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Acceptable (proxy) interlocutors

February 1, 2015

Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, saw a meeting of the “Contact Group” in Minsk.

The “Contact Group” comprises of former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, the current Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Ukraine, Mikhail Zurabov, OSCE General Secretary, Heidi Tagliavini, and representatives of the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” respectively.

Also present was Viktor Medvedchuk, though he is not a member of the trilateral “Contact Group”.

Questions, some of them displaying no shortage of ignorance, have been asked as to why those such as Messrs Kuchma and Medvedchuk are acting in these roles when neither historically, and perhaps currently, have displayed what can be called an overtly and uncompromisingly pro-Ukrainian position.

Mr Medvedchuk, for example, is the chairman of the pro-Russian “Ukrainian Choice” movement, is currently on EU and US sanctions lists, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is the godfather to Mr. Medvechuk’s daughter, Darina.  Yet Mr Medvedchuk attends the tripartite “Contact Group” meetings on behalf of Ukraine, nominated by the SBU, to negotiate prisoner exchanges.  Why him?

Former President Kuchma, for many, is a dubious – perhaps even loathsome – character.  His term in office was marked by scandal after scandal, including the infamous Gongadze murder, he appointed Ukraine’s most (in)famous convicted corrupt politician, Pavlo Lazerenko to office, Viktor Yanukovych was President Kuchma’s “chosen one” for the 2004 elections that ultimately led to the “Orange” protests, and it was indeed Mr Kuchma that signed the Budapest Memorandum removing Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal.  He also stoically stayed a path of a “multi-vectored” foreign policy, balancing EU and Russia alike, without committing to either – something during his term, society was happy to accept.

In hindsight, prima facie, numerous and questionable decisions by Mr Kuchma – when taken out of the context of the historical moment in which such decisions were made.  So why him?

Such people hardly provide a perception of unreservedly representing Ukrainian interests.

The answer is historical.  Mr Kuchma, Mr Medvedchuk and President Poroshenko (as were Yulia Tymoshenko, Viktor Yanukovych and Pavlo Lazerenko etc) were all on the same Kuchma team when he was President at one time or another.  There is an “understanding” between them all – and no doubt no shortage of mutual “kompromat” – thus there is a foundation for trust, even if based upon distrust.  No matter how twisted it may seem, they are “trusted interlocutors” to the degree necessary, by the Ukrainian President.

From the Kremlin perspective, Mr Medvedchuk is clearly no problem being so close to the Russian President, and Mr Kuchma has always (publicly) tried to maintain a balanced approach toward Russia.  Indeed for all sides, Mr Kuchma as a recognised retired elder Statesman, gives the “Contact Group” a veneer of importance and gravity far beyond what can actually be expected when it comes to lasting solutions.

They are, therefore, acceptable interlocutors for all sides at negotiations.

It is perhaps necessary to recognise what the “Contact Group” actually is, and the results that can therefore be expected from it – if any.

Removing the OSCE General Secretary from the picture momentarily, and perhaps the Russian Ambassador to Ukraine to a degree, the contact group is nothing more than a gathering of proxies – each with very limited parameters of negotiating room and decision making – for those parameters, no different from the agendas of these proxies, are set by other far more powerful beings.

It is a conclave of officially, unofficial officialdom, thus providing the room to state remits were over-stepped if necessary, and is yet both necessary whilst very limited in its scope.  That is not to say the “Contact Group” has no importance.  It is here that ceasefires (should they be implemented) will be initially thrashed out.  It is here that “demarcation lines” will be potentially agreed (if they are ever adhered to).  It is here that Mr Medvedchuk, in his very limited role, will facilitate prisoner swap agreements.  Thus it is the “Contact Group” that may save some lives and homes, even if temporarily.

But it is not the “Contact Group” where final decisions will be made regarding ultimate outcomes (and/or understandings).  They will come from the Chancellor in Berlin, and the Presidents of Washington, The Kremlin, and Kyiv – and it is here, within these capitals, that the fundamental differences in world view are at an impasse and with no end in sight.  The resolution of this impasse will have profound implications for the planet – even if a ceasefire is agreed and holds, or demarcation lines agreed and adhered to due to “Contact Group” negotiations.

Thus the histories of the personalities that make up the “Contact Group” (or proxy negotiation group) so bemoaned and questioned within social media are somewhat irrelevant, beyond being acceptable interlocutors to all parties present in Minsk or where ever  at any negotiation – for their remits and boundaries are necessarily set by others.  Social media would be far wiser to look far less at the nominated personalities, and far more at the process – with its successes and failures – and the patterns that have emerged prior to, and subsequent of, any such meetings.

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