Could democracy be the key to ending the War in Donbass?

The war in Donbas has raged on since April of 2014, and still, neither side has come to an agreement. Ukraine and Russia continue to butt heads on the issue and send troops to the region as separatists fight for their rights, beliefs and freedoms, as well as their ability to self-govern. As tensions continue to run high, there may be a more peaceful option that will alleviate the stress and put the conflict to rest: direct democracy in the form of a referendum for the people of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

The Clash in Donbass

The 2014 Ukrainian revolution and the Euromaidan movement have been the spark to set regions of the country on fire. Division over politics was inevitable after President Victor Yanukovych and thrust the government into a regime change, changing the course of politics throughout the state and affecting the lives of millions of Ukrainians.

Relations with Russia suffered as the two countries chose the sword as the preferred strategy to deal with the status of the regions of Crimea and Donbas. Unrest in southern and eastern Ukraine had reached a boiling point, and armed conflict is still prevalent even with the later introduction of the Minsk Protocol 7 years ago.

While the Crimean people successfully reunified with Russia, residents of Donbas are still stuck in a state of uncertainty and strife.

Over 1.7 million Donbas residents have been displaced as a result of the conflict, and those who remain have tried to put their fate into their own hands. The Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) have appeared to govern their respective oblasts in an effort to protect the interests of the people of Donbas against Ukrainian encroachment.

Democratic Power in the Hands of the People

The establishment of self-ruling proto-governments came as a result of the 2014 status referendums in the Donbas region. Having administered the referendum vote in both Russian and Ukrainian to ensure access to all, separatists had the goal to establish, through direct democracy, whether or not the oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk should declare state independence from Ukraine.

The official results for each referendum showed overwhelming support for independent state governance for each Oblast – 89.07% and 96.2% in favor of independence for Donetsk and Luhansk, respectively.

While some parties contest the true voter turnout, it was announced that there was a 75% voter turnout in Donetsk and 81% in Luhansk.

As was the referendum in Crimea, the legitimacy and legality of the referendums in Donbas are also called into question. Along with Ukraine, many countries – such as the United States and Germany – refuse to recognize them.

Interestingly enough, however, this was not the first time that the Donbas region had put forth a referendum in a show of dissatisfaction with the Ukrainian government and the current state of affairs.

In 1994, the Donetsk oblast saw a referendum along with a concurrent opinion poll held in the Luhansk oblast. The 1994 referendum sought to make known the people’s standing on various issues, such as Ukrainian being the official state language or the nation’s structure. It hoped to present to the government the desires of the people that should be taken into account for ongoing and future decision-making with respect to the Donbas region – a Russian-speaking region of Ukraine with a less homogeneous ethnic composition compared to areas in Western Ukraine.

As the conflict in Donbas continues down a path rife with soldiers and armaments, perhaps a new referendum entrenched in the democratic power of the people will pave the way towards more successful and peaceful resolutions.

Democracy and the Will of the People

The people of Donbas have already exercised the power of democracy to obtain that which they desire most: representation, justice and freedom.

Direct democracy, a right guaranteed and protected by the Ukrainian constitution, is a powerful tool for the people. Its worth is vast; it pushes policymakers, negotiators, and government officials into acting within the people’s interests. It generates and proves support for even the most seemingly controversial issues and engages the populace with politics.

A democratic government, as Ukraine is, strives to put power into the hands of the average person. It gives power to the people and follows their will. And if that will is ignored? The very foundation of that government begins to crack, slowly deteriorating and succumbing to corruption, unrest and, inevitably, collapse.

Donbas has already made it clear that it wants to be given its choice, going so far as to do what it can on its own in 2014. Current DPR leadership is ready to hold a new referendum for their people. Within the LPR, one can find similar sentiments and desires can also be found.

Leaders and average citizens alike want to exercise their rights. They wish to be given equitable access to a democratic tool in a just manner to show the Ukrainian government and the international community where they stand.

Earlier this year, Denis Pushlin, head of the DPR, made it clear that they are prepared to do whatever is necessary to ensure legal, just and secure proceedings – including working with international observers.

Of course, such a move would not come without its share of problems. Fears over the effect on the local economy, who would have the right to vote and who would the be overseeing the referendum should not be tossed aside. However, these are all things that have practical solutions, even more so when the different governments are willing to assist each other in the manifestation of democratic processes.

In order to uphold democracy, quell the strife in the east and listen to the voices that matter most, Ukraine should stand with its people and constitution and promote a new referendum for the people of Donbas.

Rachel Floyd is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC).