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Ukraine’s Zelenskiy: No Autonomy For Breakaway Donbas Regions

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks with journalists in Kyiv on October 10, 2019.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks with journalists in Kyiv on October 10, 2019.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on October 10 excluded the possibility of autonomy for eastern Ukraine’s breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk; a position that could raise further questions about the prospects for conducting elections under Ukrainian law in the two separatist-controlled territories under a proposed peace plan.

Zelenskiy outlined his position In response to a question from Current Time correspondent Voloymyr Runets.

A new law on a special status for the overall Donbas region, which contains both Donetsk and Luhansk, is expected before the end of the year. President Zelenskiy has indicated that it will include language about holding local elections and withdrawing Ukrainian troops from the front line as a precursor to potential peace talks with Russia, Germany, and France.

The text for the draft law does not yet exist, but Zelenskiy drew clear lines during his 14-hour-long October 10 press-conference in Kyiv about what could and could not go into the legislation.

In “the humanitarian sphere,” he said, “I think we can talk about a lot of compromises …” Provisions that would ensure “the Russian language has a regional status” can also be discussed, he said.

But, he said, “under this law we can’t talk about autonomy.”

Russia, the sponsor of Donbas’ Moscow-allied separatists, has agreed to the Steinmeier Formula, but does not appear to have yet responded officially to Zelenskiy’s comments.

On Facebook, the chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Konstantin Kosachev, remarked that “in a country where key questions are decided by the street, and not by dialogue between political forces, everything is possible.”

The president has emphasized that there will be no “red lines” for public discussions about the draft law on Donbas’ special status. He commented to journalists that popular support for decentralizing decision-making powers means that questions about the law will “resolve themselves … “

But, with Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party holding 60 percent of the seats in Ukraine’s parliament, little room exists for critics to block any government-blessed legislation.

To what extent public support for Zelenskiy, elected this spring with over 73 percent of the vote, will translate into support for his Donbas policy remains a hefty unknown.

On October 6, in the largest protest since Zelenskiy’s landslide election, thousands of protesters gathered in Kyiv and smaller towns to assert that the Steinmeier Formula meant the country’s “capitulation” to Russia and the betrayal of national interests.

Zelenskiy on October 10 rejected such allegations. “The Steinmeier Formula is not a betrayal,” he commented to reporters. “A betrayal is when they don’t give me the possibility to fulfill my duties as president. The implementation of the Steinmeier Formula will be only within the law, which we will all discuss.”

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