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The Steinmeier Formula: What Could It Mean For Ukraine?
3 October, 2019
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that elections in Donbas will only be possible after the withdrawal of troops from occupied territories. (Pictured- people crossing a bridge in Stanytsia Luhanska, on the Russian-backed separatist-controlled side) Photo: EPA-EFE/DAVE MUSTAINE

Editor's Note: This is an op-ed by Hromadske journalist Anastasia Stanko. It has been slightly adapted by Hromadske International. 

For weeks now, the Steinmeier formula has stirred public debate around the country. 

It concerns a special status for currently occupied parts of the Donbas after local elections are held there and recognized by Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observers. 

This month, in Minsk, the head of the Ukrainian delegation and former president Leonid Kuchma, Russia's representative Boris Gryzlov, representatives of the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, Vladislav Deynogo and Natalia Nikonorova, and OSCE representative Martin Sajdik signed the document. Kuchma signed the document on a separate sheet so that his signature was not sitting next to representatives of the so-called republics.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier proposed the "formula" while he was the Minister for Foreign Affairs and participated in the negotiations of the Normandy Four.

The formula contains nothing about the withdrawal of troops and Ukraine’s control beyond the conflict line before the elections.

Russia has insisted on implementing the block of measures in the Minsk agreements, which include the law on special status, elections and amnesty for parties to the conflict, since the beginning of the war. And precisely because of a failure to implement these points, it accused Ukraine of violating the Minsk agreements.

During the presidency of Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine insisted on security before politics. Because of this, Ukraine’s hostages were not handed over and practically no matters advanced in Minsk.

When 35 Ukrainian political prisoners returned to Ukraine from Russia, it became clear that there was now agreement on a political bloc.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself confirmed that Steinmeier’s formula was agreed upon.

How to Read the Arrangement

The package of measures for the implementation of the Minsk Agreement, which was signed on February 12, 2015, after 16 hours of negotiations between Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former French president François Hollande and Russian President Vladimir Putin, was not beneficial to Ukraine. Foreign leaders told Ukraine which laws it should pass, what to change in the constitution, and what to write in these laws.

It was agreed on at gunpoint. After the agreements were signed,despite the fact that the first paragraph included a ceasefire beginning on February 15, 2015 the Ukrainian military, under fire, had to leave Debaltseve, a city which had been captured by militants and the Russian military, before February 18.

Ukraine’s parliament had passed the law on special status but it never went into force - as with the amnesty for militants. Ukraine tried to never reach point 9 of the Minsk Agreement measures. It blatantly spoke of restoring full control over the state border by the Ukrainian government in the entire conflict zone, which should begin on the first day after local elections and end after a comprehensive political settlement.

Only then comes paragraph 10, which spells out the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Ukraine under the supervision of the OSCE. And the disarmament of all illegal groups.

READ MORE: The Steinmeier Formula and Why Ukraine Agreed to it

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier proposed the “formula” while holding the position of German Foreign Minister. (Pictured - Steinmeier at a briefing in Kyiv, September 14, 2016) Photo: EPA/SERGEY DOLZHENKO

Paragraph 11 provides for constitutional reform, in which decentralization will be a key element (taking into account the particularities of certain Donetsk and Luhansk regions, agreed upon with representatives of these regions), as well as the adoption of this law on special status on a permanent basis.

As for the law on special status, the package of measures also prescribed what it should contain (it was adopted by the Ukrainian parliament and  is still in force, but does not work, because Ukraine does not control these territories). This includes: 

  • exemption from punishment, prosecution and discrimination of persons involved in the conflict;
  • the right to linguistic self-determination;
  • participation of self-governing bodies in the appointment of heads of prosecution bodies and courts;
  • state support for the socio-economic development of territories;
  • assistance from central authorities with cross-border cooperation with regions of the Russian Federation;
  • the creation of the people’s (or national) police units by decision of local councils to maintain public order.

The UN Security Council, in its February 17, 2015 resolution, approved this document.

Zelenskyy declared that instead of the law on special status, in force until this December 31, a new one will be written. But following Minsk-2, there is little that can be added. Everything had already been written in February 2015.

When the President says that the troops must withdraw first and that Ukraine must control the border, and then hold the elections, more specifics are needed because Russia has never spoke of this order from their end. 

Putin was satisfied with the withdrawal of troops in three sections of the contact line (in Petrivsky, Zolote and Stanytsia Luhanska, which had already been agreed upon), the withdrawal of heavy weapons inland, and elections.

The so-called republics have already issued a joint statement in which they said that Ukraine will not receive control over the border.

“When he says that the elections will be held only after Ukraine has gained control over the border, he does not understand that it is not up to him to decide when the elections will be held, but up to us. The Kyiv authorities will not get any control over the border,” reads the statement of militant leaders Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik. 

Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma signed the document on the Steinmeier formula on a separate sheet so that his signature did not appear next to the signatures of the so-called “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics” representatives (Pictured - Kuchma and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv, July 3, 2019) Photo: EPA-EFE/SERGEY DOLZHENKO

How to Hold a Democratic Election

Steinmeier’s formula says that elections should be democratic and recognized by the OSCE. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko, in an interview with Hromadske, also said that Ukraine would agree to the formula if Ukrainian media and observers were allowed to cover these elections.

READ MORE: Ukraine's FM Vadym Prystaiko on Trump, Zelenskyy, and Donbas

A lot of questions remain. 

For example, who will be able to run in the elections? Will militant leaders? And what about Ukrainian citizens from territories controlled by the Ukrainian government?

If so, how will they campaign and will they have access to voters in the now uncontrolled territories? Who will guarantee their safety if only the OSCE monitors, which are to control the withdrawal of foreign troops, are mentioned in Minsk-2?

Will the Ukrainian police protect polling stations and polls? Where will the Ukrainian army stand? Behind the conflict line? Or even further?

When should foreign troops leave? In the Minsk agreements, this is scheduled for the day after the election but according to Zelenskyy, this should now happen the day before the election (there was also talk of this happening on election day). Or a day before the start of the election campaign?

There are many questions. But this is all details. Fundamentally, a decision has been made.

What could be the upside of all of this?

They could finally really stop shooting - for a long time, maybe forever. But if this is not explained in the right way, then confrontation and misunderstanding could arise within the state, and the consequences can be unpredictable.

/By Anastasia Stanko