Democracy on hold?

How not holding the elections in 18 communities in Donbas impacts the decrease in trust in the authorities, demotivates potential leaders and delays the prospects for reintegration.

Conclusions and recommendations of the research conducted within the framework of the international platform CivilMPlus.

Local elections will be held in Ukraine on October 25. However, elections will not take place in 18 communities in the government-controlled territory of Donetsk and Luhansk regions: about half a million residents of the east will not be able to exercise the constitutional right to vote and elect their representatives.

The decision not to hold the elections was made by the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) based on the letters from the heads of civil-military administrations and law enforcement agencies. The main reason indicated was the impossibility of ensuring security.

The procedure for making this decision, the attitude towards it in the region and in the capital, as well as its possible consequences for Donbas and Ukraine as a whole were analyzed by a group of experts from the international civil society platform CivilMPlus. *

The key conclusions of the research are the following. First, the procedure for deciding not to hold the elections is non-transparent and the legislation does not specify which sate body is responsible for such a step. In fact, the decision was made by the CEC, but, according to the expert, the Commission has neither the resources nor the authority to check the situation on-the-ground and to verify the information provided by the CMAs and law enforcement agencies.

Second, due to the legislation gaps there are no clear and systemic criteria for not holding elections in certain territories. Third, representatives of civil society were not fully involved in the decision making. Yet again, people feel the dominance of political elites and paternalistic attitude. “In the town of Shchastya the elections were not allowed, we have CMA. The head was fired, but a new one was not appointed. The head believes that he alone decides everything. Nobody wants to talk to residents...”, - wrote Shchastya resident (Luhansk region) during the online presentation of the CivilMPlus research.

Experts note that a non-transparent decision not to hold the elections can have serious consequences. Those are, for instance, the decrease in the level of people's trust in the authorities and the delay of the perspectives for the reintegration of the temporarily occupied territories. “In the so-called “DPR” and “LPR”, there is no self-government, “mayors” are appointed, not elected there. I would not want people to get the impression that democratic procedures are being phased out in the Ukrainian east as well. And it is precisely this impression that Russian propagandistic media are now "promoting". The Ukrainian government should make more efforts to inform communities, to involve civil society in decision-making, and to proportionally approach the restriction of rights due to security threats", said Valerii Novykov, the Head of Luhansk Regional Human Rights Center "Alternative".

In addition, not holding the elections demotivates active citizens, thereby blocking the development of the new elite and the emergence of new potential regional leaders on the political arena. “Having been in Sloviansk for just a few weeks, I saw an incredible number of people willing to change the country and the society. If I were a member of the central government, I would do everything possible to engage these people, to work with them, to encourage them, and not vice versa”, says Samuel Goda, Head of the Future of Security and Cooperation in the European Program of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association. Goda is working in Sloviansk under the volunteer program and is currently based in the resource center "Drukarnya" of the German NGO DRA.

The authors of the study emphasize: Ukraine still lacks strategic approach to the development of Donbas. “There are very important areas that can be developed only with the participation of the community and with the consideration of people’s opinion. Energetics, for example. This issue was relevant already before the war, and the fact that its resolution had been ignored was one of the reasons for discontent and for anti-governmental moods. The region's economy needs to be reshaped, and this is possible only through communication with people. This would finally lead to a change of elites in the region. This is a complex process, especially in relation to the energy sector, as it involves the restructuring of the traditional industry which has shaped the identity of many residents. Therefore, dialogue and consultation with the public are essential”, says Wilfried Jilge, Associate Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP/ Berlin).

More specific recommendations related to the cancellation of the elections include the following: to amend legislation and to ensure a transparent procedure for not holding the elections, to unify the list of criteria for such a decision, and to create a coordination center to foresee and prevent  risks. Also, in those communities where local elections will not take place on October 25, experts advise considering the possibility of holding them next year.

A summary of the research and all suggested recommendations are available in the briefing note in Ukrainian, Russian and English.

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* The authors of the study, experts of the international civil society platform CivilM +:

  • Samuel Goda, Head of Future of Security and Cooperation in Europe Program, Slovak Foreign Policy Association (SFPA), Associate Professor at the University of Economics in Bratislava
  • Wilfried Jilge, Associate Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP/Berlin); member of the Strategy Group “Key States” within the project “Strategies for the European Neighborhood” of the Bertelsmann Foundation
  • Valerii Novikov, Head of the Luhansk Regional Human Rights Center ‘Alternative’ (Kyiv), de jure deputy of the city council of the now occupied Alchevsk (Luhansk region)
  • Yuliya Erner, Coordinator of the international civil society platform CivilM+, project manager at the DRA e.V (Berlin).

The research was conducted in October 2020; its findings are based on in-depth interviews with political actors and activists working in government-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine and in Kyiv. The research took place within the framework of the international civil society platform CivilMPlus. The work was coordinated by the German NGO DRA and the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, with the financial support from German Federal Foreign Office and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Slovakia.

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