Ukraine has had a big year, which saw the formalization of an independent church, presidential and parliamentary elections that toppled the old political elite, continuous efforts to ensure secure energy supplies and gas transit to Europe, and the seeds sown for the country to succeed in its biggest quest of achieving peace in Donbas
MOSCOW (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 04th January, 2020) Ukraine has had a big year, which saw the formalization of an independent church, presidential and parliamentary elections that toppled the old political elite, continuous efforts to ensure secure energy supplies and gas transit to Europe, and the seeds sown for the country to succeed in its biggest quest of achieving peace in Donbas.
AUTOCEPHALY OF UKRAINIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH
On January 5, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew signed a special document, called a tomos, to officially recognize on behalf of Constantinople a new independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the culmination of a story in the works since fall of last year.
Except for Constantinople itself, this religious structure was never recognized by any of the 15 autocephalous Orthodox Churches. They deemed it schismatic, as opposed to the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, under the patronage of the Russian Orthodox Church since 1686. Various forms of criticism were voiced in personal letters to Bartholomew by the canonical Orthodox Church leaders. Belarusian Metropolitan Paul called it "a political gamble," while Polish Metropolitan Sawa, Serbian Patriarch Irinej and John X of Antioch all opined that the move was likely to exacerbate the existing societal split in Ukraine.
Despite non-recognition, then-President Petro Poroshenko served the Church's autocephaly as a triumphant victory, stressing that it was made possible through his efforts.
Many rightfully saw it as his trump card in the forthcoming presidential election. The topic was used in numerous billboards across Ukrainian cities, especially in Kiev. Poroshenko has compared the Ukrainian Church's independence from Moscow to a matter of national security, like integration with NATO and the European Union.
Elections - Presidential and Parlimentary
Notwithstanding his efforts, Poroshenko's ratings plummeted early in the year. By mid-January, social polls revealed that his public disapproval rating stood at over 80 percent. Meanwhile, a dark horse appeared in the presidential race comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Zelenskyy was best known as the producer and protagonist of a show called Servant of the People, which has been on the air since 2015. It tells a story of a young history teacher who unexpectedly wins the Ukrainian presidential election after one of his students secretly films and leaks a video of him damning the country's corrupt government. By the time the real vote was due to begin, Zelenskyy topped all the polls.
The presidential vote was held across Ukraine on March 31. However, areas of Donbas that were not under Kiev's control were excluded from the election, and polling stations were not set up for Ukrainians residing in Russia, the largest community of the Ukrainian diaspora. Together, the exclusions totaled up to 10 million eligible voters and 26 disregarded constituencies.
From the outset of the vote, Zelenskyy remained steadily ahead and came in first with 30.24 percent. Poroshenko came in second with 15.95 percent, followed by former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko with 13.4 percent and opposition leader Yuriy Boyko with 11.67 percent. A total of 39 candidates were cast on the ballots.
Despite some indications of paid-for votes, breached ballot count procedures, signs of e-meddling and the fact that Kiev barred observers from Russia, foreign monitoring missions recognized the election as valid. However, the leader of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly's mission, Michal Szczerba, said that it was "greatly affected" by the inability of Ukrainians to vote in Russia and Donbas.
The Ukrainian law prescribes for a runoff should the candidates fail to secure an outright majority in the first round. The very fact that there was a second round prompted many to call it a failure of Poroshenko's policies of the previous five years. Western media linked it to the young generation of Ukrainians being fed up with the corruption and unlawfulness of the old elite.
On April 21, the second round brought Zelenskyy to a landslide victory with 73.4 percent of the vote, as opposed to 24.4 percent cast for Poroshenko. The latter recognized his failure but stressed that it did not mean he would leave politics.
The president-elect, in the meantime, found himself before a parliament dominated by rival political forces with no representation whatsoever of his own Servant of the People party. A small opportunity window existed within the Ukrainian law to dissolve the parliament ahead of schedule, which Zelenskyy did not hesitate to seize.
On May 17, the Ukrainian ruling coalition officially broke down after the People's Front party announced its decision to leave. Parties have, de jure, 30 days to form a new coalition but no later than six months before the current convocation's mandate expires so not enough, in any case, to dissolve the legislature. Zelenskyy, however, claimed that the coalition de facto broke down long before that back in 2016.
On May 20, as Zelenskyy was sworn-in into the presidency, he announced the dissolution of the legislature and called an early general election to Ukraine's 450-seat unicameral parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, on July 21.
Zelenskyy's Servant of the People party claimed a comprehensive victory with 43.16 percent of the vote equivalent to 124 seats from party lists and 130 additional seats in single-mandate Constituencies, which brought it to an outright majority for forming a government.
The other parties that had made it beyond the minimum threshold of 5 percent were the Opposition Platform - For Life of former Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko with 13.05 percent, followed by Yulia Tymoshenko's Batkivshchyna with 8.18 percent, Poroshenko's European Solidarity with 8.10 percent, and the Voice party of famous Ukrainian singer Svyatoslav Vakarchuk with 5.82 percent. They gained a total of 43, 26, 25 and 20 seats, respectively.
Zelenskyy was now all set to begin implementing his election pledges to the fullest. Since his very first political steps, he vowed to keep his focus on the conflict in Donbas, specifically on issues regarding a ceasefire and the exchange of prisoners.
Donbas is the commonly-accepted name used to refer to the eastern Ukrainian breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which unilaterally proclaimed independence in April 2014 after what they considered to be a coup in Kiev three months earlier. The Ukrainian authorities responded by launching an offensive and triggering a military conflict that continues today. Additionally, Kiev has accused Moscow of backing the Donbas independence movement and interfering in Ukraine's domestic affairs claims that Russia has refuted.
Since 2014, the two Primary international mechanisms for mediating the conflict were the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Ukraine and Russia, with the participation of the People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and the so-called Normandy format talks France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine. These mechanisms have brought about two sets of de-escalation agreements, known as the Minsk Agreements of 2014 and 2015, respectively. Although these accords were functional for a while, they became stalled when Poroshenko declared an economic blockade against Donbas in 2016. Not only did Kiev stop buying coal and other industrial materials important to the region, but it stopped paying people their salaries, pensions and social welfare.
In April, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree facilitating the naturalization of Donbas residents as Russian citizens. He explained that the move was in no way intended to trouble Kiev and had a purely humanitarian rationale, as the situation with human rights violations in Donbas was beyond limits. As of today, more than 170,000 Donbas residents have Russian citizenship. To no surprise, the move was not particularly welcomed in Kiev, where the authorities refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Russian passports issued in Donbas.
Zelenskyy's strategy on Donbas has relied heavily on telephone diplomacy. In addition to regular calls to his counterparts in Germany and France, he revived another communication channel long forgotten in Kiev with Moscow. In July, he initiated a call with President Putin to discuss a recent escalation in Donbas and ask for an urgent Normandy format summit.
Throughout the summer, Zelenskyy reshuffled the Ukrainian delegation to the Trilateral Contact Group. He reinstated former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma as a representative of Kiev on this platform and fired Roman Bezsmertny, the Ukrainian envoy to the TCG's political subgroup known for his radical stances on how to best subdue the disobedient region.
The contact group's meetings throughout the summer and fall brought about several important agreements, including an exchange of prisoners 35 on each side and the withdrawal of troops from the contact line near the settlements of Stanytsia Luhanska, Petrivske and Zolote. A new ceasefire was also negotiated, however, the sides have continued to consistently accuse each other of violating it.
The adoption of a simpler version of the Minsk Agreements, dubbed the Steinmeier formula, was perhaps the most spotlighted outcome the international community applauded the deal, while the public in Kiev erupted with criticism. The plan, proposed in 2016 by then-German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, envisaged Ukraine to change its constitution to grant Donbas a special status for self-governance in exchange for the latter to hold local elections in line with Ukrainian law with the oversight of the OSCE.
It was the consensus on the Steinmeier formula and separation of forces that paved the way for the Normandy format talks to resume after a nearly three-year hiatus.
On December 9, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Zelenskyy met in Paris for consultations in the first of such meetings since October 2016. The summit began in quadrilateral format, then was put on hold two hours into it for Putin and Zelenskyy to hold bilateral talks, and then resumed for a couple more hours.
The very fact that the Normandy summit was made possible after more than a three-year gap gave an impetus to high expectations. Stakes were spurred even more by the first-ever meeting between Putin and Zelenskyy in face-to-face talks, a potential sign for many that relations may be thawing.
A slight disappointment was in the air as the quartet revealed the outcome a joint communique in which they pledged commitment to the Minsk accords and agreed to convene again in four months. In concrete terms, it came down to an immediate ceasefire, the exchange of all conflict-related prisoners by the year's end, amendments to the Ukrainian constitution that would ensure a special status to Donbas and an equidistant pull-out of forces from the contact line by the end of March.
"The Secretary-General [of the United Nations] welcomes the outcomes of the meeting of the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine (Normandy Four) held yesterday in Paris. The Secretary-General calls on all concerned to redouble their efforts to build on the recent progress towards a resolution of the conflict," UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said following the Normandy summit.
The spokesperson's comments signified that the summit went well but had no significant breakthroughs a sentiment shared by many in the international community, including the participants themselves.
"Last night, French President Emmanuel Macron and I briefed [other EU leaders] on the outcome of the Normandy summit. We can say that there is some progress, but it is not enough to say that sanctions could be lifted. Therefore, we unanimously decided to extend them," Merkel said within several days of the summit and after the EU Council announced the decision.
Putin, in the meantime, said that the summit "was very useful," and urged his counterparts to refrain from ambiguity in interpreting the Minsk agreements.
"The main thing is that we all started talking," Zelenskyy said after the bilateral meeting with Putin at the summit in what became his first full-length interview with Russian journalists since 2014.
GAS, PIPES and EUROATLANTIC ASPIRATIONS
Among the topics discussed tete-a-tete in Paris was the long-standing disagreement on Russian gas transit to Europe via Ukraine's territory. After the meeting, Zelenskyy said that they had managed to "unblock" the issue, and all that was left was for their advisers to work out the details.
The existing contract for the transit of Russian gas through Ukraine is due to expire on December 31 with no negotiated extension or alternative on the table. There are also pending mutual suits filed by Ukraine's Naftogaz and Russia's Gazprom with the Stockholm arbitration, in which Kiev came away as the net winner of $2.56 billion, while Moscow challenged the decision, with the potential for the process to protract for years now.
The gas giants have been negotiating regularly in a trilateral format with the added participation of European Commission Vice President for Interinstitutional Relations and Foresight Maros Sefcovic, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak and Ukrainian Energy Minister Oleksiy Orzhel.
In November, Gazprom proposed that Ukraine extend the transit contract or enter into a new year-long one, given the projected gas demand in Europe, with a prerequisite of both sides being to give up their lawsuits, as well as with Kiev making up its mind on purchasing gas directly from Russia. A negotiation between Ukraine's Naftogas and Russia's Gazprom was held on the sidelines of the Normandy talks and ended with the former calling it "constructive," while the latter said they agreed "to continue negotiations in the bilateral format in the coming days."
The latest trilateral talks, which were held on December 19 in Berlin and continued the following day in Minsk, finally broke the impasse and resulted in a longed-for protocol for gas transit signed between Kiev and Moscow.
The negotiations failed to bring about results until the eleventh hour. On the late evening of December 20 in Minsk, Gazprom and Naftogaz announced that they had reached an agreement to continue gas transit to Europe via Ukraine for another five years.
In particular, Moscow and Kiev signed a protocol under which Kiev committed to continue transiting Russian gas through its territory in the amount of 65 billion cubic meters (over 2 trillion cubic feet) in 2020 and 40 billion cubic meters annually thereafter until 2024. The sides also agreed to settle the existing legal claims, with Gazprom paying Kiev the outstanding $2.9 billion, as per the Stockholm arbitration's ruling, and Naftogaz dropping the $7.4 billion anti-monopoly claims against the Russian gas company. As for Ukraine's own energy demand, the protocol stipulated that direct supplies of Russian gas to the Ukrainian domestic market, stalled since November 2015, might resume if the parties agree upon the price.
As for Ukraine's own energy demand, if not buying gas directly from Russia, it will have to obtain the fuel via loop trajectories from its European neighbors with appropriate pipe networks, such as Romania and Moldova. Conversely, Kiev can continue purchasing liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the US the first 75,000-tonne batch already arrived in Poland in late November to be further transferred to Ukraine.
The European officials, in the meantime, have repeatedly stressed that they would much prefer Kiev to purchase directly from Russia and negotiate a deal for transit.
In Sefcovic's words, "our priority is to [reach] an agreement on a long-term contract. I believe that it is the best solution for all parties because I think that the Russian side needs to clearly underline the image of a reliable supplier, [while] the Ukrainians want to underline the image of a reliable carrier."
Ukraine is hardly ever willing to undermine its relations with Europe, from where it gets the lion's share of its external financial aid. According to the former EU High Representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, the aid package for Kiev over the past five years had been the biggest in the bloc's history. Plus, Zelenskyy has pledged repeatedly since his election the determination to uphold the implementation of EU-prescribed reforms in the country.
"Volodymyr Zelenskyy confirmed that Ukraine would remain a reliable partner in the issue of gas transit, and thanked the EU for its support in the trilateral negotiations," the Ukrainian presidential press service said the day after the Normandy summit.
It remains to be seen if this spirit of goodwill collaboration extends upon the Nord Stream 2 pipeline which, when completed, will run gas from Russia to Europe in a trajectory bypassing Ukraine. As of today, Ukraine has been actively opposing the new pipeline, reluctant to lose revenues from transiting Russian fuel. Moscow, in turn, has insisted that the project is purely commercial and not intended to void the transit via Ukraine.