Regionalism, oligarchs, elections and pro-Russian separatism

Regional divisions

The regional division between Ukraine's Russified east and Ukrainian nationalist west has been an important factor in its electoral politics, as has been the rivalry between Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk, the two big industrial centers of eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian politics is very complicated and fragmented, with no fewer than 122 registered political parties. Moreover, the parliamentary election law has been changed four times, shifting from single seat constituencies, to a mixed proportional representation/single seat constituency, to a full proportional representation system.

The oligarchs

The oligarchs are a small group of immensely wealthy individuals/families who hold enormous economic and political power in Ukraine.  The source of the oligarchs' wealth was the privatization of state-owned assets as the Soviet Union dissolved.  While a powerful Putin in Russia subordinated the oligarchs to his regime, in Ukraine a system evolved in which the state and its institutions co-exist with the oligarchs and their respective economic sector empires.  The oligarchs achieved their political power through their financing of and influence in various political parties, with this influence becoming ever more operative when these parties win elections.  All the major political parties and their leaders have depended on the patronage and support of oligarchs.

First post-Soviet elections
1991 presidential election

Leonid Kravchuk was elected president in the first round with 61.59 percent of the vote. Kravchuk had been secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party's Central Committee and chairman of Ukraine's parliament, and thus acting head of state during the 1991 hard-line coup in Moscow. He had resigned from the Communist Party in response and declared Ukraine independent.

1994 presidential election

Kravchuk was defeated by Leonid Kuchma, who had been his prime minister and had resigned complaining of the slow pace of reform. Ukraine thereby passed the test of a peaceful transfer of power. Kuchma, an industrial manager from eastern Ukraine, was widely expected to tilt the balance away from nationalist western Ukraine. Indeed, he himself spoke very poor Ukrainian when he took office.

1998 parliamentary elections

The Communist Party of Ukraine emerged as the largest party with 121 of 445 seats (and 24.7% of the vote). The other winners were Rukh with 46 seats (and 9.4% of the vote), Socialist Party/Peasants Party bloc with 34 seats (and 8.6% of the vote), Green Party with 19 seats (and 5.3% of the vote), People's Democratic Party with 28 seats (and 5% of the vote), Hromada with 24 seats (and 4.7% of the vote), and another 11 parties with fewer seats, plus 119 unaffiliated candidates.

The OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission's report noted that the campaign had been marred by incidents of violence, arrests and actions against candidates, with abuse of public office representing a serious shortcoming, raising questions about the neutrality of the state apparatus, even if the elections were conducted under a generally adequate legal and administrative framework.

1999 presidential election
Leonid Kuchma (by permission of Agência Brasil)

Leonid Kuchma (by permission of Agência Brasil)

Kuchma was reelected, running as an independent, in the second round with 56.25% of the vote. The OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission's report stated that the election failed to meet a significant number of OSCE election-related commitments.

2002 parliamentary elections
"Our Ukraine" Bloc wins most seats

The "Our Ukraine" 10-party bloc led by Viktor Yushchenko took 111 seats. The "For a United Ukraine" Bloc, consisting of five parties that supported President Kuchma, came in second with 101 seats. The Communist Party running on its own came in third with 66 seats.

Viktor Yushchenko (Flickr/European People's Party)

Viktor Yushchenko (Flickr/European People's Party)

A voter studies the ballot paper before voting during the Ukrainian parliamentary elections, Kyiv, 31 March 2002. (OSCE/Jens Eschenbaecher)

A voter studies the ballot paper before voting during the Ukrainian parliamentary elections, Kyiv, 31 March 2002. (OSCE/Jens Eschenbaecher)

The OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission's report noted progress compared to the 1998 parliamentary elections, stating that these elections brought Ukraine closer to meeting international commitments. It did emphasize, however, that the government failed to guarantee a level playing field, pointing to extreme bias in the state media and other abuses of authority. Other observers reported instances of vote-rigging, physical intimidation, and violence.

Coalition government formed
Viktor Yanukovych (premier.gov.ru)

Viktor Yanukovych (premier.gov.ru)

In November 2002, parliament endorsed the formation of a new coalition government with Donetsk region governor Viktor Yanukovych as prime minister. While the government included representatives of several factions, the Donetsk clan was the dominant force.

2004 presidential election

In the first round, Yanukovych received 40.03% of the vote, while Yushchenko received 39.16% of the vote. Since neither candidate received more than 50% of the vote, a second round was held. The first round had not met OSCE, COE and other European standards for democratic elections, according to the OSCE/ODIHR International Election Observation Mission (IEOM).

The results of the second round were disputed. The Ukrainian Central Election Commission said Yanukovych won 49.2% of the vote, with Yushchenko receiving 46.69% of the vote. The opposition claimed fraud. The IEOM stated that the elections had not met international standards.

The Orange Revolution

Following the announcement of the electoral results, a massive campaign of pro-Yushchenko protests and civil disobedience spread throughout the country, especially in the western regions and in Kyiv, named the “Orange Revolution.” Orange was originally adopted by the Yushchenko camp as its election campaign color, but came to represent the entire sequence of protest events after the disputed election. When the Ukrainian Constitutional Court decided (like the IEOM) that the election outcome was fraudulent, Yanukovych, decided that there was no alternative but to accept another second round of voting.

Demonstrators in Independence Square, Kyiv, November 22, 2004 (Creative Commons Attribution)

Demonstrators in Independence Square, Kyiv, November 22, 2004 (Creative Commons Attribution)

In December 2004, Yushchenko won the repeat election sanctioned by the Constitutional Court. He captured 52% of the vote, compared to 44% for Yanukovych. The Electoral Commission verified the result in January 2005.

Yushchenko’s first year

The new president initially faced serious challenges, including a possible hostile parliament. He also had to win the support of former rivals and build bridges with ethnic Russians and Russified Ukrainians living mostly in the east and south, including Crimea, in order to govern effectively. His choice of Yulia Tymoshenko, widely considered populist and anti-Russian, as prime minister did not ease his task.

Internationally, the new government received widespread support from the West. The OSCE CiO, Foreign Minister Rupel of Slovenia, welcomed Yushchenko’s election and attended his inauguration.

Yulia Tymoshenko (Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Yulia Tymoshenko (Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

In its first year, the new Ukrainian government faced political infighting, reports of continued corruption, a ballooning deficit, and reduced economic growth. Facing heavy criticism, Yushchenko fired Tymoshenko and dismissed the cabinet in September 2005 and nominated Dnipropetrovsk Governor Yuri Yekhanurov as prime minister. The Yekhanurov government was ousted by Parliament in January 2006 over the issue of the price Ukraine would pay Russia for natural gas, and served in a caretaker status until the March 2006 parliamentary elections.

March 2006 parliamentary elections

Yanukovych’s Party of Regions won 31.37% of the vote, with the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc unexpectedly coming in second with 22.44% of the vote, and President Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine Bloc a disappointing 14.44%. The Socialist Party won 5.86% and the Communist Party won 3.63%, with none of the other 45 parties contesting the election passing the 3% hurdle to enter Parliament.

Yushchenko, 2005 (OSCE/BOBO)

Yushchenko, 2005 (OSCE/BOBO)

The International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) report stated that these elections were conducted largely in line with OSCE and international standards, further consolidating the December 2004 breakthrough for the conduct of democratic elections in Ukraine.

“Orange Revolution” partners fail to form government
Yushchenko and Yanukovych turn to each other

The Tymoshenko Bloc, Yushchenko's Our Ukraine Bloc and the Socialist Party concluded a coalition agreement after months of acrimonious negotiation in June 2006, but mistrust and disagreement over the sharing of posts led to its unraveling. Yushchenko clearly did not want the increasingly ascendant Tymoshenko as prime minister. Finally, Yushchenko and Yanukovych formed a coalition in August, with Yanukovych becaming prime minister. The Tymoshenko Bloc went into opposition.

Nonetheless, Yushchenko and Yanukovych disagreed over Ukraine's foreign policy orientation, ministerial appointments, and the roles and powers of the president and prime minister. Conflict over who held executive power escalated during an eight-month confrontation between the president and the Yanukovych-led parliament. New parliamentary elections were eventually set for September 2007

2007 parliamentary elections

Although Yanukovych's Party of Regions won 175 seats, Tymoshenko’s BYuT Bloc with 156 seats and Our Ukraine-Peoples Self-Defense (NUNS) Bloc with 72 seats held a majority in parliament, and were able to form a government. The Party of Regions was pushed into the opposition. The Communist Party of Ukraine with 27 seats and the Ltyvyn Bloc with 20 seats were the only other parties of the 20 contesting the election that passed the 3% required minimum. Over 63% of registered voters participated in the election.

The OSCE/ODIHR International Election Observation Monitoring Mission reported that the elections were conducted mostly in line with OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and other international standards for democratic elections. Areas of concern included amendments to the Election Law (procedures for compiling voter lists, provisions on home voting, and provisions for removing voters) and the quality of voter lists.

Tymoshenko returns as prime minister

Tymoshenko narrowly won election in parliament as prime minister by a majority plus one vote on December 2007. All the opposition parliamentarians -- Party of Regions, Communist Party of Ukraine and Lytvin Bloc -- voted against her. She won the support of all the NUNS parliamentarians only thanks to pressure by Yushchenko.

Tymoshenko-Yushchenko rivalry

Nonetheless, the Tymoshenko-Yushchenko relationship increasingly frayed. Tymoshenko’s BYuT blockaded parliament in May 2008 to protest what it termed the “sabotage” of government policies. BYuT’s blockade prevented the president from giving his annual address, which had not happened since Ukraine’s independence from the USSR.

Tymoshenko also disagreed with Yushchenko's condemnation of Russia during the Russian war with Georgia, preferring a more neutral position.

In addition, Tymoshenko’s BYuT appeared ready to join the opposition Party of Regions in supporting constitutional amendments to strengthen the power of parliament. This appeared to end Yushchenko’s longstanding hopes to rebuild presidential powers reduced by the parliament’s 2004-06 constitutional reforms.

Yushchenko and Tymoshenko at European People's Party Summit in Lisbon, Ocober 18, 2008 (Flickr)

Yushchenko and Tymoshenko at European People's Party Summit in Lisbon, Ocober 18, 2008 (Flickr)

Going into 2009, there was hardly an issue on which Tymoshenko and Yushchenko did not disagree, and criticize each other in the media. Their conflict, added to the international economic crisis, made it increasingly difficult for Ukraine to implement the necessary governmental response. Only pressure from the International Monetary Fund, which insisted on a joint letter of intent to follow a coordinated policy in return for increased funding, convinced the two to agree to resolve some key policy differences.

2010 presidential election

Eighteen candidates contested the first round in January. Front-runners were Yanukovych with 35.32% of the vote, followed by Tymoshenko with 25.05%, Sergei Tigipko with 13%, Arseniy Yatsenyuk with 7%, and President Yushchenko with just above 5%.

The International Election Observation Mission reported that the first round of the election was of high quality, showed significant improvement over previous elections, and met most OSCE and Council of Europe commitments.

Since no candidate won more than 50% of the vote, Yanukovych and Tymoshenko faced each other in a February 2010 run-off.

Yanukovych won the second round with 48.95% to Tymoshenko’s 45.47% of the vote. The International Election Observation Mission reported that the February election met most OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections and consolidated progress achieved since 2004. The report noted that the process was transparent and offered voters a genuine choice between candidates representing diverse political views. However, it added that the unsubstantiated allegations of large-scale electoral fraud negatively affected the election atmosphere and voter confidence in the process.

The results for the presidential election underlined the country’s continuing deep divisions: the western and central regions voted for Tymoshenko, while the eastern and southern regions voted for Yanukovych.

The Downfall of Yulia Tymoshenko

Tymoshenko claimed the vote was rigged and petitioned the Higher Administrative Court in Kiev to scrutinize documents from the election districts in the Crimea, but the Court rejected her petition. Tymoshenko withdrew her petition to the Supreme Court of Ukraine, because she believed there were no legal provisions on which she could base an appeal.

In mid-March Tymoshenko was ousted as prime minister by a parliamentary vote of no-confidence and a pro-Yanukovych cabinet was approved headed by Mykola Azarov.

In May 2011 Tymoshenko was arrested and charged with abuse of office for having signed a gas import contract with Russia that included overly high gas prices. In October 2011 Tymoshenko was found guilty of the charges against her and sentenced to seven years imprisonment.

The U.S. and EU criticized the Ukrainian government's handling of the case. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Ashton stated the verdict showed justice in Ukraine was being applied selectively in politically-motivated prosecutions and would have implications for the country's future EU integration. Russia also criticized the trial's lack of impartiality and anti-Russian undertones. Belarusian President Lukashenko repeatedly called on the Ukrainian government to release Tymoshenko and offered her asylum in Belarus. In 2012 the Czech Republic granted asylum to Tymoshenko's husband, Oleksandr Tymoshenko. Their daughter remains in the Ukraine and actively supports her mother.

Ten additional criminal charges ranging from tax evasion, to theft of state funds, to murder were brought against Tymoshenko. In April 2012 Tymoshenko refused, due to poor health, to attend her trial to face renewed charges on tax invasion and the 2001 theft of state funds in from United Energy Systems Ukraine. Soon after, she was forcibly taken to hospital where she began a 20-day hunger strike to protest eroding democracy in the Ukraine and her prison conditions. Her doctors found her ill and were not permitted to conduct the necessary tests to determine the cause of her illness.

Tymoshenko has been treated for stress-related illness, and her condition worsened as a result of her hunger strike to protest the outcome of the elections.

In February 2013, a Kyiv court launched proceedings against Tymoshenko for allegedly funding the 1996 murder of Ukranian oligarch Yevhen Scherban.

In April 2013, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Tymoshenko's jailing was for other reasons than those permitted by law. (The Court issued a similar decision regarding another jailed Tymoshenko ally, former Interior Minister Yuri Lutsenko in 2012. He was paid compensation per the court ruling, but only released after Yanukovych pardoned him on humanitarian grounds, not in response to the court ruling.)  Tymoshenko was released by the new government established with Yanukovych's ouster in April 2014 (see below).

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko speaks during her trial, with Judge, Rodion Kireyev, left, reading the indictment at the Pecherskiy District Court in Kiev, Ukraine, October 11, 2011. (Voice of America)

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko speaks during her trial, with Judge, Rodion Kireyev, left, reading the indictment at the Pecherskiy District Court in Kiev, Ukraine, October 11, 2011. (Voice of America)

 

2012 parliamentary elections

Due to changes in the electoral law, the 2012 parliamentary election used a mixed voting system (50% under party lists and 50% under simple-majority constituencies) with a 5% election threshold. Participation by blocs of political parties was not permitted. A total of 445 deputies were elected of the 450 seats in parliament. The Central Electoral Commission was ordered by the Supreme Court to conduct repeat elections in five single-mandate constituencies.

Yanukovych's Party of Regions won 185 seats (with 41.56% of the vote), Tymoshenko's Fatherland United Opposition dropped in support to 101 seats (with 22.67% of the vote), heavyweight boxer Vitali Klitschko's Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR - "punch" in Ukrainian) won 40 seats (with 8.99% of the vote), Communist Party of Ukraine won 32 seats (with 7.11 % of the vote) and the right-wing nationalist Svoboda won 37 seats (with 8.44% of the vote). Yushchenko's Our Ukraine failed to win any seats and some members sought to dissolve the party in May 2013.

Dame Audrey Glover, Head of the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission to the 28 October 2012 parliamentary elections in Ukraine, presents the international observers’ Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions to journalists at a press conference, Kyiv, 29 October 2012. (OSCE/Jaroslav Francisko)

Dame Audrey Glover, Head of the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission to the 28 October 2012 parliamentary elections in Ukraine, presents the international observers’ Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions to journalists at a press conference, Kyiv, 29 October 2012. (OSCE/Jaroslav Francisko)

The OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission report characterized the elections as lacking a level playing field, caused primarily by the abuse of administrative resources, lack of transparency of campaign and party financing, and lack of balanced media coverage. Voting and counting were assessed mostly positively. Tabulation was assessed negatively as it lacked transparency.

Yanukovych removed from power
November 2013 decision to suspend talks with EU sparked three months of protests that led to his ouster

Yanukovych's decision to suspend talks with the EU on association and free trade sparked mass protests in Kyiv and western Ukraine. Demonstrations took place as Ukraine, the OSCE's departing CiO, hosted the December 5-6 OSCE ministerial meeting.

Yanukovych's three predecessors as president -- Kravchuk, Kuchma, and Yushchenko -- criticized his decision to turn away from the EU.

Protestors called for Yanukovych to resign, the holding of early presidential elections, granting the opposition the political power to negotiate agreements with the EU, and an IMF financial aid package to replace the loan from Moscow. (Other outstanding issues were the breakdown of authority as protestors seized government buildings outside of Kyiv, Ukraine's economic problems, reform of the internal security forces -- essentially unchanged since Soviet times, and Russia's role in Ukraine.)

OSCE CiO Swiss Foreign Minister Burkhalter appealed to all to refrain from violence and called for peaceful dialogue. He noted that OSCE had the tools and mechanisms to act as an impartial broker and offered to support Ukrainian authorities to lower tensions and prevent further escalation. He monitored a deal in which protestors left Kyiv City Hall in return for the dropping of charges. He also proposed nomination of an impartial international facilitator, possibly working with a respected Ukrainian personality, and dispatching of an international expert team to establish facts on violent incidents and human rights violations.

The crisis escalated in February when protestors and police clashed in central Kyiv. During two days over a hundred were killed and many more wounded as security forces fired at protestors in Kyiv. A group of EU foreign ministers and their Russian colleague mediated a deal between Yanukovych and protest leaders to return to the 2004 Constitution, which shifted power from the president to parliament, the holding of earlier presidential elections in 2015, and establishment of a government of national trust. Yanukovych then fled Kyiv to Russia, security forces withdrew from the city center, and a more significant shift in power took place.

Parliament voted to remove Yanukovych from power and the acting interior minister issued an arrest warrant for his arrest for the killing of civilians. Tymoshenko was released from prison and went to Maidan Square in Kyiv to speak to protestors. Oleksandr Turchynov, the deputy leader of Tymoshenko's Fatherland party, was named parliamentary speaker and interim president until new presidential elections were held May 25. Fatherland leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk was named prime minister and other members of the cabinet were drawn from the Fatherland and Swoboda parties, and Maidan protest leaders. Klitschko's UDAR party declined to participate in the new government.

Acting President and Prime Minister Oleksandr Turchynov (Wilkipedia Commons)

Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov (Wilkipedia Commons)

 

Russia occupies, then annexes Crimea
Pro-Russian groups seize government buildings in eastern Ukraine

Responding to the change of authority in Kyiv, pro-Russian groups/Russian military forces seized power in Crimea, followed by a mock referendum on joining Russia.  Moscow subsequently annexed Crimea. (See following section for more detail.)

During April 2014, pro-Russian groups seized more than a dozen government buildings in eastern Ukraine and called for a referendum on autonomy.  The seizures appeared to be far from spontaneous acts. Ukrainian authorities asserted that they were prepared to launch operations to recover the occupied buildings, but quickly showed a lack of capability. 
 
OSCE efforts to play a positive role in the Ukraine crisis

The OSCE has sought to play a stabilizing role in Ukraine at many levels.  This has included actions by the OSCE Chair-in-Office, Secretary General, High Commissioner on National Minorities, Representative on Freedom of the Media, ODIHR, and CiO Personal Envoy for Ukraine.

The OSCE Permanent Council agreed in March 2014 to deploy a Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to UkraineThe Chief Monitor is Ertogrul Apakan from Turkey, and his two deputies are Mark Etherington from the United Kingdom and Alexander Hug from Switzerland.  

OSCE Monitors prepare for deployment, Kyiv, 6 April 2014. (OSCE)

OSCE Monitors prepare for deployment, Kyiv, 6 April 2014. (OSCE)

Staffed by an initial 100 civilian monitors (now up to 543 from 44 participating states plus Ukrainian local staff), the mission was renewed by the PC for another six months (through September 20, 2014) at the request of Ukraine. The SMM is operating out of nine cities in eastern and southern Ukraine. The OSCE is issuing daily updates on the ongoing situation in eastern Ukraine to increase transparency and ensure accurate information on ongoing developments. SMM monitors have at times been detained by separatist groups, with two teams held by separatists for more than a month before they were released towards the end of June.  Russia has barred SMM monitors from Crimea, which it has annexed.

OSCE deployed a team of 15 experts to Ukraine to initiate a National Dialogue project to identify areas for further OSCE activities to support confidence-building between different parts of Ukrainian society. The team deployed for four weeks in locations agreed with the Ukrainian government to gather information on political, humanitarian and minority issues. The project sought to contribute to a peaceful and sustainable political transition in the country by supporting a national, inclusive and impartial dialogue throughout Ukraine. The team was deployed following a request by Ukraine and was carried out by the OSCE Project Co-ordinator in Ukraine. The 15-person expert team headed by Ambassador Hidajet Biščević of Croatia submitted a report with recommendations on how the OSCE can support dialogue and restore confidence in Ukraine on the local, regional and national levels.  The first National Dialogue Roundtable was held in Kyiv May 14, the second in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine on May 17, and a third in Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine May 21.  Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger is the OSCE CiO's representative to the National Dialogue Roundtables.

ODIHR and the High Commissioner on National Minorities also sent teams of human rights and minority rights experts to Ukraine respectively during March and April, and issued a joint report in May.

OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Mijatović has also highlighted the threat to journalists from violence, intimidation and psychological warfare in the conflict areas of eastern Ukraine.  See her May 23 report.

Thirty OSCE participating states also sent 56 military/civilian observers in response to an invitation by Ukraine under the Vienna Document 2011 on military transparency.  An observer team and their Ukrainian military escort were taken hostage by a pro-Russian group in Slavyansk in eastern Ukraine on April 25 and released on May 3.

The Swiss CiO announced next steps to "reverse the logic of escalation in Ukraine" on May 4 and is engaged in its implementation.

A Contact Group of Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE was set up in July 2014 (by Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia), to work with the Ukrainian government and separatists to set up a lasting truce.

U.S., Russia, EU and Ukraine agreement to de-escalate crisis in eastern Ukraine stillborn

The U.S., Russia, EU and Ukraine April 17, 2014 agreement to de-escalate the crisis in eastern Ukraine has not been implemented.  The agreement provided for pro-Russian armed groups that had occupied public buildings to depart in return for amnesty.  The OSCE was to play a leading role in assisting Ukrainian authorities and local communities in implementing the de-escalation measures.

Pro-Russian groups, however, refused to end their armed occupations of public buildings and facilities.  Secretary of State Kerry has said that Russia’s military intelligence services and special operators are playing an active role in destabilizing eastern Ukraine with personnel, weapons, operational planning and coordination.

Ukraine loses partial control of eastern Ukraine

By May 2014, Ukraine's police and security forces had lost control of the areas of Donesk and Luhansk, including about a dozen cities and 6.5 million people, to pro-Russian separatists. Local authorities sought to keep essential services running.  Ukrainian security forces tried to maintain and at times reassert control. Sporadic violence has continued.

Pro-Russian separatists held a May 11 referendum on autonomy, seeking to pre-empt Ukraine's presidential elections two weeks later, and subsequently declared a "Donesk People's Republic."

Oligarch Akhmetov steps in
Deploys workers and stabilizes several eastern Ukraine towns
Rinat AkhmetovTwitter  website

Rinat Akhmetov (Twitter website)

Oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, a longtime sponsor of former President Yanukovych and his Party of Regions,  mobilized workers from enterprises in eastern Ukraine and restored order in Mariupol and several other towns in mid-May.  He arranged deals for separatists to take down their barricades and for police backed by his workers to maintain law and order.  The separatists have not been pleased with his tacit support for Ukraine's integrity.  Showing the limits of his power, however, his call for workers to participate in rallies on May 20 against the separatists failed to bring out the masses.

Run up to the May 25 elections
Kyiv seeks to reassure eastern Ukraine

As Ukrainian officials stepped up their preparations to hold the May 25 elections, Parliament adopted a memorandum of peace and understanding to reassure the public that significant government changes would take place along with the election of a new president.  The resolution included promises of a constitutional overhaul, and assurances on the status of the Russian language and the ability of local governments to grant official approval to languages used by other minority groups.

Presidential and local elections in May 2014
Poroshenko wins presidency with majority
Choco

Petro Poroshenko (www.poroshenko.com.ua)

Petro Poroshenko--who has served as foreign minister, and owns Ukraine's largest chocolate producer and the Channel 5 television station, was victorious with about 56% of the May 25 vote.  Tymoshenko came in a distant second with 13% of the vote. Unofficial estimates put the nationwide turnout at 48%. No polling station were open in the separatist-controlled town of Donesk, and only 7 out of 12 district electoral commissions were operating in the Donesk and Luhansk regions due to pressure from pro-Russian separatists.

85-year old voter in Krasnoilsk, Chernivitsi region in Ukraine casts her vote during the early Presidential elections, 25 May, 2014. (Michael Forster Rothbart)

85-year old voter in Krasnoilsk, Chernivitsi region in Ukraine casts her vote during the early Presidential elections, 25 May, 2014. (Michael Forster Rothbart)

According to the International Election Observation Mission's preliminary report, the election was characterized by high voter turnout and the clear resolve of the authorities to hold what was a genuine election largely in line with international commitments and with a respect for fundamental freedoms in the vast majority of the country. This was despite the hostile security environment in two eastern regions and the increasing attempts to derail the process by armed groups in these areas. The Central and other election commissions operated impartially and collegially on the whole, although a number of transparency issues arose prior to election day and decisions taken may have been beyond their authority. The voting and counting process were transparent and largely in line with procedures, despite large lines of voters at polling stations in some parts of the country. The early stages of the tabulation process were evaluated less positively. 

In addition, a number of mayoral and local council elections, as well as some parliamentary by-elections were held.  UDAR leader Klitschko, who supported Poroshenko, won the race for mayor of Kyiv.

Parliamentary elections in October, 2014

On October 26, 2014, Ukraine held elections for the country’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. However, due to the continuing annexation of Crimea and ongoing war with Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine, elections were not held in Crimea, Sevastopol, or the Donetsk Oblast. Consequently, 27 of the 450 seats in the Verkhovna Rada remain empty.

Local and international observers largely considered the elections to be free and fair, despite a relatively low voter turnout of 52%. The results awarded the most seats to the Petro Poroshenko Bloc (132 seats) followed by the People’s Front (82 seats). The remaining seats were earned predominately by Self Reliance, Opposition Bloc, the Radical Party, and Fatherland, in addition to various independent candidates. However, because no party successfully earned the 226 votes necessary to form a parliamentary majority, the Poroshenko Block and People’s Front now form a coalition parliament.

Pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine held their own elections on November 2, 2014, which were denounces as illegitimate by the United States, European Union, and Kyiv. However, Russia has recognized the elected leader, Alexander Zakharchenko, who won over 81% of the vote.   

"Volunteers" from Russia arrive in Donesk
Members of the Vostok Battalion, a pro-Russia militia, escort an activist of the so-called People's Republic of Donetsk after detaining several of them following their storming of the regional state building in the eastern city of Donetsk on May 29.

Members of the Vostok Battalion, a pro-Russia militia, escort an activist of the so-called People's Republic of Donetsk after detaining several of them following their storming of the regional state building in the eastern city of Donetsk on May 29 (FRE)

Further complicating the situation, "volunteers" from Russia calling themselves the Vostok (East) Battalion, a Russian military force that has participated in various conflicts in the Caucasus over the last two decades, established themselves in Donesk, pushing out the local pro-Russian separatists from their headquarters on May 29. 

Ukrainian forces counterattack

After a series of Ukraine government-initiated ceasefires which were generally ignored by the separatists, President Poroshnko ordered Kyiv's security forces to go on the offensive in early July.

Shootdown of MH17 civilian passenger aircraft
Separatists down aircraft with Russian SAM missile system

As Ukrainian forces and Russian separatists battled each other in eastern Ukraine, Russian separatists using a Russian surface-to-air missile system shot down Malaysian Airways civilian aircraft MH17 on July 17, 2014, while overflying the area and flying at 33,000 feet, killing all 298 persons on board.  According to U.S. government officials, Russia provided the separatists with the BUK SAM system in addition to operational training. However, Russia blames Ukraine for the attack, claimiing that a Ukrainian fighter jet brought the plane down. Recovery of remains and investigation of the crash has been delayed and complicated by the separatists who control the area, as well as sporadic military action and exchanges of fire.

Days after the shootdown of MH17, two Ukrainian high-performance SU-25 military jets were shot down in the same area.

Members of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine examine the MH17 crash site.(OSCE)

Members of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine examine the MH17 crash site.(OSCE)

OSCE Special Monitoring Mission staff played a key role in gaining international access to the crash site and facilitating the emergency service personnel recovery of remains, and the work of crash and forensic investigators. 

Russia steps up involvement in eastern Ukraine
Satellite images pointing to movement of Russian tanks to eastern Ukraine, Jul

Release of satellite images pointing to movement of tanks from Russia to eastern Ukraine, June 2014 (NATO)

The U.S. stated in July 2014 that Russia is stepping up the supply of heavy material, including tanks and multiple launch rocket systems, to the separatists in eastern Ukraine, as well as providing them with artillery fire support from inside Russia. 

OSCE observers deployed at two border crossings
A map marked with the Russian checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk, where OSCE Observers will be stationed. (Google Maps)

A map marked with the Russian checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk, where OSCE Observers will be stationed. (Google Maps)

The OSCE PC approved in late July the deployment of a new Observer Mission of 15 personnel in Russia to observe the border of Russia and Ukraine.

The situation in eastern Ukraine, late August 2014

Ukrainian forces appeared to have regained three-quarters of the area of eastern Ukraine that had been seized by separatists, reportedly pushing into Luhansk and encircling Donetsk.  In response, seeking to preserve the separatist revolt, Russia expanded its involvement in Ukraine, making additional incursions into the border town of Novazovsk, the area near the coastal city of Mariupol and south of Donesk.  NATO Secretary General Rasmussen stated that Russian artillery support has been used against Ukrainian forces from inside Ukraine and from across the border in Russia.

Meanwhile, Russia sent a 280-truck humanitarian aid convoy to Eastern Ukraine in mid-August.  Concerned that the approaching convoy might be a cover for assistance to the separatists, the Ukrainian government insisted on a coordinated process involving International Committee of the Red Cross verification of the contents of the trucks.  After a first group of 32 trucks was inspected by the ICRC on August 22 and allowed to proceed, the arrangement broke down.  The remaining Russian trucks entered Ukraine without access being given to the ICRC or Ukrainian customs officials or border guards, and proceeded to an area controlled by the separatists.  The contents of the trucks remain unknown.

September Ceasefire

A ceasefire was signed in Minsk on September 5, 2014.  The ceasefire was repeatedly violated by both sides but by September 24, NATO was reporting the significant withdrawal of Russian troops after rebels had gained control of a stretch of territory along the Russian border that extended to the coast.  

In January 2015, fighting between the army and the rebels intensified in and around Donesk and Luhansk. On 22 January 2015, Ukrainian forces withdrew from Donesk airport's main terminal, after weeks of bitter fighting. Government forces had been able to shell rebel positions inside nearby Donesk - the largest city held by the militants. There were fears its capture could help the rebels to resupply - allowing munitions, hardware and manpower to be airlifted into the conflict zone but much of the airport suffered considerable destruction. The rebels continued their offensive in February. The fiercest fighting was near the town of Debaltseve, a crucial rail hub linking Donesk and Luhansk, where the rebels tried to surround Ukrainian troops. The military situation created strong incentives for the government in Kiev to reach a ceasefire.

 

February Ceasefire

A second ceasefire agreement was agreed to in Minsk on February 12, 2015. This ceasefire deal, which went into effect on February 15, included weapons withdrawals, prisoner releases, and a designated buffer zone, but a number of key issues were not addressed.

Main points of agreement were:

  1. Immediate bilateral ceasefire, to take effect within three days
  2. Bilateral withdrawal of heavy weapons, to be completed within two weeks
  3. OSCE monitoring
  4. Dialogue on local elections for the separatist-held regions
  5. Complete amnesty for participants in the conflict
  6. “All for all” release of hostages and detainees
  7. Internationally supervised delivery of humanitarian aid
  8. Restoration of full social and economic linkages, including pension payments and banking services, to affected regions
  9. Restoration of full Ukrainian government control of its border, contingent upon a political settlement
  10. Withdrawal of all foreign armed groups, weapons, and mercenaries, monitored by OSCE
  11. Constitutional reform by the end of 2015, including decentralization and permanent special status for the separatist-held regions.
Post-Ceasefire (February - present)

Despite the ceasefire agreement, heavy fighting continued around Debaltseve, with rebel forces pressing to capture the strategically important road and rail hub, to join up territory held in donetsk and Luhansk regions. Ukrainian Forces withdrew from Debaltseve on February 18. Both Ukraine and the Russian-backed rebels began to withdraw heavy weaponry from the ceasefire line beginning on March 6, and the ceasefire largely held through early April. .

Even so, fighting has continued sporadically between both side since the ceasefire was agreed upon. Each side has accused the other side of not living up to the terms of the ceasefire.  Ukraine has continued to ask the European countries and the US to continue sanctions on Russia while Russia has called on those same countries to increase pressure on the Kiev government to adhere to the ceasefire conditions.

OSCE head Lamberto Zannier stated in early March that while there were still violations, the ceasefire was broadly holding in eastern Ukraine because neither side was using large artillery systems and in some cases such heavy weapons systems were moved away from the ceasefire line.

Reports in early May, 2015 suggest that fighting in Donetsk has reverted to pre-ceasefire intensity as the rebels battle for Shirokino, Peski, and surrounding villages.