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Zelenskyy’s strategy in Donbas is destined to fail: Human security as a major constraint

While pursuing peace in eastern Ukraine, the government cannot fail to recognise the continuing vulnerabilities of the local population.

August 12, 2020 - Maryna Parfenchuk - Articles and Commentary

Czech NGO People in Need visiting the village of Petrivske in the Donetsk region. Photo: Iva Zimova flickr.com

The first year of Zelenskyy’s presidency appears to have brought about more frustration than actual results. During last year’s election, Zelenskyy’s campaign was incredibly successful due to his eloquent speeches, which transformed the comedian into a civil servant who seemingly understood the Ukrainian people’s hardships. Zelenskyy managed to pinpoint two major and long-lasting challenges in society while building a “deliberately vague” electoral campaign. Certainly, as part of his landslide victory in April 2019, he specifically focused on issues surrounding corruption and the conflict in Donbas. He said he wanted to establish peace in eastern Ukraine by respecting the ceasefire and releasing all Ukrainian prisoners of war. This campaign of peace, however, also emphasised something very different from his main rival (at the time the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko): Zelenskyy was open to a potential compromise with Russia. These issues were and still remain priorities for the Ukrainian population. Subsequently, they explain why a political newcomer could win such widespread support. However, one year later, Zelenskyy’s strategy for Donbas still has not resulted in progress and it is very unlikely that it will.

The strategy for Donbas was doomed to fail from the very beginning. This is not only due to the complexities of power relations between the state and non-state actors, the political deadlock in the Minsk agreements or Russia’s persistent denial of its presence in Ukraine. Ultimately, it was also the result of widespread internal ignorance regarding the realities of the region. By focusing on the political aspect of security, Zelenskyy and his team are overlooking the need to first ensure human security, which is naturally connected with political or strategic notions of conflict management. Human security goes hand-in-hand with national security, but it plays a more fundamental role in local mobilisation by involving the grievances and motivations of the community. The human security approach broadens the focus of policy from territorial security to the wellbeing of people. It also applies a bottom-up approach, starting from the provision of essential needs and later, building up to solving more complex issues.

In the current context of the war in eastern Ukraine, the main aim of human security is to provide safety from hunger, diseases and other chronic threats. The Report on Preliminary Examination Activities, 2019 by The Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, outlines a range of International Humanitarian Law violations since the beginning of the conflict in 2014. Some of these violations may even amount to war crimes. According to Article 279 of the report there is a reasonable basis to believe that from 2014 onwards at least the following war crimes were committed: intentionally directing attacks against civilians and civilian objects; intentionally directing attacks against protected buildings; willful killing/murder; torture and inhuman/cruel treatment; outrages upon personal dignity; rape and other forms of sexual violence.

With such a wide range of threats to the local population in the occupied territories, it is hard to imagine that a ceasefire and an exchange of prisoners can bring peace and stability to the war-affected areas. Although the Ukrainian government does not possess full legal control over some parts of its territory, it also continuously fails to provide for the basic needs of its citizens at the line of contact, or for those who have moved into government-controlled territories (the internally displaced persons, IDPs).

Right to Protection, a UN human rights implementing partner in Ukraine that works on protection issues in Donbas, has repeatedly recorded human rights violations in the region. They recently published a Survey on Medical Assistance at Entry-Exit Checkpoints (EECPs), which advocates for the establishment of medical centres at EECPs in the region. This is because they are vital for the health and safety of those living near or crossing the line of contact. The vast majority of people crossing through the checkpoints in eastern Ukraine are IDPs and/or elderly persons who have endured increased levels of psychological anxiety and worsening health conditions throughout the conflict. As a result, it is not uncommon for people to pass away while waiting to cross at the checkpoints. As of now, there is no strategy for the provision of medical services at the EECPs by state authorities or local governments. Authorities in Kyiv have long recognised the need to create medical services at the checkpoints. However, attempts to properly create these services have been inconsistent and unsystematic. Currently, premedical, primary, and emergency medical care at the EECPs are provided by NGOs and are often funded by international donors. According to these groups, the checkpoints’ medical stations bear a huge responsibility because they also assist those who live near the line of contact, as more than half of families in the area do not otherwise have access to medical care. The closer one comes to the line of contact, the more difficult it is to access such services. For example, within five kilometres of the line of contact, 57 per cent of families do not have safe and appropriate access to hospitals and medical services. Additionally, recent healthcare system reform has created a ‘backlash effect’. This is due to the organisational and economic weaknesses of local authorities that were also left paralysed following the conflict’s negative effect on decentralisation reform. Due to this, the precarious lives of Ukrainians at the line of contact and non-government-controlled area (NGCA) are directly related to the conflict’s prolongation.

Working directly with the affected population from the NGCA, various NGOs have been recording and sharing the stories of people who continue to suffer as a result of the war. From June-August 2014, pensioners who remained in the area stopped receiving their pension benefits unless they travelled to a government-controlled area (GCA) and registered as an IDP. As a result, the elderly and especially single people with restricted mobility were entirely deprived of their retirement benefits. At the same time, the IDPs who had moved to the GCA en masse in 2014 began returning home in the winter of 2015-16. This was due to the fact that their modest retirement benefits were insufficient for even the most modest rental housing. The assistance programme entitled an individual to only 884 Ukrainian hryvnia (approximately 47 euros) per month.

Since the beginning of the conflict, the state has not taken any measures to develop a mechanism for providing retirement benefits and other socio-economic support to Ukrainian citizens residing in the NGCA. Instead, in February 2016, a government campaign was launched to suspend IDPs’ social and retirement benefits and was continued in 2017 under the pretext of fighting so-called “pension tourism” between the GCA and NGCA. Under this campaign, more than 700,000 residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions lost their means of survival overnight. Following this, the Poroshenko government did not attempt to immediately restore payments to all IDPs but rather approved procedures that interfered with the restoration of social benefits and pensions. These procedures also imposed new burdensome and discriminatory procedures for awarding, restoring, disseminating, and monitoring such benefits. The new laws strengthened the ability of authorities to decide whether or not individuals would continue to receive social benefits. This often involved inspections of IDPs’ actual places of residence, which may have been destroyed or damaged by the conflict.

The situation created a foundation for the growth of the region’s ‘shadow economy’, whose “local underground businesses” quickly became the only way to solve financial issues. The illegal economy of Donbas has flourished ever since and it now serves as a source of economic opportunity not only for financially strained local citizens but also for separatist groups. Moreover, recent reports show that there has been an increase in instances of child trafficking in recent years, as well as the increased use of children in the illicit production and trafficking of narcotics and psychotropic substances. Coal and amber mines in the region also continue to be exploited. Kyiv’s policy decisions in the past few years have only encouraged the growth of illegal businesses in the area. This has subsequently strengthened the presence of the militant groups and their income streams. Meanwhile, the Zelenskyy administration’s current inaction continues to make an already bad situation worse for the local population.

Today, IDPs still have to cross the line of contact in order to access their banks and re-register their status as an IDP to maintain their social benefits. The movement of people through the EECPs is necessary in order to maintain the most basic human rights of this population. Right to Protection and other NGOs continue to fight for the rights of the IDPs by pressuring the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, to introduce legal amendments that would help maintain the registry of births and deaths in non-government controlled areas. They are also fighting to introduce legal amendments that would ensure IDPs’ rights to participate in local elections. This is occurring alongside a campaign to ensure that the population continues to receive social benefits due to their status. Sadly, while the new government has been promising to look at some of these proposals, so far they have not done so. In light of this inaction, Zelenskyy’s strategy for Donbas does not seem to involve any substantial changes to the status quo.

Prioritising ceasefire or focusing on the release of all Ukrainian prisoners-of-war without simultaneously addressing the difficulties faced by the local population is simply a doomed strategy. When approaching the concept of peace in eastern Ukraine, the government needs to recognise and acknowledge the connections between the conflict’s prolongation and the continuing vulnerabilities of the local population in Donbas. Human insecurity increases the risk of continuing violent conflict as individuals are forced to engage with the forces of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” or “Luhansk People’s Republic”. This engagement subsequently helps Russia’s presence in the region, as well as the area’s illegal economic activity. The state’s ability to satisfy basic human needs will deteriorate significantly if ignored. In the context of eastern Ukraine, Zelenskyy’s continued inability to properly engage with the conflict could prove to be fatal.

Maryna Parfenchuk is a young graduate in European and Global Affairs, an activist, and a researcher of the Eastern European region. She is currently a freelance journalist writing about politics and society in Ukraine.

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