Written by Nikolaus von Twickel
In another move towards political russification, both “People’s Republics” announced to create assemblies that already exist in Russia. A spat between Ukraine and the separatists about the Minsk negotiations highlighted the different interpretations of the agreements signed in the Belarusian capital. And the “LNR” said that it wants to open a cultural centre in the heart of Africa.
Donetsk and Luhansk announce Russian-style assemblies
Both “People’s Republics” have announced the creation of two assemblies – a Public Chamber and a Youth Parliament – that closely resemble existing structures in Russia. Their timing and the complete absence of any public debate about them strongly indicate an initiative from outside – ie Russia.
The introduction of a Public Chamber, an unelected assembly with limited advisory and oversight functions, was first announced by Luhansk separatist leader Leonid Pasechnik on February 18. His Donetsk colleague Denis Pushilin followed suit on February 20. Each initiative was followed by abundant and fawning coverage in the official “LNR” and “DNR” media, which quoted experts and politicians praising the idea.
Their statements strongly suggest that both Public Chambers will be closely based on the Russian model. President Vladimir Putin set up Russia’s Public Chamber in 2005, ostensibly to bridge the gap between civil society and the largely Kremlin-controlled parliament. However, the assembly with currently 168 members has been dominated by pro-Kremlin functionaries, doubling the role of the already subservient houses of parliament, the State Duma and the Federation Council.
The “People’s Republics” (unicameral) parliaments are even less pluralistic than the Russian Duma. MPs in Donetsk and Luhansk belong to two “movements” each who differ only in nuances from each other and are not known for openly criticizing their leadership. In a recent interview, “DNR” opposition figure Pavel Gubarev described his Free Donbass movement as “an alternative view”, not an opposition. The last elections, held in November 2018 despite sharp criticism from Ukraine and her allies, can hardly be described as free or fair (Gubarev was excluded – see Newsletter 48).
Youth Parliaments for Donetsk and Luhansk
The creation of a Youth Parliament was first announced by “DNR” leader Pushilin on January 25, the day on which Russia observes St. Tatiana or Students’ Day. Pushilin said that the new body should help to address the shortage of qualified staff for parliament and, more broadly, government and bureaucracy.
The “LNR” followed three days later, when Parliamentary speaker Denis Miroshnichenko was quoted by the LITs official news site that formation of a Youth Parliament would begin in March. The site explained the delay by claiming that Miroshnichenko was speaking at the end of three days celebrations for Tatiana Day. Luhansk separatist leader Pasechnik backed the idea on February 20, when he said that a Youth Parliament allows to attract young people to politics and that the Republic lacked people with initiative.
On February 28, the Donetsk separatist “Parliament” passed a law, according to which the Youth Parliament will consist of 50 members elected every two years. Voters and MPs must be between 18 and 35 years old. The “LNR” is likely to follow suit soon – albeit with a smaller assembly.
In Russia, the State Duma Youth Parliament is headed by patriotic activist Maria Voropayeva, and there are Youth Parliaments in most of the country’s more than 80 regions. Almost all of them were set up by regional elites with the aim of attracting young people to work for the government. Moreover, Russia’s youth policies have long been characterized by a focus on patriotic education, highlighted by the Kremlin-sponsored youth movement Nashi (dissolved in 2013), which was a brainchild of Vladislav Surkov, who is now President Putin’s top aide for policies in Donbass.
Row over separatists’ status in Minsk
The regular meetings of the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk, Belarus, were overshadowed by a row over the separatists’ status in the group. Speaking in the Ukrainian Parliament on February 19, the government’s chief negotiator Yevhen Marchuk argued that the group’s three sides were Ukraine, Russia and, as mediator, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). He added that the separatists were being asked to join the talks only if necessary.
Marchuk’s comments were lambasted by the separatists who argued that they are the ones negotiating with Ukraine in Minsk, while both Russia and the OSCE are mediators. Russia also sees itself as a mediator and Kremlin chief negotiator Boris Gryzlov regularly accuses Kiev of refusing to hold direct talks with the separatists.
However, the Minsk agreements clearly identify Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE as the three members of the Trilateral Contact Group. Because the “Republics” are recognized by none of the above, the agreements speak only of “Certain Areas” of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Their (separatist) leaders Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky signed them, but without any position attached. The fact that both leaders were removed (Plotnitsky was toppled in 2017, Zakharchenko killed in 2018) has not affected the negotiations.
Nevertheless, their successors Pushilin and Pasechnik put out parallel statements on February 21, in which they appealed to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron to make Ukraine hold direct talks with them. Kiev immediately refused. Deputy parliamentary speaker and Minsk negotiator Iryna Herashchenko argued that this would give “the Kremlin’s puppet regimes” undue legitimacy, while negotiating with administrations not recognized even in Russia was illegal.
While the “Package of Measures” of February 2015 obliges Ukraine to “begin a dialogue” about local elections and future political status on the first day after the sides have withdrawn their heavy weapons (a condition that has never been implemented), it does not say with whom this dialogue should be conducted.
In Luhansk meanwhile, the separatists celebrated a “foreign policy” success, when Foreign “Minister” Vladislav Deinego claimed on February 19 that the “People’s Republic” would open a “cultural centre” in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The centre would be the second “LNR” representation abroad (see Newsletter 35 about a representation in Sicily) and the first of the Donbass separatists to be opened outside Europe.
According to Deinego, the centre will be opened in the southern mining city of Kolwezi. However, he offered no information on how and when this will happen. Instead, he handed a power of attorney to the centre’s founder, identified as Congolese Jean-Gustave Mukadi Musasa. Deinego said that he hoped Musase would “organize dialogue” between the DRC and the “LNR” and that Congo might soon open an office in Luhansk. He added that both Republics are currently in “complicated situations”.