Ukraine’s Zelensky Facing Protests After Agreeing to Russia Election Deal

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to the media on October 1, 2019 in Kiev, Ukraine. Ukraine has been at the core of a political storm in U.S. politics since the release of a whistleblower's complaint suggesting U.S. President Donald Trump, at the expense of U.S. foreign policy, pressured Ukraine to …
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s decision to accept, at least in theory, an agreement that would bring elections to Russian-occupied Donbas triggered protests in the heart of Kyiv on Wednesday night, from those who feel an agreement with Moscow would jeopardize Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Zelensky agreed to the “Steinmeier Formula” on Monday. The plan would require Russia to fully withdraw from Donbas and organize an election on self-rule in the eastern Ukrainian territory, administered with the oversight of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Russia would agree to withdraw and Ukraine to not actively govern the region if its people vote against it. The plan is named after German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who proposed it in 2016 when he served as foreign minister.

Critics contend that Russia has repeatedly denied having an official military presence in the territories of Ukraine it has colonized, instead opting for the use of unofficial militias doing Moscow’s bidding against the Ukrainian people. The Steinmeier Formula has no detailed provisions on how to ensure that Russia keeps its promise of keeping Russian forces out of Donbas while locals vote.

The plan Zelensky agreed to also does not specify what “self-rule” in Donbas would look like, arousing suspicions among Russian officials.

Zelensky was elected in a resounding rejection of Ukraine’s political establishment after playing President Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, a high school teacher who suddenly becomes president, in the series Servant of the People. Following the success of the series, independent Ukrainian activists established the “Servant of the People” political party, which took over the presidency in May.

His predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, criticized Zelensky’s acceptance of a pathway to elections as a victory for Putin.

Protesters demanded Zelensky’s exit from the presidency in Kyiv’s Maidan, the square popularized by the anti-Russia protests that brought Poroshenko to power, chanting “Zelensky out!” and “No capitulation,” according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). The Kyiv Post noted that, while the protests in front of Ukraine’s presidential offices attracted the most attention, Zelensky faced protests in at least three other major cities: Lviv, Kharkiv, and the key port city of Mariupol.

Poroshenko has publicly come out in support of the protesters.

“The Steinmeier formula means Putin’s formula, which radically changes the sequence of actions within Minsk agreements and throws away the roadmap of Minsk agreements,” Poroshenko said in a recent interview.

Upon agreeing to the Steinmeier plan, Zelensky insisted that no elections would occur if there was any indication that Russia was not complying with the Ukrainian demand that all foreign occupiers leave the Donbas region.

“There will be no elections ‘at the gunpoint’ … If someone (militants) will be there, there will be no elections,” the president said. He added that the election laws governing the voting would be Ukraine’s, not Russia’s, and that the election would be rendered void if the OSCE found any evidence of fraud or coercion.

The Kremlin appeared to accept Zelensky’s deal on Tuesday.

“There is no doubt that this is an important step toward implementing the earlier agreements,” Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters,” calling it a “positive” move. Russia’s foreign ministry condemned Zelensky on Thursday, however, for going forward with military equipment purchases following the deal – a sign he did not expect a guaranteed success from the agreement.

“What Ukraine really needs today is a settlement of the internal Ukrainian conflict, an end to the crisis in many fields, a better situation in the economy and struggle against corruption, harmonization of internal political processes and search for identity,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said. “I do not think that the supply of the weapon systems in question will be able to help resolve these issues somehow. But it will most certainly hit the Ukrainian budget once again.”

The Russian news agency TASS also cited “concerns” in Moscow that Zelensky stating he is seeking a new law on governance in Donbas and his lack of specificity in what “self-determination” means in the event of an election there is a sign he will not accept Russia colonizing more Ukrainian land.

Russia occupied, colonized, and ultimately annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014, claiming its population was ethnically Russian and did not want to be bound to Kyiv.

Over 13,000 people have died in fighting between Ukraine’s military and illegal pro-Russian guerrillas in the country’s east since 2014, according to the latest United Nations estimates, and total casualties number over 40,000. As the debate over the Steinmeier formula raged, Russian guerrillas conducted 30 different attacks on the Ukrainian military on Wednesday, according to the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN.

“The armed forces of the Russian Federation and its mercenaries violated the ceasefire 30 times on October 2. A Ukrainian soldier was wounded as a result of enemy shelling,” Ukraine’s forces confirmed.

The two sides are technically bound by an “indefinite” ceasefire agreed to in July.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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