Ukraine signs deal on Donbass

An agreement with pro-Russia separatists allows local elections in separatist-held territories

Photo: EPA Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky presented the afreement at a press conference in Kiev.

The Ukrainian government signed last Tuesday an agreement with pro-Russia separatists, Russia and European monitors that will allow a local election to be held in separatist-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine, news wires reported. The deal was signed after the parties met in Minsk, and is seen as a major step by the new Ukrainian government under President Volodymyr Zelensky toward resolution of the conflict in the eastern part of the country.

In order to prepare for the election, the Ukrainian government and separatist leaders would withdraw troops from two locations in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions already next week. Zelensky told reporters that Kiev agreed elections to be held in Donbass only when Ukraine regains control of its borders with Russia. “There won't be any elections under the barrel of a gun. There won't be any elections there if the troops are still there,” he insisted.

Zelensky insisted the local election would be held according to Ukrainian law, meaning all candidates and political parties should be allowed to run. Separatist leaders have rejected that idea in the past, saying they wouldn't allow Ukrainian parties that included nationalist politicians to run.

The government of Ukraine and the separatists agreed that the election will be valid only if European observers from Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) determined that they were conducted freely and fairly. If the OSCE declares the elections valid, the Moscow-backed separatists said they expect to be given long-term special status. Pro-Russia separatists are seeking such a status as it will allow self-governance in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, large parts of which have been under separatist control since April 2014.

The election agreement has been seen as paving the way for a summit between Zelensky, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the leaders of France and Germany. Russia had previously refused such a meeting, unless Ukraine agreed to hold a local election in the Donbass region. So far Zelensky has faced criticism that Ukraine is giving concessions to Moscow and for following a policy of appeasement with Russia.

After the agreement was signed, Zelenskiy said that nothing should stand in the way of the summit, and that a date would be announced soon. French President Emmanuel Macron reacted fast by saying that he expected the summit to be held in the coming weeks.

But former Ukrainian officials and lawmakers who were voted out of office earlier this year following a landslide victory by Zelensky express concerns that by signing the accords Kiev was giving up its sovereignty over the east. At the same time Ukrainian nationalists protested the development, with hundreds gathering on Kiev's Maidan, the square that symbolises Ukraine's resistance to Russian influence.

The Kremlin constantly denies providing military or financial support to the separatists despite overwhelming evidence. Russian troops were spotted in eastern Ukraine during crucial offensives, and the rebels themselves don't make it a secret they received weapons and training from the Russian military. Moscow has tried to play down its involvement in eastern Ukraine in recent years, pulling back its troops and mostly relying on proxy forces. Meanwhile, the separatists re-branded their fighters as police or other type of law enforcement officers.

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