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The question posed in this Krytyka discussion forum – about the possibility and mechanisms of reconciliation between residents of the non-government controlled territories of Donbas and the rest of the Ukrainian society – is undoubtedly a timely and important one. However, the very phrasing of the question – about the reconciliation “after the present Russian aggression against Ukraine in the Donbas region ends and Ukrainian citizens who participated on the side of the separatists also lay down their arms and begin rebuilding their lives” – is setting up a hypothetical reality that may not emerge any time soon, if at all. Furthermore, the feasibility of this reality depends heavily on reconciliation measures Ukrainian government and society can choose to implement now, even before these conditions become real. We thus need to ask two different questions with regard to reconciliation. First, is there anything Ukraine can do now to bring about the reality where “Russian aggression against Ukraine in the Donbas region ends” and “Ukrainian citizens who participated on the side of the separatists also lay down their arms” and what is it? Second, if these conditions never occur, what can Ukraine and Ukrainians do now – in the situation of active separatist insurgency in Donbas and Russian support for this insurgency – to foster reconciliation between residents of non-government controlled territories and the rest of Ukraine?
Right now, the possibility that Russia will seize supporting the separatist “republics” in Donbas and separatists will lay down their weapons and return to ordinary life as citizens of Ukraine seems remote. Whatever were the main reasons behind Russia’s decision to back up separatist unrest in Donbas, so far Russia has shown no indication of backing down. Putin’s main concerns may have been domestic (Ukrainian Euromaidan created a dangerous next door precedent of people overthrowing an authoritarian ruler, which presents a threat to Putin’s own authoritarian regime); or he may have been primarily driven by security fears (or, perhaps more accurately, paranoia) about NATO imminently moving to Russia’s borders following the Euromaidan victory; or Putin and the Russian elites may be genuinely captivated by the mythology of “one people” and thus found it psychologically unbearable to have Ukraine move away from Russia’s socio-cultural orbit. Whatever the reason(s), unless there is some major domestic upheaval within Russia leading to regime change, or until Russia’s fears that motivated its support for the “Russian spring” are addressed, it is highly unlikely that Russia will stop backing the self-declared republics in the Donbas standoff.
This leaves Ukraine with two sets of decisions to make. The first is to decide whether it wants to offer some compromises/concessions to Russia in return for it leaning on separatist leaders to agree to be meaningfully re-integrated into Ukraine. Would Ukraine be willing to commit not to join NATO? Would it be willing to reform the constitution to enable regions (read Donbas) to have veto power over certain key policy issues, such as foreign alliances? Would Ukraine agree to implement political measures in the Minsk agreements in ways favored by Russia (for example, elections that would not be fully controlled by Ukrainian authorities and where some Ukrainian parties may not be able to run), with Ukrainian-Russian border control following (rather than preceding) other policy measures? The answer to all of these and similar possibilities by the Ukrainian side seems to be a resounding no. The most recent initiative from the Ukrainian side - a reintegration plan voiced by Ukraine’s interior minister Arsen Avakov 1 - contains some novel compromise elements, such as a new “law on collaborators” modeled on the post-WWII French law that could excuse collaboration with separatist authorities committed by ordinary citizens who had little choice to survive otherwise. But Avakov’s proposal still takes as a starting point a situation whereby following the introduction of an international peace-keeping mission all Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainian leadership of the pseudo-republics just pack up and leave. This seems highly unlikely to happen without Russia’s achieving at least some of its objectives vis-à-vis Ukraine. The Minsk process remains stalled, even though all sides continue to pay lip service to it, because virtually every political clause in the Minsk agreement (from the timing and sequence of proposed measures to the practical implementation of the agreed-upon measures such as elections, border control, amnesty or “special status”) can be realized on terms that would be favorable to one side or the other. And neither Ukraine nor Russia have shown any willingness to back down from their preferred positions so far. The end result is a stalemate that we currently have. Politically, this stalemate may be presented as not the worst outcome for Ukraine (especially given the other alternatives, such as reintegration of Donbas on Russia’s terms with possible veto power over central government decisions, or formal recognition of separatist authorities elected on terms favored by Russia), but this “not-so-terrible” political outcome comes hand in hand with continued conflict that is taking enormous toll on those ordinary Ukrainians who are directly affected by it.
Should Ukraine do anything differently? Currently even to suggest that Ukraine, in order to end the conflict in Donbas, may want to consider compromising in order to satisfy Russia’s interests seems to be a non-starter for the Ukrainian elites. Any political actor proposing such course of action will be accused of unpatriotic position, treason, or worse. With NATO recently acknowledging Ukraine as an “aspirant” country, a new Ukrainian law on the books adopted in 2017 making NATO integration a foreign policy priority, and recent announcement by President Poroshenko that Ukraine will seek a Membership Action Plan and constitutional amendments to reflect Ukraine’s NATO membership aspiration, a compromise on NATO aspirations looks improbable. Yet, with the NATO membership itself not a very likely prospect any time soon if at all, it may be worthwhile to at least have an honest discussion whether compromising on NATO membership might be a very valuable “carrot” Ukraine can play when negotiating over the Donbas settlement. In reality, Ukraine may be compromising very little substantively, but possibly gaining a lot, if Russia were to offer concrete concessions on the Donbas settlement and the Minsk process in return for Ukraine’s formal step away from the NATO membership ambition.
If Ukraine is not prepared to make any of the admittedly difficult political compromises in order to settle the Donbas conflict with Russia on terms that would deviate from Ukraine’s ultimate preferred position, then it is facing the second set of decisions, and the question we should be asking is what can be done to foster reconciliation between residents of the non-government controlled territories of Donbas and the rest of the Ukrainian society under current political circumstances, when Russian backing of the separatist cause is ongoing, self-declared “governments” de facto control the territories and their residents, and majority of separatist fighters have no intentions of laying down their weapons. Fostering reconciliation under these circumstances will also require some difficult compromises and soul-searching among residents of the “big Ukraine” and the Ukrainian government. These compromises may, however, stand to benefit Ukraine in the long term as they may be winning hearts and minds in Donbas and thus laying a foundation for a united Ukraine in the future, while in the short run compromise reconciliation measures could foster greater understanding between “big Ukraine” and non-government controlled regions of the “Donbas.”
Among measures that may be particularly impactful and important in this regard would be an acknowledgement on the part of the pro-Euromaidan Ukrainians that those Ukrainian citizens in Donbas and elsewhere who did not support Euromaidan and had various fears and grievances against the new government following the fall of Yanukovych have the right to have their voice heard in the post-Euromaidan public discourse. This does not mean that “big Ukraine” has to suddenly accept the misguided notion that Euromaidan was a far-right coup, or that the new government is a “fascist junta,” or that the new regime has been bent on discriminating Donbas and the Russian speakers. Rather, it means that in “big Ukraine” there has to be a public space for an open and honest discussion about issues such as the role of the far right during and after the Euromaidan; or the recognition and further conversation about the fact that the Donbas rebellion was not simply a Russia-manufactured conflict but an event that had complex causes, including local roots, participants, and grievances.
At this point, some may object that these types of acknowledgments would only serve to legitimize Russian narrative of the conflict, but it’s not the case. One-sided narratives that conveniently omit facts that do not support the narrative are easily undermined in the age of open access to information, and with that stand little chance of winning over those who a priori reject this narrative because of their prior beliefs and/or personal experiences. Can we seriously expect that, by casting residents of Donbas who did not side with the post-Euromaidan government either as Russia’s agents or as puppets brainwashed by the Russian propaganda, a divide between Ukrainians on the two sides of the “contact line” can be breached? This is no less futile than to insist, as many in Russia do, that pro-Euromaidan Ukrainians have been brainwashed by Western actors and powers and would turn to Russia if only Western patrons and the “junta” they installed in Kyiv would let them. Embracing as legitimate the complexity of attitudes Ukrainians, including Ukrainians in Donbas, hold about the cause and consequences of dramatic events in Ukraine’s recent history is not a solution per se but a method that, by fostering the culture of compromise, negotiation, and open discussion, could make reconciliation more likely. The terms of such a reconciliation would be set by society rather than mandated by the government, but a democratic government should welcome rather than fear this possibility.
A truth commission modeled on the examples from elsewhere could be a practical measure that would support the environment of open discussion where a variety of views can be expressed without individual repercussions or group stigmatization, eventually fostering a society-led reconciliation. Truth commissions have been created in more than 30 countries that have experienced conflict and massive human rights violations. Established to determine the facts, causes, and societal consequences of past human rights violations, truth commissions are a recognized reconciliation tool that helps societies to rebuild trust among citizens. In the Ukrainian context, the ongoing conflict poses a problem for a “classic” truth commission model that is generally set up after the conflict ends, but much of the work that these commissions do can begin before the conflict has ended, and Ukraine could choose to do so – starting, for example, by focusing on the conflict period experiences of liberated territories of the Donbas. If an independent truth commission were to be created, preferably with international involvement, to gather evidence and individual testimonies about violations of rights committed during the course of the Donbas conflict by actors on all sides, this could help foster reconciliation and subsequent societal integration. The independence of such a commission is key, otherwise, it can easily fall under suspicion of being one-sided. The idea that not only separatists but some members of pro-Ukrainian forces are also be guilty of human rights abuses and civilian victimization in Donbas, as international monitoring reports have shown,2 is not popular in Ukraine. But denial and lack of punishment of pro-Ukrainian perpetrators will not serve to build trust across the “contact line” divide, or foster loyalties to the Ukrainian state in the liberated territories. At the same time, it would admittedly be a very difficult choice for “big Ukraine” to prosecute and condemn its own rights violators in the situation of ongoing conflict and when the other side will not be engaging in a similar mea culpa.
Ultimately, however, meaningful and lasting reconciliation would require difficult compromises on all sides – be it by the residents of “big Ukraine” or by the residents of the non-government controlled Donbas. Since at present “big Ukraine” can only control its own choices, it is up to “big Ukraine” to decide whether to start an open but difficult dialogue that would break taboos about what constitutes a legitimate opinion or position to express. Creating public space for such a dialogue is something Ukraine has the power to do in the conditions of the continued Russian aggression and Russia’s support for the anti-Kyiv insurgency in Donbas. Inter-Ukraine dialogue by itself is not going to end Russian involvement in the Donbas conflict, but it can contribute towards reconciliation between “pro-Maidan” and “anti-Maidan” Ukrainians not only in Donbas but across the country. And as Ukrainians do the hard work of domestic bridge-building, Ukraine may also strengthen its bargaining position vis-à-vis Russia which would find it more difficult to claim that rabid nationalism is the Ukrainian government’s ideology. Perhaps then Ukraine will take the initiative and offer some creative compromise to Russia, with Western powers acting as guarantors of this political settlement. And then Krytyka-specified condition will finally be fulfilled - “the present Russian aggression against Ukraine in the Donbas region ends and Ukrainian citizens who participated on the side of the separatists also lay down their arms and begin rebuilding their lives.”