Ukraine Verstehen: The dangerous unpredictability of Zelenskiy’s peace through Referendum

The idea of a referendum on peace is, as in other cases across the world, a slippery slope. Yet it may never be fully implemented. Published on Ukraine Verstehen in German with Mattia Nelles

English version of an article published on the website of Ukraine Verstehen think-tank (in German), on 29/05/2019

Volodymyr Zelenskiy was quite clear about his position on referenda during his campaign. “I really like it”, he declared in an interview to gordon.ua. A nationwide consultation to decide on judicial reform, on healthcare reform, on privatisation of state assets, you name it. The 73% support he enjoyed in the polls on the 21st April runoff seemed to grant him authority to implement this kind of initiative on a large number of topics. Yet it did not save him from a scandal when his new head of presidential administration Andriy Bohdan voiced the idea of a referendum on peace with Russia.

Such a prospect raises a lot of uncertainties. What would be the question asked in a referendum? Would voters be called to decide on the principle of a peace deal or rather on its precise content? And if so, how to validate a complex peace deal in a yes or no question? President Volodymyr Zelenskiy specified his position on this referendum, arguing that it would be consultative rather than binding. “I want to hear the opinion of everyone”, he said. Still, what if voters reject his proposal? The political added value of a potentially explosive campaign is not clear. I would argue in this piece that the idea of a referendum on peace is, as in other cases across the world, a slippery slope. Yet in Ukraine’s case, it is first and foremost the reflection of an ongoing election campaign. It may never be fully implemented.

The opposition to Andriy Bohdan’s statement was instant. Politicians Yulia Tymoshenko and Svyatoslav Vakarchuk slammed it as “dangerous and irresponsible”. Former President Petro Poroshenko urged his successor to avoid looking for “capitulation” to Russia. Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) recommended the head of state to “study history better”. His assumption being that the sensitivity of such referendum would ultimately force Ukraine into unspeakable concessions to Russia. “A referendum was already conducted by the soldiers who gave their lives” in defending Ukraine, former commander of volunteers’s battalion Aidar Yevhen Dikiy wrote in an op-ed. “We plan to enforce the results of this referendum” and to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty, he stressed. The broad spectrum of reactions gives a hint as to the kind of fierce opposition Volodymyr Zelenskiy would face in holding a referendum.

One of the main obstacles is legal still. According to the head of the parliamentary committee on legal policy and justice Ruslan Knyazevych, to hold a referendum currently falls into a “legal vacuum” because of the 2018 invalidation of the law on referenda. Let us note that Ukraine does not have much experience in the field of referenda apart from the 1991 Soviet-held referendum on independence and an invalidated 2000 referendum held by authoritarian President Leonid Kuchma. The use of rigged referenda both in Crimea and in Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014 has deepened society’s defiance vis-a-vis the procedure.

Head of election watchdog OPORA Olha Ayvazovska adds in comments to BBC Ukraine that the adoption of a new law is “hostage” tos the situation in parliament. Although Andriy Bohdan statement came out as one of the first concrete political declarations of the new ruling team, Volodymyr Zelenskiy will have to wait for the results of 21st July July snap elections to pass a new law on referenda.

In fact he will have to wait even longer than that until he has some kind of a proposal to present to voters. This precludes the holding of constructive peace negotiations with Russia. This is far from being realistic given the fresh adoption of a new batch of sanctions against Ukraine. The Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov has rejected the perspective of bilateral peace talks. Despite unquestionable evidence of Russia’s agression in Crimea, Donbass and recently in the Black and Azov seas, Dmitri Peskov considers “there is no war between Ukraine and Russia, only a civil war in Ukraine”. He has disregarded the perspective of a referendum as a mere “domestic matter”.

Provided Volodymyr Zelenskiy manages to draft a peace treaty with Russia, the idea to have it validated by a referendum remains dangerously unpredictable. It has worked well in the 1998 Northern Ireland referendum on Good Friday Agreements. Yet in the 2016 Colombia referendum, the result of 4 years of peace negotiations was simply cancelled by a tiny majority of voters. Plus Volodymyr Zelenskiy intends to associate foreign partners such as the United States into the negotiations. It is less than certain than Washington would be ready to invest diplomatic capital into complicated negotiations just to have the result treaty rejected by Ukrainian voters.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s current stance is explained by two main factors. First, several legislative steps to implement the Minsk peace agreements were blocked in the Verkhovna Rada over the past few years. Peace negotiations are at a standstill in part because of the lawmakers resistance. Second, the president still is in a campaign mode ahead of the 21st July snap elections. It is quite likely that his position on such issues may change after the parliament is reshuffled, especially if negotiations with Russia do not go as he may have planned. Volodymyr Zelenskiy prides himself with uniting Ukrainians in the ballot boxes. It is only a temporary and fragile victory. Given the complex geopolitical circumstances, it may be best to avoid creating new splits within Ukrainian society.

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