Abnormal normality: Alexander Hug about the present and future of Donbas

What role can civil society play in creating the dialogue necessary to end the war in Donbas? RU

Stefan Melle Yulia Erner
7 January 2019


Alexander Hug. Source: OSCE.

The armed conflict in Donbas has been going on for over four years now, resulting in thousands of civilian deaths, forcing roughly two million people to flee their homes and disrupting relations within and between neighbouring societies. Attempts to implement sustainable peacebuilding solutions in the region have so far been unsuccessful: the Minsk Agreements were signed in September 2014 and February 2015, but not a single provision has been implemented in full. The ceasefire is violated every day and the local population remains exposed to shelling, shootings and other forms of violence on a daily basis.

Alexander Hug, the former Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine from March 2014 to October 2018, has observed the armed conflict closely since its inception. Over the last four and a half years, Hug has repeatedly called for more attention to the conflict, for stronger efforts to protect the people in the region and for the Minsk Agreements to be implemented.

Stefan Melle and Yulia Erner from German-Russian Exchange (DRA e.V.) spoke to Alexander Hug about the prospects and need for conflict resolution, about the potential role of civil society in general and the NGO platform CivilM+, a new international civil society initiative, in particular. CivilM+ seeks to streamline civic actors’ efforts in spheres like human rights protection, peacebuilding, humanitarian work, etc., and to rebuild the territories of Donetsk and Luhansk as peaceful, integrated and developed regions of a democratic Ukraine and united Europe. CivilM+ seeks to promote the involvement of the regions’ population and of displaced persons in these activities.

Mr Hug, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission systematically registered inconsistencies and violations in the implementation of Minsk agreements. In your opinion, how could civil society contribute to resolving the Donbas conflict? To which extent does it already fulfill this role and what limitations is it facing?

In general, solutions for sustainable peace should be elaborated in consultation with society and with institutions of civil society, in particular. The implementation of a solution is more effective and sustainable if all elements of society can identify themselves with these solutions. A crucial role in this process is played not by international organisations alone, but also by local communities, which makes the involvement of civil society indispensable.

This is already happening in this conflict, but not to the extent that all topics developed by political elites are picked up by society in general. Many people, including in Europe, are turning away from the conflict. In this respect, civil society could do more, it could raise awareness about difficult topics.

Do you think that Russian civil society has a special role here?

The responsibility to resolve this conflict clearly lies in Moscow, as can be seen in the role the Russian Federation took on itself in various Minsk agreements. The OSCE refers to this conflict as the conflict in and around Ukraine, and Russian society is affected by it directly or indirectly. Given that Russia signed the Minsk Agreements, the solution for peacebuilding should be elaborated and implemented in consultation with its society for it to be sustainable.

“The responsibility to resolve this conflict clearly lies in Moscow”

What possibilities do civil society organisations have to provide help to people on territories not controlled by Ukraine, the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic”?

It is difficult, because access to the population over the contact line, in non-government-controlled areas, is limited. Nevertheless, unlike in similar conflicts elsewhere, a significant part of the civilian population travels frequently across the contact line, and on the government-controlled side it is easier to get in touch with them, talk to them, facilitate dialogue between communities on both sides of the contact line.

Also, we certainly should not forget social media and other means of communication. For the civil society on the government-controlled side these could be tools to reach out directly to the population in non-government controlled areas.

How would you generally estimate the situation of people on the non-government controlled territories? What do they need most? Is it possible to reintegrate them and what would be the best way to do it?

We must bear in mind that integration or reintegration is not a task for people in one part of the country alone, it concerns people on both sides of the contact line. It must be a mutual process for the result to be sustainable.


Children’s playground converted into a military checkpoint, Donetsk region, 2017. Photo: Tetiana Goncharuk. All rights reserved.

The perpetual threat to life, well-being and material possessions is particularly pertinent to those who live close to the contact line or have to move across it in order to go to school or work or to visit their relatives. People told me on many occasions very clearly that their greatest wish is for this conflict to be over. At the same time, they make it clear that it is not their conflict and they don’t understand the reasons why it continues. This is something I did hear consistently on both sides of the contact line.

What do you think is a key to resolving this conflict?

Arguably, a comprehensive and sustainable solution will not be found at the contact line alone but where decisions are taken, to pursue the steps agreed upon in the Minsk agreements. That is, the solution can be found in Moscow, in Kyiv, in certain areas of Donetsk and in Luhansk regions. These Minsk signatories need to ensure the implementation of provisions that are meant to stabilise the situation. This is crucial. And while civil society should do its job, the sustainable decision is a political decision, and it needs to be made in the centres of power in Moscow and Kyiv.

This means that civil society needs to keep an eye on international negotiations and on ways the agreements are being met. Which is the role of civil society in these negotiations?

I am convinced that civil society could play a meaningful role in peace negotiations. I said earlier that the implementation of conflict resolution mechanisms will be more effective if there is a general understanding about these mechanisms in the society in general. It is crucial and helpful for civil society to be involved in implementation of the solutions in order for them to be sustainable and effective.

Does civil society have a realistic chance to contribute to these negotiations with any suggestions or ideas?

We need to find a way to involve civil society in order to make sure that some groups are not given preference over others. This requires some coordination, and the international community could play a role in this process. The civil society must be empowered and supported (also financially). I believe that suggestions and ideas from civil society and the general population could have their place in this format to ensure plural and multifaceted contributions to the discussion.


Crossing back into Ukrainian government-controlled territory at Stanitsa Luhanska. Photo: Tetiana Goncharuk. All rights reserved.

Certainly, the role of the civil society could be an increased participation in decision-making and implementation of agreed measures on one hand and holding decision-makers accountable on the other hand. Participation would ensure that the concerns and needs of the societies affected by the conflict are at the core of the negotiations. Accountability would ensure that the question about the responsibility for all the suffering is not merely asked for the purpose of further fuelling the conflict.

You have been familiar with the CivilM+ initiative from the moment of its conception. We are very grateful for your support. What role, in your opinion, could these kind of platforms play in efforts for conflict resolution, with NGOs from Ukraine, Russia and third countries involved. What would you wish for this platform to achieve?

I am firmly convinced that this conflict can only be resolved through dialogue. The more dialogue – whatever topics may be involved – the greater the likelihood of finding a solution. The discussions facilitated in the framework of the platform may also help to raise awareness about the conflict among those who are not directly involved in it. The conflict is often perceived as a normal state of affairs and not as a situation which requires resolution. The dialogue that you are setting into motion with your platform is crucial to encourage those who have signed the Minsk Agreements to further implement their commitments, to make them aware about concerns of the people affected by the conflict. The understanding that the population needs to be given protection must remain at the core of the discussion.

How long do you think it will take to resolve and overcome the conflict? Are we talking about years, decades, perhaps?

The use of weapons can be stopped in a few hours, as the SMM had a chance to observe on several occasions since the beginning of the conflict. It is a question of political will and political motivation to make these decisions and to implement them on site. All necessary procedures for implementing these decisions have already been elaborated.

Previously you said that the population in the region believes it is not even their conflict. Whose conflict is it?

The main responsibility to end the conflict lies in Moscow and Kyiv, as can be seen in the role they took on themselves in various Minsk agreements. The fact is that the signatories of the Minsk Agreements have collectively established to carry on with conflict resolution efforts – and collectively is the keyword here. That is the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions that put their signatures under seven different agreements. They have realised that there is a problem which is pending a solution.

Does it mean that another, functioning compromise needs to be established?

The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine itself cannot be made subject to a compromise. There is, however, an urgent need to elaborate a mechanism for common inquiries into violations of the Minsk Agreements and to ensure that those responsible are held accountable. At the same time, mechanisms for the prevention of violations need to be developed as well. Currently, these mechanisms are not fully provided for in the Minsk Agreements, and without them there is no responsibility and no accountability for the lack of their implementation. Violations more often than not go unpunished. There are little political costs, and no coherent mechanism to hold those to account who pull the triggers at the contact line. I am firmly convinced that a mechanism for common inquiries and sanctions for violations of the Minsk Agreements is necessary to implement the solutions in a sustainable way.

Having been deeply involved in peace-building process in Donbas for several years, you have now left your position at the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission. Will you be able to contribute further to this process?

I will certainly be following the situation in and around Ukraine, and if requested, also contribute my experience where possible so that a solution may be found as quickly as possible. I will continue to support Ukraine and Ukrainians in whatever form that may be possible.

Russian-German Exchange is a non-commercial, non-governmental organisation based in Berlin. Since 1992, it has been working on promoting democratic values in Russia and other countries in Eastern Europe by collaborating with Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian and other European NGOs, as well as with independent media. The DRA offers exchange programmes for political education, democracy and active citizenry, as well as working on establishing connections with Western partners. Moreover, the DRA is also involved with the European Voluntary Services, hosting volunteers from Eastern and Western Europe.

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