Ukraine’s President-elect rejects passport plan
May 1, 2019 | Expert Insights
Ukraine's president-elect and former comedian Volodymyr Zelensky has mocked Russia's offer to give passports to citizens in the disputed territories of Donbass and Luhansk. The “Passport Plan” would enable Russia to identify and detain pro-Ukraine opposition leaders in the two disputed regions. Will this “Passport Plan” be the first test for the new President-elect?
The bilateral relationship between Russia and Ukraine formally started in the 1990s soon after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Before the Euromaidan revolution (2013–2014), relations between Moscow and Kiev were cooperative, with various trade agreements in place. The Euromaidan revolution resulted in the overthrow of the Viktor Yanukovych-led government, which was in favour of Russia.
On 1 March 2014, the Federation Council of the Russian Federal Assembly voted unanimously to allow the Russian Armed Forces to enter Ukraine. On 3 March 2014, the Russian representative to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin showed a letter signed by former Ukrainian President Yanukovych dated 1 March 2014 and addressed to the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin with a request to enter the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine.
During the February–March 2014 Crimean crisis Ukraine lost control of its government buildings, airports and military bases in Crimea to unmarked soldiers and local pro-Russian militias. This "intervention" started on 27 February when unmarked armed men seized the Crimean parliamentary building. The same day the Crimean parliament replaced the local government with one who wanted Crimean unification with Russia.
Relations between the two countries have been hostile ever since, with two Eastern Ukrainian territories (Donbass and Luhansk) claimed by both Russia and Ukraine.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin signed a decree offering people in eastern Ukraine's separatist territories passports. In a Facebook post rejecting the idea, Volodymyr Zelensky pledged to give citizenship to "suffering" Russians. He later said he was mulling extending the scheme to all Ukrainians.
However, Mr Zelensky said he did not believe many of his countrymen would take up the offer. "Ukrainians are free people in a free country," he said.
Instead, he offered citizenship to "all people who suffer from authoritarian and corrupt regimes", but firstly "to the Russian people who suffer most of all".
Relations between the two countries were further strained this week when Ukraine's parliament passed a law making the use of the Ukrainian language mandatory for public sector workers.
Russia says the move discriminates against Russian speakers in Ukraine - for many, particularly in eastern regions, Russian is still the first language. The new tensions add to the challenges facing Mr Zelensky, who ousted Petro Poroshenko by a landslide.
The Russian leader announced the passport scheme would be applied to Donetsk and Luhansk, the self-declared republics seized by Russian-backed separatists in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
Crimea itself was incorporated into Russia, giving its inhabitants the same citizenship rights as those in Russia.
Mr Putin said people living in Donetsk and Luhansk who considered themselves Russian were entitled to Russian passports. He said: "We're considering providing a simplified procedure [of obtaining Russian citizenship] to all the residents of Ukraine."
Mr Zelensky said a Russian passport provides "the right to be arrested for a peaceful protest" and "the right not to have free and competitive elections."
He also demanded a "complete de-occupation" of eastern Ukraine and Crimea stressing that his country "doesn't give up".
Ukrainian politicians accuse Russia of trying to make its territorial divisions permanent. Mr Zelensky also struck a conciliatory tone, saying he was ready for negotiations on the armed conflict, that has claimed about 13,000 lives since 2014. "I hope that Russia is more inclined to speak than to shoot," he wrote.
In the run-up to his election, he said he had wanted to "renew relations" with eastern Ukraine and start a "powerful information war to end the conflict". In response, Russia said it wanted him to show "sound judgement", "honesty" and "pragmatism" so that relations could improve.
Putin’s latest announcement is reflective of Russia’s previous policy of “annexation by Passports”. This involves Moscow issuing travel documents to citizens in contested territories and securing a “humanitarian intervention” argument for Russia to invade, like in Georgia (2008)
Our assessment is that the President-elect Zelensky has consistently struck a conciliatory tone while discussing Russia, indicating the intent to negotiate with Moscow. We believe that this is a two-fold test for the President-elect: First to judge his commitment to hosting dialogue with Moscow, and second to establish a foothold in Donbass and Luhansk. We also believe that this could be the first of many tests for Mr. Zelensky, which may lead to a new era of active Ukrainian opposition to Russia’s regional dominance, starting with the Kerch Strait dispute.