Helping Civilians in Ukraine’s Eastern Donbas Region

Helping Civilians in Ukraine’s Eastern Donbas Region

While Ukraine’s territorial integrity remains compromised, every effort must be made to improve the plight of residents in the eastern Donbas region. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018 annual early-warning update for European policy makers, Crisis Group advises the EU and its member states to provide these citizens with funds for compensation and encourage Kyiv to pass legislation that restores residents’ pension payments.

With presidential elections scheduled for March 2019 and parliamentary elections to follow later that year, Ukraine is entering a period of jockeying and recrimination among its political elite. Prospects for improving the plight of more than six million residents of the eastern Donbas region caught up in the war between Kyiv’s forces and Russia-backed separatists – requiring policies long stymied by Kyiv’s general reservations toward those citizens – appear gloomy. Yet Ukraine’s international partners should urge Kyiv not to view forthcoming elections as an excuse for inaction. The government should take long overdue steps to ease the suffering of the conflict’s victims, which are vital to the eventual reintegration of those areas into Ukraine. In this context, the European Union (EU) and its member states should:  Though Ukraine’s parliament has been considering draft legislation on these issues for months, officials warn that its passage is unlikely before elections. The current government sees little gain in prioritising the needs of citizens who in many cases cannot vote and are unlikely to vote for the ruling party if they could. Many staunch supporters of Ukraine’s fight with Russia, who can vote, question the loyalty of citizens in occupied areas to the state. But failing to address humanitarian issues carries significant risk. In a time-sensitive battle to win hearts and minds of conflict-affected citizens, inaction erodes Kyiv’s chances for eventually reintegrating peacefully areas currently outside its control. If Poroshenko does win re-election, he may find his 2014 pledge to end the war and bring Donbas back to Ukraine, which helped propel him to the presidency, increasingly out of reach.

The country’s Supreme Court ruled that the government’s practice since 2015 of withholding pensions for hundreds of thousands of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) was illegal.

The EU also has a crucial interest in ensuring that Kyiv tackle humanitarian challenges now. Many of the most vocal advocates for citizens who have borne the brunt of the Donbas conflict are Eurosceptic politicians and their parties, including Opposition Bloc and Za Zhyttya. In contrast, the Ukrainian leaders most dedicated to EU integration, including members of the ruling coalition and the Samopomich party, are more ambivalent and sometimes overtly hostile toward these citizens. This dynamic has contributed to a perception among some Ukrainians that EU integration is an elitist project, conceived without regard for society’s most vulnerable, including the disproportionately elderly and female population in conflict-affected areas. The EU should encourage Poroshenko and his ruling coalition to break the populist Eurosceptic monopoly on calling for policies that care for those citizens.

The EU and its member states also have an opening to press Kyiv on pension provision. In September, the country’s Supreme Court ruled that the government’s practice since 2015 of withholding pensions for hundreds of thousands of IDPs (on the grounds that they had either failed to register as such or because they had returned to their homes in occupied territory) was illegal. The decision compels Kyiv to enact legislation decoupling pension eligibility for citizens from areas outside government control from their IDP status. That step would allow all pension-age citizens from these areas to receive payments on government-controlled territory, or at their homes in uncontrolled areas with the help of aid workers.

Members of the ruling coalition resist such legislation, in violation of the Supreme Court verdict. This means those wishing to reinstate their pensions can only do so through the courts, although the verdict is expected to expedite their cases. Government sources attribute Kyiv’s resistance to a mix of budgetary shortfalls, reluctance to prioritise people living in occupied territory, and fear of politically or financially risky moves ahead of elections. While the EU and some member states have lobbied the government for better pension provision in the past, they now have Ukrainian law on their side. They should emphasise the long-term economic and political costs: according to legal experts, state inaction could result in challenges at the European Court of Human Rights where plaintiffs would win most cases and whose verdicts would likely award damages.

Providing compensation for property damaged in fighting or appropriated by the Ukrainian military is another area where the EU could have a positive impact. Over 40,000 private properties have been destroyed or damaged during the conflict, but the government has yet to establish a legal procedure for compensation, with officials pointing to lack of funds. Many argue that Kyiv will eventually seek to compel Russia to pay these costs by resorting to international courts. Yet that process would take years, if it happens at all, leaving thousands of citizens unable to start new lives in the meantime. As with the pension issue, victims of property loss could take cases to the European Court of Human Rights, which would cost Kyiv more in the long term.
The EU could consider providing funds to a state compensation pool on the condition that lawmakers pass pending legislation. This measure could help thousands of Ukrainians avoid poverty and aid dependency. It would also be a useful signal to Kyiv that its international backers are ready to help it govern all its citizens to the best of its ability, even while its territorial integrity remains compromised.