A Signal for Moldova? A referendum on Donbass Is Being Prepared in Ukraine

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Dumitru ASTAHOV A serious breakthrough has been outlined in the settlement in the Donbass: for the first time, Kiev and the self-proclaimed republics are ready to communicate directly. At the same time, Ukraine is developing a legislative framework for conducting nationwide referendum. It is believed that all these are links of one chain. Over the past 15 years, Ukraine has been in a state of almost permanent domestic political crisis and Ukrainian elites are searching for their places both: in the regional and global coordinate systems. In these conditions, the state needs nationwide reconciliation and definition of clear answers to questions of strategic importance for the future of Ukraine. Unfortunately, supersaturation of the informational space with coronavirus pandemic pushes away other important topics. For example, no special attention was paid to the fact that last week, the ruling party “Servant of the People” submitted the bill “On the All-Ukrainian Referendum” for public discussion. According to the document’s text, the subject of the all-Ukrainian referendum may become the approval of amendments to certain sections of the Constitution, the solution of the matter of national importance, the approval of law to ratify an international treaty that would provide for a change in the territory of Ukraine, and the termination of law or its individual provisions. In accordance with the working draft, no more than three questions can be submitted to the referendum at the same time and the results of the plebiscite should not be approved by any state body. It should be recalled that the principle of democracy strengthening of is one of the incumbent President Volodymyr Zelensky’s election campaign points.  According to president’s entourage functionaries the all-Ukrainian plebiscite is just one of the documents existing in the block of draft laws on democracy, followed by initiatives on local referendum, electronic petitions and a popular legislative initiative. The expert community has so far responded differently to the legislative initiative of the current Ukrainian authorities. Some politicians see in reference practice a lot of risks and the desire to blame crucial decisions on Ukrainian citizens. A number of analysts see in such Kiev’s actions a search for legal forms and methods to resolve vital issues, the further development of the economy and the stable coexistence of Ukrainian citizens has no prospects without. It should be noted that rumors on popular plebiscite as the best way for political maneuver (if necessary to agree on the “historical solution”) have long been circulating in Kiev’s power halls. Last year, the head of Volodymyr Zelensky’s office stated in his speeches that it is planned to submit a consideration of the issue of drawing up agreements with the Russian Federation to the referendum. As the presidential administration believed, not only politicians, but also the population should express their opinion on important issues. Undoubtedly, in modern Ukraine there are many topics that split the Ukrainian society and, as a result, the state itself. Nevertheless, Kiev needs to determine the internal integration model, which will provide the necessary conditions for the further development of the country within the de facto existing borders. Apparently, the current and past Ukrainian elites have learned a lot of lessons from the situation with the Crimea and the Donbass, finding innovative creative approaches that could contribute to an early peaceful settlement of these territorial disputes and the transition to the post-conflict phase of events. The reference principle in this case is not the worst option for socio-political and state building. It is characteristic that the elaboration of the legal framework for referendum holding occurs simultaneously with a noticeable revival around the process of resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The other day it became known about the creation of a new settlement mechanism, which was announced after the meeting between the deputy head of Russian presidential administration of Dmitry Kozak and the Ukrainian leader head office Andrey Yermak. His principal innovation will be direct communication between Kiev and its breakaway territories, which can be considered a huge breakthrough -  because earlier, the Ukrainian side categorically refused such contacts insisting on the external rather than internal background of the conflict. Taking into account the change of persons who are in charge of his decision both in Ukraine and in Russia and the general mood of international participants to achieve progress (which, to a large degree, predetermined the Ukrainian leadership change last year), it can be predicted that the Donbass settlement process will gain more and more dynamic move with the prospect of reaching strategic agreements. To reach the approval, the ready-made practices for conducting nationwide plebiscites will be used and it is also to help relieve pressure on the Ukrainian authorities from the so-called “party of war”. Drawing parallels with the Transdniestrian settlement, it should be recalled that a number of international experts have long been making recommendations on the feasibility to hold a broad public plebiscite on the banks of the Dniester. Its goal could be a clear definition of options for the final conflict settlement which will allow avoiding endless speculation and cabinet positions, sometimes far from public opinion, and will help politicians in Chisinau and Tiraspol choose the trajectory of the negotiation process that is most relevant to the population’s interests. Previously, there was a widespread opinion among the expert community that, when the Moldovan-Transdniestrian conflict is resolved, the developed model will be tested by international players in Ukraine. However, it is obvious that at the current stage, the dynamics of events around the Donbass are far superior to those in Moldova, where relations between Chisinau and Tiraspol are on the verge of a new “freeze”. Therefore, it is possible that if the new approaches to working the Donbass case out prove their effectiveness and success then they will be used for the final solution of the Transdniestrian issue and not vice versa.