By Swann Bigot, legal expert and author for Eurasia Business News – December 9, 2019

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View of the press conference following the “Normandy Four Summit” of December 9 – Photo source : France 24

The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany meet today in the French capital, at the Elysee Palace. The last meeting of the “Normandy Four” was in Berlin in October 2016.

The summit is the first meeting of the Presidents of Russia and Ukraine, Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky, elected last May.

The state leaders will hold parallel bilateral meetings before the start of the general discussion of the summit under the “Normandy Four” format. An official dinner will follow, before the official joint press conference.

The initiator of this event is the French President Emmanuel Macron, who hosted the Russian President at his official residence in the South of France last August, before the G7 Summit in Biarritz. Paris has been working on activating the political dialogue with Moscow since May 2017 and now wants to unlock the situation in Eastern Ukraine.

The main objective of the “Normandy Four” summit is to feed trust and enable the implementation of the Minsk Agreements to bring peace to eastern Ukraine, an industrial region torn apart by an armed conflict since 2014 between the central government of Kyiv and the separatists of the self-declared republics DNR and LNR. More than 13,000 people have been killed while civilians suffer from war, economic and social difficulties.

A first meeting between the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the Russian President Vladimir Putin took place in June 2014 on the beaches of Normandy during the D-Day 70th anniversary, in an attempt to end the armed clashes in Donbass. This French region gave its name to the “Normandy Four”, gathering Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany.

The Minsk Protocol was signed on September 5, 2014 as part of the Trilateral Contact Group based in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. The aim was to stop fighting and politically resolve the situation in eastern Ukraine. On February 12, 2015, again in Minsk, a package of measures to implement the agreements reached in September 2014 was agreed by the Heads of State of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany. Note that the OSCE is also represented in the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk.

What state leaders and diplomats expect from the discussions of December 9 ? Can we expect some progress in the implementation of the Minsk agreements ? Will the “Normandy Four” adopt further measures to resolve the conflict in Donbass ?

The Moscow position

Russia set several conditions for its participation in the “Normandy Four” meeting : the general recognition of the “Steinmeier formula”, which describes the mechanism of local elections in territories not controlled by the Ukrainian government and the grant of a legal special status to Donbass (1), the redeployment of forces and equipment in the area of ​​three settlements (the villages of Lugansk, Petrovsky and Zolotoy) (2) and the preliminary approval of the final statement of the Paris summit (3).

The context now appears to be favourable to a resolution of this crisis.

Indeed, a new Ukrainian president was elected in May. Volodymyr Zelensky, a 41 years old actor, has been advocating for dialogue and efforts to bring home Ukrainian prisoners and make peace in eastern Ukraine.

On June 3, the new Ukrainian President appointed Leonid Kuchma, former head of state from 1994 to 2005, as official representative in the Tripartite Contact Group, to conduct negotiations. A meeting held on June 5 brought hope of improving the situation and resolving the crisis. The Ukrainian presidential administration announced in a statement that the talks “were for the first time were constructive.”

Leonid Kuchma said: “All parties wanted to find a solution. The tone of the discussion was completely different from what it has been so far. We arrived with a roadmap of the President of Ukraine. The messages were such that the Head of State really wants peace in this region.

The participants agreed on the preparation of a new ceasefire agreement, containing measures to control the end of hostilities, on the protection of schools and hospitals, on future prisoner exchanges, on the provision of supplies in the disputed areas and of new crossing points for civilians.

Last August, the participants  in the Trilateral Contact Group agreed on the withdrawal of troops and the repair of a bridge over the Severski Donets River, separating the zones controlled by the separatists from that of government forces near the city of Stanytsia Luhanska. The fortification structures were dismantled there. Civilians were able to start using this road to see their relatives again.

On September 7, Ukraine and Russia exchanged 70 prisoners. This move has been seen as a major step in efforts to bring peace in Donbass, after the difficulties linked to tensions in the Strait of Kerch in 2018.

One of the results of the negotiations was the signature on October 1 in Minsk (Belarus) by the Delegations of Russia, Ukraine, the OSCE and of the unrecognized DNR and LNR of the “Steinmeier formula” which describes the grant of a special status to Donbass after free elections there under the Ukrainian legislation.

The President Zelensky officially declared on December 6 that he wants to “bring from this meeting the understanding and the feeling that everyone wants to gradually end this tragic war. I can understand that precisely at the [negotiations] table.

Moscow is expected to insist during the “Normandy Four” summit on the further implementation of the Minsk agreements and the “Steinmeier formula” which is mainly about granting and consolidating a special status to Donbass and holding local elections. The terms and conditions of the organization of voting will need to be determined and prescribed in a separate election legislation. However, discussions at the Ukrainian Parliament will not be easy.

The Kyiv position

Volodymyr Zelensky said during a recent interview to Time magazine that he intends to discuss during the “Normandy Four” Summit the details of the exchange of prisoners and its agenda.

The Ukrainian government asks for the withdrawal of armed groups from certain regions of the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts and accuses Russia of supporting the separatists. However, Moscow has been consistently denying any involvement in Donbass.

Kyiv attempts through negotiations to gain control over the border, prior to hold local elections in Donbass under Ukrainian legislation. The Ukrainian authorities also suggested to introduce international control of the border before the local elections, with the help of the OSCE.

However, the Minsk agreements provide that the return of Ukrainian forces on the border will take place only after the organizations of local elections in the separatist regions.

The Ukrainian President recalled in a statement on December 6 that Kyiv would organize local elections in the disputed regions only after the disarmament of the armed groups and the reestablishment of governmental control of the border. Volodymyr Zelensky added that a possible amnesty for separatist fighters would only be possible after the disarmament of armed groups.

The President Zelensky might intend to talk about the Crimean issue during the summit. The difficulty is that Russia insists to understand the “Normandy Four summit” as a platform for only solving the crisis in the Donbass.

The position of Germany, France and the EU

European mediators consider it important to maintain the Minsk format. They consider that the Minsk agreements remain relevant for the settlement of the conflict. The EU sees them as crucial for achieving a sustainable peaceful resolution of this five years conflict in eastern Ukraine, for ending the armed clashes and the suffering of civilians.

Furthermore, Brussels considers that the implementation of the Minsk agreements is the main condition for any significant change in the position of the European Union regarding Russia.

We must maintain the EU sanctions on Russia until progress is achieved” said the Spanish  Josep Borrell, the High Representative for Foreign Policy of the European Union, during hearings in the European Parliament in October 2019.

The French president Emmanuel Macron considers that the future relations between Russia and Europe depend on whether progress will be achieved in resolving the Ukrainian conflict.

A special status for Donbass ?

The Ukrainian legislation on a special procedure for local self-government in certain areas of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions expires on December 31, 2019, although it was not formally enforced. Ukraine guarantees in this special legislation the prevention of criminal prosecution of participants in hostilities in the territory of the self-proclaimed DNR and LNR. The law was first adopted in 2014, during the presidency of Petro Poroshenko, and was considered as a transitional document with a three years validity period.

Russia then insisted on the need to consolidate the special status of Donbass in the Ukrainian Constitution. Experts have seen this proposal as a step towards federalism in Ukraine. However, the law was changed in 2015 – the beginning of the document was linked to the organization of local elections in Donbass according to Ukrainian and international standards.

On December 3, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadim Priestayko stated that due to lack of time in the Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian Parliament) it is not planned to consider a new legislation on the special status of Donbass, so that the current one will be extended after December 31, 2019.

What results of this Summit ?

The Russian and Ukrainian Presidents may agree on a new exchange of prisoners and a ceasefire, on the extension of the Ukrainian law on the special status of Donbass, as well as on the framework conditions for the withdrawal of troops along the entire demarcation line.

On the outcome of the negotiations of this Summit “Normandy Four” depends the meaning of the existence of the Minsk Agreements. The concessions and progress made since this summer have given hope for concrete results towards the implementation of these agreements on the ground.

While the prospect of a global withdrawal of troops from both sides is unlikely, more modest progress is possible. The establishment of demilitarized zones can be envisaged between several localities on the line of contact. Such a scenario would better ensure a ceasefire.

At 11:30 PM Paris time, the joint press conference was about to start in the Elysee Palace.

The French President Emmanuel Macron opened it with these words :

We kept ourselves waiting, but this is the price of a rich discussion. […] The fact that we are together in Paris today is, in itself, for many reasons, a result that allows us to look into the future with confidence, despite the absence of serious progress for many years.

The idea of confidence and of common will to make progress was expressed by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel : “[…] after today’s meeting it seems to me that we have the will to resolve complex issues. The will that we have is an element of the solution to all political problems.

The Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky added that : “The last meeting in the “Normandy format” took place three years ago. And the very fact that we managed to unlock, restart the dialogue, this fact in itself is already a positive signal.”

The Russian President Vladimir Putin also praised the results of the summit : “In the end, I think that, and we appreciate it, the work was very useful.

Emmanuel Macron also praised the willingness of the Ukrainian President to go foward and discuss concrete measures with the Russian President to reinforce the ceasefire on the ground, reduce tensions and improve the dailylife of civilians in Donbass :

I think that these hours of discussion that we spent together are an achievement in itself. This is the first meeting between President Putin and President Zelensky after the election of the Ukrainian President in April 2019. And on this occasion, I would like to separately note the political courage and determination of Mr. President of Ukraine, who works for the good of his country, the gestures that have been made in recent months have been resolutely aimed at restoring confidence and restarting the process on a reciprocal basis.”

The French President then noted the meaning of the negotiations and their importance for the peace and security in Europe :

I would also like to declare that the stability of the European continent and the construction of a new architecture of security and trust go through the settlement of the Ukrainian conflict in the framework of the Minsk agreements. That is the importance of today’s discussions.”

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel has thanked the French President for hosting this crucial political and diplomatic event for peace in eastern Ukraine and has stressed the humanitarian necessity “to improve the quality of life of the people who live in these territories.”

Angela Merkel then spoke about the “Steinmeier Formula” and made clear that “we really want to do a lot on the Ukrainian issue. On behalf of Germany, I would like to say that we are discussing various processes, in particular the issues of the special status of the regions of Ukraine.”

Regarding the military issues, the German Chancellor said that :

We were able to discuss three main issues: in particular, the issue of the absence of ceasefire, the issue of the line of contact and the issue of the separation of forces. We set realistic goals, in particular the implementation of a ceasefire before the end of 2019, it is not easy, and by March 2020 we hope that changes will be achieved on the issue of Lugansk and Donetsk. It is also very important that a ceasefire is respected. And most importantly, ceasefire control should be maintained for 24 hours, not twelve.

About the political provisions of the Minsk Agreements, Angela Merkel admitted that the issue is not simple :

“Another difficult issue was the implementation of the political provisions of the Minsk agreements. Ultimately, it is about extending the law on special status. The goal is to be able to hold local elections in accordance with OSCE requirements. And it is clear that the implementation of this task is not very simple.”

The President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky gave priority to the security issues :

We also spoke about a comprehensive settlement of all issues that, in our opinion, are impossible without ensuring security in eastern Ukraine. As soon as we achieve security in the region, we can find a political solution today. […] we discussed very important points. The first is measures aimed at stabilizing the security situation in eastern Ukraine. First of all, of course, this is a complete, final ceasefire before the end of this year. […] We also talked about the need to develop a new mine clearance plan.”

The President Zelensky stressed the importance of the role played by the OSCE :

We also discussed the issue of monitoring compliance with the ceasefire, which, in our opinion, is part of the process. We recalled once again the importance of ensuring the admission of the OSCE mission throughout the territory. We also insisted on the need to expand the OSCE mandate in order to monitor the ceasefire around the clock.

Parties agreed on the release of all prisoners before the end of December 2019, as revealed Volodymyr Zelensky, who promised during his campaign this spring to bring home all the detainees :

“We discussed the release of all detainees until December 31, 2019 under the “all for all” formula. It is necessary to compile complete lists and provide access to representatives of the Red Cross to detainees.”

Regarding the military issues, the Ukrainian President insisted on the Kyiv position to gain control on the border and conduct the disarmement of armed groups :

“I insisted on the need for the Ukrainian side to regain full control over its border. I am convinced that we will return to this issue at the next meeting in the “Normandy format”, which will take place, as you have already heard, in four months. Several times I returned to the need to ensure the withdrawal of all foreign armed groups, and also insisted on the complete disarmament of the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk.”

About the political provisions of the Minsk Agreements, the President Zelensky has described his position before journalists :

I insist that elections in disputed territories be held in accordance with Ukrainian law and in compliance with OSCE standards.

We are waiting for decisions that can be achieved in the “Normandy format” and during the work of the Tripartite Contact Group. As for the management of these territories, about their special status, we spoke, of course, about the implementation of the “Steinmeier formula”.

Lastly, the Ukrainian President made clear that the political solution in Donbass will not involve any change of the Constitution :

“We will not allow changes to the Constitution of Ukraine regarding the federalization of its structure. We will not allow any influence whatsoever on political development, political governance of Ukraine. Ukraine is an independent country, which itself determines its political path. This is done by the Ukrainian people. The very possibility of a compromise on resolving issues in the eastern territories is impossible by tearing the territories away. We repeat once again: Donbass, like Crimea, are Ukrainian territories.”

The Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the final joint declaration confirmed the position towards a strict and consistent implementation of the Minsk agreements of February 12, 2015.

Mr. Putin also stressed “the importance of establishing a direct dialogue between the parties to the conflict.”

Regarding the political side, the Russian President recalled that “It is also necessary to synchronize the process of achieving a truce with the political reforms in Ukraine stipulated by the Minsk agreements” and confirmed the Moscow supporting position of the “Steinmeier Formula”.

Vladimir Putin then stressed the need to open several crossing checkpoints on the line of contact, to ease the movements of thousands of civilians living in the regions of the conflict :

An important point: it is necessary to increase the number of checkpoints on the contact line, to create the most comfortable conditions for the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who live in this zone without spending many hours waiting for control procedures. Here we are talking about major projects and humanitarian issues – let’s not forget here about ordinary people who live there, and all our agreements should help to improve their lives not once, in the future, but now.

The Russian President ended his speech with thankful words :

“I want to thank Mr. President Macron for his initiative, for the fact that both he and the German Chancellor pay so much attention to this issue, which, as it were, is not included in the direct circle of their duties, but proceed from the fact that it is important for all of us: and for Ukraine, and for Russia, and for our neighbors in Europe. We are very grateful to them for paying so much attention to this and putting so much effort into reaching a final settlement. For its part, Russia will do everything in order to make its contribution to this work.”

ANNOUNCEMENTS BY MEMBERS OF NORMANDY FORMAT

  1. Restoring trust for peace ;
  2. Reaffirmation and monitoring of the ceasefire ;
  3. Determination of three new areas of troop disengagement ;
  4. Opening of new crossing points for civilians ;
  5. New exchanges of prisoners ;
  6. Strengthening mine clearance ;
  7. Organizing local elections ;

The conclusions approved by the four Heads of state at the “Normandy Format” summit of December 9 have been published on the official website of the Elysée Palace at the following link: text of declaration 

The next “Normandy Four” summit will take place in four months, confirmed the French President Emmanuel Macron at the end of this 50 minutes joint press conference.

Foreign ministers and diplomatic advisers now will work for four months to strengthen security and find political solutions to organize local elections in Donbass. At the next summit in the “Normandy format”, the Heads of States will finalize this work.

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© Copyright 2019 – Swann Bigot, legal expert and author for Eurasia Business News