of any plan by the Verkhovna Rada. At least personally I will do my best for this. Ukraine is ready and will continue to work on a compromise document that meets the Minsk Agreements. An extraordinary meeting of the TCG political subgroup will take place next Tuesday, where we will continue to discuss the proposals of the parties. We are ready to meet every week so that the dialogue does not stop.
- Have you already started discussing the plan in essence?
- We began to discuss only the title of the document. There has been no article-by-article discussion of the plan yet.
I want to emphasize that if there is any final document, it will not be a plan of Russia or Ukraine, it will be a compromise plan developed by the TCG, approved by the Normandy Four and in line with the Minsk Agreements. It is important to understand that we are not moving away from the red lines. But we need a dialogue and the support of our international partners, who want this dialogue and progress.
- Do you think President Volodymyr Zelensky can refuse the Minsk Agreements?
- I think that Volodymyr Zelensky will not abandon "Minsk" in any case. This will mean a refusal to support our Western partners with all the consequences that come with it, including financial ones. Perhaps, even the lifting of sanctions imposed on the Russian Federation. But he can, and - I think - he should, - change the policy inside "Minsk": we must stop defending ourselves and make full use of the capabilities of the same Minsk documents, leverage over Russian agents in Ukraine and its media. Stop being afraid to offend Putin! "Minsk" is written flexibly enough to make it profitable for Ukraine. But for this, one should not be afraid to break its mold, irritate the OSCE or "Western partners".
Therefore, I think that "Minsk" will be preserved, but I do not exclude the possibility that there will be searches for some other political format.
- The majority of Ukrainians supported negotiations in the Budapest format during the all-Ukrainian poll of President Volodymyr Zelensky. Do you believe in the realization of this idea?
- I do not exclude this option, but not as an alternative, but as a parallel to "Minsk". The Budapest format is a format that can solve a political problem. "Minsk" is much broader, it solves military, humanitarian and economic problems. That is why it cannot be abandoned. But a political settlement within "Minsk" is unlikely to be achieved. Precisely because the OSCE has made people who are vitally interested in the conflict the subject of negotiations. After all, now they are "ministers", "plenipotentiaries" and so on, and who will they become when Ukraine returns? - Ordinary citizens of Russia with a reputation of betrayers of their nation. So, they are interested in the conflict to continue forever.
- But will not Moscow actually decide on this?
- Moscow is not homogeneous. We know that there is the notorious struggle of the Kremlin towers. There are, tentatively speaking, "pragmatists" who understand that this conflict harms Russia, weakens it economically and drives it into confrontation with world powerhouses. But there are also those whom I call "ideologists". They are guided not by pragmatism, but by ideology: chauvinism and imperialism. For them, as well as for fascists or communists, human life is nothing, the idea is everything. I refer Surkov to this trend, who, by the way, is now working very actively to regain his influence in the Kremlin. There is Zatulin, there is the FSB, there is the Main Intelligence Directorate. That is, there are many powerhouses. And collaborators use it. They simply work for the Moscow masters, with whom they have the same interests, and who, in turn, use them to strengthen their positions and increase their influence. Therefore, Moscow will decide in any case, but from which tower will Putin make this decision? - this is important. And the fact that the OSCE is strengthening, conditionally, the "ideological" tower by subjectivizing CADLO - this, in my opinion, greatly hinders the settlement of the conflict.
- Is the creation of free economic zone in the Donbas being discussed at the TCG?
- This topic is not being discussed at the TCG meetings in any way. Kravchuk's plan contains a clause on the creation of free economic zone, but we have not yet reached it. By the way, I want to remind you that this is not today's idea. This is not even an idea, but, largely, a legislative rule. "Special economic conditions" for CADLO have already been enshrined in the law "On the special order of local self-government in CADLO" adopted by the Verkhovna Rada back in 2014… Therefore, when I hear accusations against Kravchuk in this regard, - it surprises me. He only concretized what has already been written in the law, which has been in effect for 6 years.
- Do you support this idea?
- I think this is a very correct idea. We need to create free economic zone in the Donbas. The region is destroyed, and the state will not cope with its restoration from the budget. This would hit us all hard as taxpayers. So, it is necessary to provide conditions for private business to enter there and to restore it at its own expense - the controlled territory at first, and then the liberated one.
But it is very important to understand what "special conditions" will be offered, and for whom. I believe that tax concessions cannot be provided to Russian businesses. This is very important from the point of view of the new realities in the regions that have arisen in connection with decentralization. After all, we all know the role of city-forming enterprises for cities, when the power in local councils is actually received by representatives of some large enterprise. They actually control the local government as well. If Russia starts buying or creating large enterprises there and, in fact, running our cities, this, in fact, will be a loss of sovereignty, de facto - the very federalization that the Kremlin so much wants. This will have very dire political consequences. The Donbas will not survive another war, even from an environmental point of view…
Interviewed by Vladyslav Bulatchik, OstroV