Dialogue Needed: Conflict Resolution in Donbas
31 July, 2017

Ukraine’s international partners are committed to ending the war in the Donbas and restoring the country’s territorial integrity. But the first critical stage must be acknowledging the other side as an equal negotiating partner, says conflict resolution expert Goran Lojancic.

On July 9, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Ukraine and threw his support behind the country’s territorial sovereignty. The United States further appointed Kurt Volker as the country’s Special Representative for Ukrainian Negotiations.

But assigning an American point person is not enough to resolve the conflict. The initiative must also come from Kyiv.

According to Lojancic, Ukraine needs dialogue with its opponents to move toward peace. However, the Ukrainian government does not acknowledge the leaders of self-proclaimed “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics” as legitimate partners, and there is little discussion across the front line.

Hromadske sat down with Lojancic to talk about conflict resolution and why he believes now is the right time for dialogue.

My first question is about the Ukrainian conflict. Our government, many experts, psychologists say they’ve never seen another conflict like this in another country, that we are special in this. It’s not an ethnic conflict like it was between Albania and Serbia. What can you advise in this situation?

Goran Lojancic: This is what we call conflict pride, or conflict vanity, wherever you go people say, “we have a specific conflict,” that it’s unique. In some strange way, they are almost proud of the specifics of their conflict. This is partly true, because every conflict is unique, in terms of different situations on the field, the kind of players, but there are some overall elements in every conflict that are the same.

You have a training here in Ukraine, in Kyiv, Kharkiv and in the Donbas region in Kramatorsk. Who is this training for? Will the Ukrainian government want to hear about dialogue because building a dialogue is not a very popular issue now in Ukraine because everyone is saying, including people in government, that it is not a good time to build a dialogue because Donbas is a hotspot at the moment.

Goran Lojancic: That is also something that I’ve not heard for the first time. People saying that it’s not the time to talk, then when is the time to talk? It’s always time to talk. It’s not the problem. If you ask me, I’d say it’s not a good time to fight, because there are different kind of consequences, but it’s just a matter of evaluating the situation. I think it’s possible.

Dialogue initiative by itself, any dialogue initiative, cannot change anything. Dialogue can change everything, but dialogue initiative cannot change anything. People think about dialogue as something that happens; people go to war, and then when they finish the war they have to reconstruct and then they have to talk about reconstruction so they sit down and have dialogue. It’s not like that. If I have the time, I’d like to explain how it works. There is an obvious connection between violence and broken social dialogue, because broken social dialogue is a consequence of violence. You fight, you get to fight, you kill each other, and of course, when guns are talking, people are not. That’s very obvious. But, there is also the broken dialogue that leads to conflict, it’s a twofold relationship. There is broken dialogue here, before the conflict starts that leads to conflict, it causes the conflict, and this is the one that we neglect very often.

But what I think about our conflict - on the one hand, there are 25,000 people every day who cross the contact line between the occupied territory and the territory controlled by the Ukrainian government and army, but, on the other hand, the Ukrainian government, for example, asks: whom can we speak with if the people who call themselves the ‘government’ in the occupied territories are just terrorists and rebels, and some people who cross the contact line also think that they are a government, but the Ukrainian government does not consider them to be a government. Who can we speak with?

Goran Lojancic: There are many ways I can answer this question. First of all, I think that people crossing over having conversations is a good asset. I don’t mean to criticize anybody, to give advice to anybody, but I think that governments shouldn’t be an obstacle for dialogue, they should actually provoke it, they should be the ones leading it, especially if there are already initiatives on the ground. If people want to talk to each other, government should be the one saying: no, we are not going to talk to these guys. Secondly, there are four critical stages for dialogue intervention and the very first one is acknowledgement. That’s the very first stage, you cannot move unless you acknowledge that you have a partner on the other side. You may not like it, you may even hate it, it’s absolutely your choice, but to be self-righteous all the time sometimes does not help. It’s nice to be right and it’s nice to have rights but sometimes it’s just not good enough. Sometimes it’s not enough to be right. Sometimes you have to go over because if we are just stuck in our self-righteous positions, saying: no, we are not going to talk to them, I’m right, there is not much we can do.

One person may think that it’s OK, but some people do and not just think wrong things - like the people who are fighting with guns against Ukraine on Ukrainian territory. The government says that they can’t speak with the terrorists, nobody can speak with terrorists, but we have a situation where someone should speak with someone, because otherwise nothing will happen.

Dialogue is not a replacement for legal issues. So if somebody committed a war crime then he or she committed a war crime. You cannot just say: let’s have a dialogue and forget about it. It is also possible to have a dialogue with a community, but also take out from the community people who actually did bad things during the war and prosecute them in the way that the legal systems prosecute. I don’t think that any community in the world could benefit from hiding their own war criminals, which happens sometimes. People say they are national heroes: we are not going to prosecute him because he is a national hero. No, they are not, they are war criminals and they should be prosecuted. But, it doesn’t mean that it should abolish dialogue between communities because not everybody on any side are war criminals. Most of the people living in both East or West Ukraine, or on the west coast, or in Kosovo, in Bosnia, in Rwanda, in Azerbaijan, most of the people on both sides are simply victims.

What do you think could help in terms of a building a dialogue? For example, we have this situation where the Ukrainian government is not paying for the pensions of the people who live in the occupied territory in the Donbas area, but they are still Ukrainian citizens, who should legally be receiving these pensions. They are very angry at the Ukrainian government, for whom the fact they believe they are Ukrainians and what to be Ukrainian doesn’t matter. The Ukrainian government says they can’t because it is the territory of terrorists and they don’t want to think their money is going to terrorists and not the citizens. This is a big problem and people don’t believe in the Ukrainian government. Another problem is that we have propaganda. In the occupied territory they have their own propaganda, that the Ukrainian government and army are the enemies, and we have the same on this side. Even between myself and my colleagues, between journalists, we have these negative conversations because one of us doesn’t want to mention the war crimes within the Ukrainian army, and someone else wants be like a professional journalist and talk about all the truths, not just some of them - about what’s happening on the contact line and the hotspots. Now I have the feeling that we are far away from dialogue, even further than at the beginning of the conflict.

Goran Lojancic: I know what I would do if I was the Ukrainian government, if I was the Ukrainian Prime Minister. I would make an open invitation for whoever wants to speak from the East, and whoever wants to speak from Russia and I would say: Look, this is unbearable, this is not good for any of us, it’s tearing apart Ukraine as a country. We have to deal with it somehow. We may not come to a solution, we may speak for the next 15 or 20 years and realise that we can’t do anything, but one day we will have to sit and talk, either by ourselves, or we will be pushed by the European Union, the United States or whoever. So it’s better for me to take initiative and say: let’s do it, than to wait for someone else to take the initiative from me and put me in a situation, not to have a dialogue but to negotiate maybe. Because the thing with this line that I was talking about, after and before conflict - here [before] you can have a social dialogue, here [after], you can only replace, because here, the conflict creates consequences, and you can’t have what you could have had before. So here [after] you have to replace. If you want to replace it with something that goes in your favour, it’s better to take initiative than to be replaced into some kind of solution that will be created in Brussels or in Washington, or between Washington and Moscow - these big guys just have their own agendas. If I were just a Ukrainian citizen who has a feeling of some kind of responsibility, I would speak to whoever I could, whoever wants to speak from the other side - NGO activists, journalists, common people, anybody who wants to speak. Just teachers, just 20 or 30 people in the same room, sitting down and talking about these things. It’s much easier if it’s organised and paid for by somebody of course. I was here in Kyiv in December for this huge dialogue conference and I don’t think that the problem is that you don’t have a lot of initiatives - you do have a lot of beautiful initiatives created by beautiful people. I was impressed by what I saw.

Yeah, I agree but we have the so called ‘party of war’ and ‘party of peace’, and the president, for example, was in the ‘party of peace’ but now he wants to go to the ‘party of war’ because the presidential election is coming up and many people in society think that we should just fight for the territory and not try dialogue initiative.

That’s the problem in itself, we haven’t even had time to speak about it. Life goes on. You have this conflict that lasts for years, but life goes on - you have elections, you have media and cliques that wants a curriculum and all that kind of stuff, so they use this conflict for second-rate purposes. I’m sorry, but the conflict is the first-rate priority in Ukraine - the way I see it. It has to be resolved because, in philosophy they call it a ‘metapolitical issue’, it’s beyond politics to organise the state in an appropriate way and who cares about the elections and which party is going to win when this is the most important thing. But, you have people using the conflict in their everyday professional or political work and it just adds fuel. It adds fuel to the fire and it makes conflict even more difficult to solve. Politicians very often think that if they can quickly forget what they were talking about before the elections, during the elections period, then everyone else will forget. But it doesn’t happen that way.

If you overdo it, you will end up in a frozen conflict. I believe that Crimea already has all the major elements of a frozen conflict. A frozen conflict is a conflict that does not move. It will sit there and it will bug us and bother us for decades and decades. That’s what happens when you overuse a conflict in the wrong way.

Why is it important? For example, journalists and activists can explain to politicians that it is important to build dialogue, that it’s important to build peace agreements. Yes, this peace building is for the people but for them it’s not important right now, it’s not popular.

Goran Lojancic: I see the importance because I’ve been there in many conflicts, I spoke with people and I can tell you that most of the people everywhere, they don’t want this, they don’t want this life, which I understand perfectly because we have this one life, and what we do in this life, that’s it. You don’t want to sit in the Donbas region and be surrounded by conflict for 30 years, listening to the bombs flying overhead and live this life because people adjust - there is conflict but they kind of continue to live, to live their lives under stress and anguish. Nobody wants that.

But, in Ukraine, politicians say that this territory the responsibility of Russia. They can’t do anything. They try, but they can’t.

Goran Lojancic: A colleague of mine said that he spoke with an elderly guy from Donbas and he said: The way I see this conflict, we fight against Ukraine, Ukraine fights against Russia, Russia fights against the United States, so nobody is fighting anybody. We are all fighting but we don’t know, we are all fighting somebody else. Of course, it’s not true, but it’s a funny way to see it because then it gets complicated. That’s why I don’t believe in this notion of the ‘third side’. There are many sides in conflict, they are all have their own interest, but it is your Ukrainian government that is responsible for Ukraine.

What is your advice to Ukrainian journalists, if we can and if we should speak about these peace agreements, and should the media try and help with peace building or not. Or is not our job? In terms of this situation that we have now.

Goran Lojancic: If I were a journalist in Ukraine, I would really try to support these initiatives that lead to peace through initiatives of contact, dialogue, if I can use this word. I really think that it is important, as a journalist, to have this freedom to choose, to sit down and say: This is my version of Ukraine that I want to live in. This is my vision of my country and I want this country to be like that. I want to push it forward and I have responsibility because of my public voice and my voice is heard because I am on the television and on the radio. I’m not going to follow the elephant trails that politicians put down for all of is and then say either this road or that road: be a traitor, be a patriot. I just want to be a citizen of Ukraine and this is what I should work for.