The presidency of Volodymyr Zelenskyy has already marked a new tradition - raising the topic of creating a wall with the occupied Donbas once a year. It happens approximately according to the same scenario every time: an abstract statement is made, but no specifics are given about what is meant by the term "wall"…
But this time, the president introduced a new intrigue to the old topic - this is the opportunity to hold an all-Ukrainian referendum on this topic. Such an option was fixed legislatively only this year. But it remains to be seen whether the president will take this opportunity. OstroV found out why.
The idea of holding referendum on the settlement of conflict in the Donbas is not new. It was voiced back in 2019 by head of the President's Office (at that time) Andriy Bohdan.
"Volodymyr Zelensky himself proclaimed in his speeches that we are considering the issues of formalizing some agreements and submitting them to a referendum. Still, not only politicians should speak, but the people as well. We are considering submitting the issue of reaching peace agreements with Russia to a popular referendum, so that not only the deputies vote and the president takes a decision, but the people take a decision and the society gives an assessment", - he said in May 2019.
According to OstroV information, it was Andriy Bohdan who insisted on the prompt adoption of the law on the referendum and putting the issue of Donbas to a vote.
"Andriy Bohdan was sure that the Ukrainians in the referendum would support the withdrawal from the Minsk agreements and the creation of a new format of negotiations. But at first, they delayed the law on the referendum, and then Bohdan himself left the Office of the President. It was he who was a supporter of quick and radical solutions. But it was decided to play diplomacy, look into Putin's eyes, etc. Although, if it had been possible to hold a referendum back then, the negotiations on the Donbas could have looked different now", - a source in the president's team told OstroV.
Later, new head of the President's Office Andriy Yermak announced the possibility of implementing "Plan B" for the Donbas, which provides for the construction of a wall with the temporarily occupied territories.
"If we do not see the readiness on the part of the Russian Federation to go towards peace and fulfill the Minsk agreements - well, then we will literally, not figuratively, build a wall and live with it further. We will use the experience of Israel", - Yermak said in December 2019.
At the same time, Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated that if the "wall" was erected, all social payments to residents of the occupied territories would be suspended.
"We approved five plans for the reintegration of Donbas at the NSDC meeting. The wall is not plan "B", for me personally, this is a last letter plan. So far, I really would not want us to apply this plan… This is not an option for me, but we need to move. We will not shoot and lose the Ukrainians for five years. If the wall - this is another state that we will never recognize. There will be no social benefits then. If the wall, then we need to make all the conditions for the Ukrainians of the occupied units, who feel themselves Ukrainians, so that they come to us. There will be another area beyond the wall, where there will be only militants", - the president said.
A year later, during a press conference timed to coincide with the first anniversary of the inauguration, the head of state dwelt in sufficient detail on the topic under which conditions the implementation of "plan B" is possible. However, he did not reveal the substance of this plan again.
After that, talk about the wall subsided and stoked up after the adoption of the law on the all-Ukrainian referendum.
What Zelensky offers now
During his recent interview with the 1 + 1 TV channel, Volodymyr Zelensky state that if the authorities decide to fence themselves off from the occupied territory of Donbas, this decision should be supported by the people in the all-Ukrainian referendum.
"As for the alternative plan B (on the Donbas - ed.), I believe we are in it. And those who offer a wall as plan B or plan C, it does not matter, that is, a wall in any format… The wall is not just words or something that someone is building. The wall is everything. The wall is in all respects and all communications. What to do with the people who support us there, not pay a pension? What to do with the enterprises of Donbas, what to do, not to supply them with water? Then Mariupol will not receive water", - he stated.
According to the president, the "wall" is a complete dissolution of relations in one form or another.
"I believe that this plan may exist, but I believe that the people of Ukraine should make a decision about launching this plan", - Zelensky noted.
Neither two years ago nor now did the President explain how he sees this wall. As the interlocutors in the President's Office and Servant of the People told OstroV, Volodymyr Zelensky does not devote them to the details of this plan.
"We have been talking about "plan B" and the wall already for two years, but there are no specifics. It seems that there is nothing but the name", - one of the MPs of the mono-majority complains.
All that is now known about the "wall" from the president is that it implies a complete break in relations with the occupied Donbas. But what kind of relations can we talk about?
Political analyst at the Ukrainian Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation Maria Zolkina believes that Zelensky may mean under the "wall" both the severing of social and humanitarian ties with CADLO and a change in the format of negotiations on the Donbas.
"The wall means termination of any ties with the occupied territories. As of today, we have already terminated economic ties, only social and humanitarian ties remain. If it concerns the issue of negotiations (for example, to freeze negotiations, withdraw or stay within the Minsk agreements), then a referendum is not needed at all. The president has enough powers for this", - she said in a comment to OstroV.
According to analyst of the OPORA civil network Oleksandr Kliuzhev, one should not take literally the words of Volodymyr Zelensky about the wall in the Donbas. Most likely, we are talking about changing the format of the negotiations. The question, for example, can be raised whether it is worth continuing negotiations in the Minsk format.
"I think that one should not take the president's words about the wall literally. Most likely, we are talking about the fact that the question of the need to continue negotiations within the framework of the Minsk process may be raised at a certain political moment. As I understand it, this is exactly what the president had in mind", - he said in a comment to OstroV.
Representative of CADO of Ukraine in TCG Serhiy Harmash agrees with this. According to him, Zelensky most likely meant a change in policy regarding the occupied territories.
"I do not think that Volodymyr Zelensky expressed a specific idea or intention to hold such a referendum. He made it clear that this is possible if… I think that he meant a referendum not on the rejection of the Donbas, but on a change in policy regarding the territories occupied by Russia. These changes may consist in tightening our economic policy: this is the supply of water for which CADO does not pay; the deliveries of so-called "humanitarian aid", which is not always humanitarian; the payment of pensions and so on. Such a change in policy is possible in theory in order to increase the cost of maintaining the Donbas territories occupied by Russia. Since the responsibility for the socio-economic maintenance of the occupied territories, according to international law, lies with the aggressor. Well, in that case, it would be logical to terminate any contacts with the so-called "representatives of CADLO" from Russia, including in the TCG", - he told OstroV.
If we are talking about changing the format of negotiations, for example, about Ukraine's withdrawal from Minsk, Maria Zolkina notes that this issue does not need wide legitimization through a referendum and should not be put to a vote. The president has the authority to do this without a referendum.
"If the president has a political task, and he wants to legitimize the decision to withdraw from "Minsk" through the results of the referendum or to stop negotiations until the Russian Federation makes some concessions, then this is political cunning. All the results of political research show that since 2014, most of the compromises that Russia demands from Ukraine are not supported by Ukrainians. Recently we presented another study, which showed that there is a certain radicalization of sentiments in Ukraine in terms of compromises on the Donbas referendum. There is no need to hold a referendum to test the public's attitude to compromise and concessions. If it concerns the negotiation tactics, then the referendum is not needed either from a legal or political point of view", - she says.
Maria Zolkina also draws attention to the legality of such a referendum if it concerns the termination of humanitarian ties with CADLO.
"If we are talking about the termination or maximum minimization of humanitarian ties with the temporarily occupied territories, this will directly violate the norms of the law on the referendum, which states that a question that restricts the rights or freedoms of Ukrainian citizens cannot be brought up. And if the wall is the termination of fulfillment by the state of some of its obligations, then this will mean that we directly limit this referendum in the constitutional rights of the CADLO residents, because they remain citizens of Ukraine. Therefore, the option with the termination of payments, movement across the demarcation line and other restrictions would contradict the law on the referendum", - she says.
"If we are talking about the wall as an actual rejection of these territories, this would violate the rule that a referendum cannot deal with issues of the territorial integrity of Ukraine. And since no one explains what the wall is, there can be many interpretations", - M.Zolkina notes.
OstroV's interlocutors in the president's team argue that the "wall" in Zelensky's understanding does not imply any radical changes in social and humanitarian ties with the occupied territories.
"People have traveled and will continue to travel. The IDPs have been paid pensions and other social benefits in the controlled territory and they will continue to be paid. Humanitarian ties are provided by international organizations, so this will not change either. In fact, it will be like with the Crimea: we continue to recognize it as Ukrainian and to accept people from there, but there are no active negotiations about its return, we do not communicate with the local authorities. At least, such conversations were conducted a year or two ago", - a source in the President's Office told our agency.
After this article was written, the media published an explanation of official speaker of the Ukrainian delegation to the TCG, Oleksiy Arestovych: "There will be no territorial changes, but, for example, a question may be raised whether we recognize the control of the Russian Federation, whether we shift full responsibility for the occupied territories to it in accordance with paragraph 53 of the Geneva Convention… We can ask if you recognize this (the occupation of territories) and whether we are severing socio-economic ties, shifting full responsibility to the Russian Federation".
Chances of implementation
The fact that Volodymyr Zelensky raised the topic of referendum does not mean that it will take place in the near future, or will take place at all. A few weeks earlier, the president had already frightened with a referendum on fighting the oligarchs.
OstroV's interlocutors in the president's team are wary of such statements by Volodymyr Zelensky.
"At first he promised a referendum, if the Verkhovna Rada would fail the bill on the fight against oligarchs. Now he scares him with a vote in the Donbas. Tomorrow he will wake up and he will want to put another question to a referendum. The same legalization of marijuana or something else. But let us not forget that one referendum is allowed in Ukraine once a year and on only one issue", - one of the People's Deputies of Servant of the People told our agency.
The mono-majority has long noticed that the president intends to use the topic of the referendum as blackmail, so some do not take it seriously.
OstroV has already written how MPs share their fears in the Servant of the People party chats that Volodymyr Zelensky will now be able to regularly intimidate with referendums in order to pass controversial bills. Few people like this trend.
"If it was possible to frighten with the NSDC earlier, now it is possible to intimidate with a referendum if the people's deputies do not vote for the necessary laws. This is a very slippy road. It might work once or twice, but it is doomed to fail on a regular basis. We already went through this when they scared us with re-election", - a source in the party noted.
However, political analyst Maria Zolkina is not so categorical, and believes that the topic of the Donbas for Volodymyr Zelensky is the main one, so he may easily take such a step as a referendum.
"Everything is possible in Ukraine. Our history proves that the craziest ideas can be realized. Political and legal grounds for this are ready. The topic of Donbas has become the main one for the president in domestic and foreign policy, therefore, it looks politically justified to hold such a referendum. And legally, such a possibility was prepared after the adopted law on the all-Ukrainian referendum. The topic of Donbas is raised as a flagship in the president's rhetoric. He came to power on the wave of this topic, and he wants to complete his first term with some results on this issue", - she believes.
According to her, since the conflict cannot be resolved in fact, Zelensky is trying to find other options in order to somehow add weight to the topic of peace in the Donbas.
It is also widely believed among experts that Volodymyr Zelensky is thus trying to show the West and Russia that he does not intend to leave everything as it is. It is no coincidence that he made it clear in an interview with 1+1 that a referendum is possible only in case of failure of alternative agreements with Russia, the USA and the EU. Zelensky also has planned meetings with Angela Merkel and Joe Biden, as well as a possible meeting with Vladimir Putin.
Political analyst at the Ukrainian Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation Maria Zolkina disagrees with this opinion. She believes that the rates rise when it is possible to agree on something - the parties feel that something is at stake, and they are trying to raise the price of their consent.
"Nothing is at stake now. The negotiations are a complete quagmire and a dead end. With the help of the referendum, neither the USA nor Russia can be called on to anything", - the expert notes.
"I cannot imagine that the topic of the referendum can be "bargained" from the USA. The West has a clear idea that this conflict is frozen, and there can be no quick solution. Ukraine does not agree to make concessions that Russia demands of it, and at the same time, the Russian Federation is not ready to concede in anything. The West considers this situation more or less acceptable, and the Ukrainian party cannot count on tougher steps towards Russia. The West, on the contrary, is trying to somehow establish contacts with the Russian party, enter into some kind of negotiations. There is nothing at stake in the negotiations now, so I would not associate the appearance of the topic of referendum with the upcoming contacts with the U.S. president", - M.Zolkina explained.
Representative of CADO of Ukraine in the TCG Serhiy Harmash also believes that the words of Volodymyr Zelensky about the wall in the Donbas were a signal to Russia and the West.
"This was a signal to Russia and its Western partners, which are inclined to the option of softening their positions with respect to the Russian Federation, that Ukraine is ready to defend its territories in all possible ways. It cannot continue the way it has been going on for seven years. Whether Russia recognizes itself as a party to the conflict and fulfills the Minsk agreements, or we change our policy, including the one concerning the Minsk agreements. Since the Minsk agreements are purely political and have no legal force, the president will be able to justify the change in policy regarding the fruitless Minsk in front of his Western colleagues only with the opinion of the people", - he noted.
No support from the Verkhovna Rada
Publicly, not a single politician from the team of Volodymyr Zelensky supported the holding of referendum on the "wall" with CADLO. Moreover, the idea was alien to the president's opponents as well.
Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada Dmytro Razumkov, who often opposes the president's ideas, expressed his dissenting opinion in this case.
Firstly, he rejects the referendum on the secession of the occupied Donbas at once, as this is contrary to Ukrainian law. Secondly, he believes that if Ukraine freezes the process of resolving the conflict in the Donbas, it will be "even more difficult" to return it.
There are very few supporters of the idea of building a wall with the occupied Donbas in the Verkhovna Rada. The European Solidarity and OPFL parties have already officially made a stand "against".
According to OstroV, the Servant of the People's deputies split into two sides: some are totally against, others are ready to think and "listen to the president's arguments".
"If even Prosecutor General Venediktova publicly opposed, then what can we say? It is good that there is nothing to comment on, since there are no specifics. And let us hope that the topic will end there", - one of the people's deputies from Servant of the People told OstroV.
Consequences and risks
Considering that today there is little information about what is meant by the "wall", it is extremely difficult to predict the risks of such a referendum.
"In any case, there will be no "betrayal", no one is going to give up the Donbas and give it to Russia. Most likely, this is just a new tactic in the negotiation process. It will definitely not get worse", - a source in the team president's team assures OstroV.
Maria Zolkina, in turn, sees more risks in the holding of referendum on the wall in the Donbas, which will arise already at the level of an information campaign.
"Understanding how the laws of public opinion work, I believe that such a referendum will have more risks. There is an information campaign of supporters and opponents of the issue before each referendum. There is an informational tension in the society. If now we do not have this tension, roughly speaking, and the supporters of peace at any cost are in the minority, then within the framework of the referendum, any point of view will stick out in the information field. This is always tension that is not needed", - she told OstroV.
Serhiy Harmash also sees the risks of holding such a referendum in the context of an information campaign.
"The risks will depend on the specific information picture - who will shape public opinion on the eve of such a referendum. I think that there are risks, but if the authorities formulate a clear and correct goal for themselves and it is conveyed to the population through the media, they will be minimized. If there are mistakes, if the media are controlled by pro-Russian forces, then there are risks", - the representative of CADO of Ukraine in the TCG considers.
As for the possible recognition of the "republics" by Russia, Serhiy Harmash does not see such risks, since it is unprofitable for the Russian party.
"It is not profitable for Russia to recognize the "republics", it needs Donbas as an instrument to deprive Ukraine of its sovereignty and independence. Moscow can recognize the "DNR"-"LNR" only if there is a threat to lose this instrument, that is, if Kyiv starts a military operation to free the hostages. As long as there is no such threat, Russia hopes to actually lead Ukraine through the "special status of CADLO", determining its foreign and domestic policies. We can and should talk about tightening our policy, especially in the context of the mass distribution of Russian passports and closed checkpoints. If our citizens are held hostage there, if we do not have the opportunity to see who we are paying pensions to, if we are not paid for the resources that are supplied there, then we have the right to adequately respond to this", - he sums up.
Vladyslav Bulatchik, OstroV