Summary by Maryia Hushcha 

On October 4, the International Peace Institute in cooperation with the Karl-Renner Institut and the Platform for Dialogue and Conflict Resolution in Ukraine, held an expert workshop that was followed by a panel discussion with the overall title The settlement of the Ukrainian crisis? Learning form the past – looking to the future. During the panel discussion, the current state of affairs in Ukraine and possible ways of settling the crisis were discussed by experts from Ukraine, Austria, the Netherlands, Romania and Croatia. The experience of the Western Balkans in conflict settlement and reconciliation was examined as a relevant case that Ukraine can draw lessons from. The discussion featured Goran Bozicevic, director of Miramida Centar – Regioanl Peacebuilding Exchange in Groznjan-Grisignana, Croatia; Hannes Swoboda – President of the IIP, Vienna; Jan Marinus Wiersma, Analyst at Clingendael Institute, the Netherlands; Miruna Troncota from the National University of Political Science and Public Administration, Bucharest; Vasyl Filipchuk, a senior analyst at the International Center for Policy Studies in Kyiv. The panel was moderated by Stephanie Fenkart, Director of the IIP, Vienna. 

In his opening statement Vasyl Filipchuk emphasized that the conflict in Ukraine is of multidimensional character and therefore needs to be dealt with at national, bilateral (Russia-Ukraine), as well as European and global levels. Currently, there is no international format that can effectively deal with the conflict, including the Minsk process, and any peaceful settlement in Ukraine would inevitably require a reform of the regional security architecture. While admitting that the current geopolitical environment was not conducive to any progress towards peace talks between Ukraine and Russia, Mr. Filipchuk stated that some preparatory work could be done already today, so when the right political momentum presents itself Ukraine will be able to propose a viable plan. The International Center for Policy Studies has worked out a proposal for the establishment of a United Nations Interim Administration in Donbas. The idea draws upon a successful case of the United Nations Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium (UNTAES) that operated in Croatia in the 1990s. In Ukraine, such an administration could only be established with the consent of all parties, including Russia, argued Vasyl Filipchuk. Therefore, it is important that Ukraine and Russia talk to each other – a view that by Mr. Filipchuk’s own admission would still be labeled as ‘pro-Russian’ by many in Ukraine.

Jan Marinus Wiersma provided a view from the Netherlands on Ukraine and where the EU finds itself in the Ukraine-Russia-EU triangle. According to him, Ukraine has been run by oligarchs since it gained independence in the 1990s and not even one of Ukrainian presidents has been able to consolidate democracy in the country. In this environment, today there is lack of incentive for the people of Eastern Ukraine to strive to reunite with the rest of the country. Viewing Ukraine in this light, the referendum on signing the Association Agreement with Ukraine was rejected by the Dutch people, as it was perceived as the first step towards Ukraine’s EU membership – something that the Netherlands is opposed to considering lack of democratic governance and rule of law in Ukraine. At the same time, the Dutch position towards Russia is quite ambiguous. On one hand, the Netherlands supported the EU sanctions against Moscow. At the same time, however, Dutch companies are very involved in Nord Stream 2 - a Russian gas pipeline construction project that would transport Russian gas to Europe through the Baltic Sea, thus bypassing Ukraine.

Miruna Troncota provided a different conceptual view of the conflict in Ukraine, with the main implication of it being that any solution of the conflict needs to incorporate a human security perspective. Wars that are waged today are of a fundamentally new type. They blur lines between civilians and combatants, between state and non-state actors. The motivation for waging a war has also changed. It is not that much about capturing new territories but creating instability is the target in itself. This is what happened in Bosnia in the 1990s and this is what is happening in Eastern Ukraine today. There are also actors on both sides that have learnt to profit from the war and this problem needs to be addressed. Another prominent aspect of the new type of war, as it was defined by Mary Kaldor, is identity politics – creating new dividing lines based on language or ethnic differences that feed into the nationalist sentiment. This issue also needs to be addressed by any potential peace deal in Ukraine. Finally, civilians are the ones who suffer the most from protracted conflicts and therefore a human security perspective needs to be considered when dealing with such type of conflict.

Goran Bozicevic offered a perspective on how peacebuilding at the grassroots level can contribute to conflict settlement and subsequent reconciliation. ‘Real peacebuilders and agents of change are Ukrainian people themselves’, argued Mr. Bozicevic. While experts, including the ones from the Western Balkans, can support Ukrainians by sharing their experience, it is ultimately the Ukrainian people’s own experience that, if reflected upon, will bring the necessary knowledge and expertise to achieve reconciliation. It is important to work with the local population as it is them who will have to accept and sustain peace in the first place. The best way to work with the local population is simply to go and live in their communities and try to understand their daily joys and struggles. It is also important to take care of peacebuilders who do this job as it is very demanding and psychologically exhausting. 

Hannes Swoboda argued that one needs to acknowledge that the conflict in Ukraine is going to last for a long time. Sadly, the longer it lasts the more difficult it will be to find a solution, as a more nationalistic orientation will become fixed in the minds of decision-makers. Until people on the ground get to talk to one another you cannot talk about resolution of the conflict. While a UN peacekeeping force would be very helpful, it would be only a spark. Local actors need to reconcile, respect the other side and understand one another’s positions. This is applicable not only to the Western Balkans or Eastern Ukraine. The past and different interpretations of it are resurfacing today also in Austria, Italy, or Germany. 

Watch the full discussion here.