Donbas Special Status Law Sparks Outrage, Protests
Reading of law leads to clashes in Ukrainian parliament
Ukrainian lawmakers clashed in the Vekhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) on October 5 over controversies around a law, which would extend the “special status” of non-government-controlled territories in eastern Ukraine by one year. Activity around this law did not just stop within the halls of parliament, as large demonstrations against the passage of the law took place in Kyiv.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Ukraine’s Western partners support the extension of the special status, stating that it is a vital step to the full implementation of the Minsk accords.
After much debate and drama, the Vekhovna Rada passed the new bill (№7163-4) in its first reading on October 6, notably without all provisions of the bill specifically mentioning the Minsk agreements.
What evoked such strong reactions to bill №7163 in the Vekhovna Rada, popularly called the “reintegration,” “deoccupation,” or “special status” bill, and what have the reactions been in Ukraine, the occupied portions of the Donbas, the West, and Russia?
The second Minsk agreement, negotiated in early 2015, specifies the following directive:
“…approval of permanent legislation on the special status of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.”
In March 2015, the Ukrainian parliament modified an October 2014 bill to grant the occupied territory a “special status” in accordance with the Minsk directive; however, this would only come into force after internationally-recognized free and fair elections take place in eastern Ukraine. These elections have not yet taken place. The current bill in the Verkhovna Rada, called “On the peculiarities of state policy on the restoration of the state sovereignty of Ukraine over the temporarily occupied territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine,” will extend the special status of the non-government-controlled areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts by one year, after the three-year term from the October 2014 bill expired. In addition, along with other provisions, there is specific language in the bill that will officially state that Russia is an armed aggressor in the ongoing conflict in the Donbas.
Supporting the passage of the bill, Oleksandr Turchynov, Secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council (NSDC), stated “the adoption of the draft law will establish conditions for efficiently protecting Ukraine’s national security, rebuffing Russia’s military aggression, and liberating the territories occupied by the Russian Federation.”
The Verkhovna Rada never voted for or against the bill, which was tabled by President Poroshenko following a series of dramatic episodes described as such by UNIAN:
Later a few dozen MPs, including those from Samopomich and nonaligned ones, gathered in the presidium area and near the parliamentary rostrum and attempted to block the parliament’s work. In particular, Samopomich MPs Yehor Sobolev and Viktoria Voitsytska started to unscrew Parubiy’s microphones while he was absent at his workplace. Parubiy wanted to return but he was blocked, which was followed by a brawl. In particular, Samopomich MPs Yehor Sobolev and Viktoria Voitsytska started to unscrew Parubiy’s microphones while he was absent at his workplace. Parubiy wanted to return but he was blocked, which was followed by a brawl.
The Ukrainian MPs opposed to the law agree with the bill’s language that describes Russia as an aggressor in the conflict, but one of the main points of disagreement is the recognition of occupied territories of having special status. Granting a special status to Russian and so-called separatist-controlled territories of Ukraine, opponents of the bill argue, undermines Ukraine’s sovereignty. In particular, members of the Samopomich (Self-Reliance) block were against the bill and helped organize many of the theatrics in the Verkhovna Rada. On their website, Samopomich called the bill a “law of capitulation” and said that it would “in the future, legitimize the authority of the Russian-occupational administration.”
Ukrainian far-right groups, including the ultra-nationalist Azov Battalion, have taken credit for disrupting the voting for the law and the protests outside of the Verkhovna Rada from October 5–6.
Ukraine’s Western allies support the bill, holding it as an example of the ongoing (albeit very slow) implementation of the second Minsk accords.
A German official told Deutsche Welle that the bill was an “important step toward the implementation of the Minsk agreements.”
However, the bill has not been welcome news in Russia and the Russian-led separatist territories in the Donbas. Boris Gryzlov, Russia’s representative to the Minsk Trilateral Contact Group (TCG), stated that the proposed bill stands in contradiction to the Minsk agreements, and that it supposedly separates the Donbas from Ukraine and “blocks the Minsk process.”
Officials from the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine did not mince words in their opposition to the bill. Denis Pushilin, the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic’s (DNR) representative to the TCG, said that Ukrainian President “Pyotr” Poroshenko (a likely deliberate Russification of Petro Poroshenko’s name) is “choosing war” with his introduction of the bill.
The implementation of the “special status” directive of the second Minsk accords is one of many unfulfilled points of the strained agreement. While bill №7163-4 garnered strong reactions from Ukrainian civil society and a number of political blocs, many of the points within — specifically regarding a formal recognition of Russian aggression — are almost unanimously agreed upon among disparate political groups. However, it remains important to keep in mind that nearly all of the discussion of reintegrating the Donbas with Ukraine is purely theoretical, with no endpoint in sight for a true deescalation of the war in the Donbas and an end to Russian aggression and Russian support for its two “separatist republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk.