As 2018 begins, spare a thought for those caught up in the continuing misery of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The humanitarian situation there is actually getting worse thanks to diminishing international interest, the cynical position of the pro-Russian separatists, and to what can only be termed a political lack of interest in Kyiv.

Thomas de Waal
De Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region.
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2017 ended on a good note. On December 27, a large prisoner exchange took place, with the Ukrainian government releasing 233 captives in return for 73 held by the Russian-supported rebels of the “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.”

But the overall context is dire and even deteriorating. Between January and November 2017, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recorded 552 conflict-related civilian casualties (98 killed and 454 injured). Last year, the official death toll for the conflict passed 10,000, with around 2,800 of them being civilians.

In December, the UN devised the hashtag #UkraineNotForgotten to draw attention to the situation. It estimates that almost 4.4 million people are affected by the conflict, with 3.4 million of them in need of humanitarian aid and protection. Yet the 2017 Humanitarian Response Plan was only one third funded, ($69 million of the $204 million required). That is a terrible indictment of the response to an ongoing conflict in Europe.

The leaders of the two “republics” run criminalized ventures and keep out most international humanitarian organizations. Local people are kept apart by a 487 kilometer ceasefire line punctuated by five crossing points. These people are hostages not just to a conflict fueled by Moscow, but to a political debate within Kyiv. Simply put, not everyone in the Ukrainian government is keen to treat them as fully-fledged citizens.

Some in the government and parliament are keen to wage a “hearts and minds” policy to win back the people of eastern Ukraine, as well as the territory. This group is clustered around the Ministry of Temporarily Occupied Territories, led by minister Vadym Chernysh and a group of parliamentarians from the area. They have lobbied for the adopting in the Rada of four draft laws on pensions, electoral rights, and the simplification of the procedure of obtaining civil documents. All of them are currently blocked.

Another, more powerful, group sees this as being purely a territorial conflict with Russia. Some in this group now advocate that the eastern territories be “cut off” in some unspecified way. Two parliamentarians, Viktor Baloga and Sergei Vysotsky have publicly called the Donbass region a “gangrene” that must be severed from the rest of Ukraine. It’s a metaphor that holds out no hope to those who actually live there.

The issue became heavily politicized in the spring of last year when right-wing militias began imposing an economic blockade on the breakaway territories. After some hesitation, the government climbed on the bandwagon and decided to make the embargo official.

The blockade hurts those local people who were engaged in everyday trade across the line. There is a weight limit of 75 kilograms and a list of “permitted goods” that people can carry. Some simple products, such as lamb, do not appear on the list and are therefore technically illegal.

There are two categories of downtrodden in this conflict. One is the estimated 1.6 million people who have registered as internally displaced persons (IDPs) and can collect pensions and other Ukrainian social benefits. One third of them are believed actually to reside on the other side of the Line of Contact and endure the long queues and hazard crossings, sometimes on foot, to claim their benefits. Even those who live on government-controlled territories do not have the right to vote in elections, despite being Ukrainian citizens.

The second group comprises those who have chosen to stay in their homes on nongovernment-controlled territories, but want to maintain their links with Ukraine. They will be a crucial constituency if and when Kyiv reclaims control of these territories—and yet the government is doing nothing to win back their loyalty.

The problem begins at birth. International officials who have reviewed court records suggest that only 38 percent of children reported to have been born in Donetsk and Luhansk nongovernment-controlled areas have obtained a birth certificate issued by the government of Ukraine. (The figures for Crimea are even lower at around 10 percent).

In Kyiv last month—where I heard about the conflict as the guest of the British NGO Peaceful Change Initiative—one official gave me much lower numbers for the past year. He described a situation in which parents make the difficult journey across the frontline with their baby and a certificate from a hospital in the “People’s Republic” of Donetsk or Luhansk where it was born seeking Ukrainian registration, but are then turned away. Only a few who go through a tedious court process eventually get satisfaction.

International law is clear here. The International Court of Justice in its Namibia Advisory Opinion of 1971 (referring to a territory deemed to be illegally run by South Africa) ruled, “invalidity cannot be extended to those acts, such as, for instance, the registration of births, deaths and marriages, the effects of which can be ignored only to the detriment of the inhabitants of the Territory.”

Of course, this obstruction also sends a signal to thousands of parents that their children will not become Ukrainian citizens.

Why the disregard for ordinary people? Some blame bureaucratic inertia. Others say that it is pure cynicism—that the view at the top is that these people are not voters and rewarding them will “only lose us votes” in more nationalist parts of Ukraine.

Remarks by President Petro Poroshenko in May 2017, suggest that this is not a priority issue for him. After Ukrainians won the right to visa-free travel to the EU, Poroshenko was asked if this applied also to residents of Crimea and nongovernment-controlled Donbass. He gave two equivocal answers, saying first that this would happen only when Ukrainian sovereignty was restored to these territories, then that these people might be eligible for old-style Ukrainian passports. The EU ambassador to Kyiv felt compelled to contradict Poroshenko and state firmly that, as Ukrainian citizens, these people were eligible for new biometric Ukrainian passports on the same basis as everybody else.

All countries with separatist conflicts face the same dilemma: engage with your lost citizens or punish them as traitors. But really it is no choice at all. From Cyprus to Georgia, punishment tactics have not only had miserable humanitarian consequences, but ended up feeding separatist sentiments. It is a problem Ukraine has no option but to tackle in 2018.