Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s team has come up against its first serious problems since triumphantly sweeping to power. Massive street protests have broken out in Kiev under the slogan of “No Capitulation!” in response to the Steinmeier formula signed in Minsk and aimed at ending the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region. There is even talk of another Maidan revolution.

The local elections in the Donbas stipulated by the much-vaunted Steinmeier formula quickly awoke fears in some parts of Ukrainian society of legalized Russian interference. The exact conditions and procedures for Donbas elections are still theoretical at this point, and depend on complex negotiations, but many Ukrainians already expect the worst.

In the vanguard of the protests against Zelensky’s peace process initiatives are, predictably, the nationalists, who have formed an ad hoc alliance with supporters of former president Petro Poroshenko. President Zelensky may have the support of more than 70 percent of voters and a majority in parliament, but they are a passive majority: voting and taking to the streets are two very different things. The national-patriotic minority, on the other hand, is motivated and prepared to mobilize.

To a large extent, the protests have been caused by Zelensky’s inability to explain sufficiently clearly to society the substance of his peace plan. Having failed to get intelligible answers from the authorities, people have drawn their own conclusions, and the Steinmeier formula has turned into a political Rorschach test, in which everyone sees something different. Those protesting on Kiev’s central square—the Maidan—see in it capitulation to Moscow.

Street protests are now the most reliable tool for political forces that have no way to oppose Zelensky in parliament following his party’s landslide victory. Poroshenko, meanwhile, is using the protests to evoke the phantom of the 2013–2014 Maidan uprising, in order to gain leverage with the new authorities over getting immunity from prosecution. The nationalists are threatening to disrupt the withdrawal of troops from the Donbas by replacing Ukrainian army units with volunteers.

The pro-Russian Opposition Platform led by Viktor Medvedchuk is also bound to try to use the protests to exert pressure on the president. It is firmly in the interests of the party—a successor to the former ruling Party of Regions—to see the Steinmeier formula enacted and their supporter strongholds in Donbas returned to Ukraine’s political field. After all, as well as local elections, the currently vacant parliamentary seats for the two breakaway regions are also up for grabs.

Zelensky is in a difficult situation: he doesn’t want to break with the values of the Maidan revolution, so he can’t just ignore the protesters, even if they do represent a minority. But nor can he overindulge crowds behind whom stand representatives of the old elite toppled by Maidan.

The threat of destabilization is working to strengthen the authoritarian tendencies of Zelensky’s rule. He sees that everywhere he has not managed to install his power vertical and his people, the seed of chaos and sabotage is germinating. Having decided not to call snap local elections, for example, regional councils in western Ukraine controlled by Poroshenko’s people are now passing resolutions against the Steinmeier formula, while the capital itself is run by Kiev Mayor Vitali Klitschko, who is not loyal to Zelensky either. Yet turning the screws isn’t really an option: the president certainly doesn’t want to end up like former president Viktor Yanukovych, who was overthrown by the Maidan revolution.

Such a strong reaction among Ukrainian society to even the idea of holding elections in the Donbas means organizing those elections will be no easy matter. In the event that Normandy format talks between Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France are successful, Zelensky’s office is considering two scenarios for holding elections in the self-declared people’s republics of Luhansk and Donetsk (LNR and DNR): either at the same time as local elections across the country in the fall of 2020, or separately, in the spring or summer of that year. The most favorable option for Zelensky would be holding elections across the nation at the same time, to relaunch the entire system of local autonomy.

Due to the closed nature of the LNR and DNR, it’s hard to gauge how ready their inhabitants are to accept the scheme of reintegration into Ukraine envisaged by the Steinmeier formula. A survey of public opinion in the separatist territories carried out in August 2019 by a German pollster showed that 31 percent of people supported autonomous status within Ukraine, 27 percent supported autonomous status within Russia, and 24 percent wanted to return to the pre-war situation as regions of Ukraine. That is a fairly optimistic picture for Kiev: more than half would like to reintegrate into Ukraine in one way or another.

But exactly how elections could be held in the parts of Donbas that are not under Kiev’s control is still not clear. The Ukrainian side insists that elections can only be held after all illegal military groupings withdraw or disarm, and control is restored over the Russia-Ukraine border: the subject of fierce disagreement between Kiev and Moscow, along with demilitarization and the possibility of a peacekeeping contingent. 

There are also other unanswered questions, such as whether Ukraine will recognize participation in the election by people in the territories who have been issued Russian passports, and whether pro-Ukrainian Donbas residents—most of whom fled the region in 2014—will be able to safely take part in the vote. There is also the issue of how to avoid new spirals of the conflict, since those who left and those who remained consider each other traitors.

There is also the tricky issue to consider of supporters of the separatists taking part in the elections. The last thing that both the Ukrainian authorities and society want to see is representatives of the separatists in the new authorities, but to bar them from taking part in the elections would be a blow to the entire teetering construction of the peace process.

The Steinmeier formula does not envisage the existence of the LNR and DNR, meaning the future of their elites is unknown. Both leaders of the Donbas self-proclaimed republics, Leonid Pasechnik and Denis Pushilin, have opposed Ukraine’s demand for control of the border, and continue to state that their goal is integration with Russia. Such signals show that the Donbas elites have a vested interest in indefinitely prolonging the status quo.

Even under the most favorable circumstances, solving the problems that have formed in the Donbas over the last five years of the crisis will take time. Ukrainian society expects quick solutions from its new leader, but any kind of improvisation on such volatile ground is fraught with even bigger complications. 

Zelensky will have to perform miracles to prevent internal destabilization within the country, and it’s by no means certain that he will cope with the task. Yet he has no other options, except to continue along the path of the peace process by trial and error. Zelensky’s opponents can accuse him of surrendering the national interests until they are blue in the face, but the opposition has no intelligible alternative, not counting a war until the bitter end for Ukrainians, or an endless situation of neither war nor peace that can only possibly suit shadowy figures on both sides of the front.

  • Konstantin Skorkin