Well, it is certainly good news that all sides now seem to have a formal basis on which to base further negotiations. Yet apart from the risk that the agreement might eventually be put to a side due to escalating tension in Crimea or in eastern Ukraine, even if retained the agreement would not be straightforward to implement, as demonstrated by a look at its six points (as documented in The Guardian on February 21st, at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/21/agreement-on-the-settlement-of-crisis-in-ukraine-full-text):
- Within 48 hours of the signing of this agreement, a special law will be adopted, signed, and promulgated, which will restore the Constitution of 2004 including amendments passed until now. Signatories declare their intention to create a coalition and form a national unity government within 10 days thereafter.
- Constitutional reform, balancing the powers of the President, the government and parliament, will start immediately and be completed in September 2014.
- Presidential elections will be held as soon as the new Constitution is adopted but no later than December 2014. New electoral laws will be passed and a new Central Election Commission will be formed on the basis of proportionality and in accordance with the OSCE & Venice Commission rules.
- Investigation into recent acts of violence will be conducted under joint monitoring from the authorities, the opposition and the Council of Europe.
- The authorities will not impose a state of emergency. The authorities and the opposition will refrain from the use of violence. The parliament will adopt the 3rd amnesty, covering the same range of illegal actions as the 17th February law. Both parties will undertake serious efforts for the normalisation of life in the cities and village by withdrawing from administrative and public buildings and unblocking streets, city parks and squares. Illegal weapons should be handed over to the Ministry of Interior bodies within 24 hours of the special law, referred to in point 1 hereof, coming into force. After the aforementioned period, all cases of illegal carrying and storage of weapons will fall under the law of Ukraine. The forces of authorities and of the opposition will step back from confrontational posture. The government will use law enforcement forces exclusively for the physical protection of public buildings.
- The foreign ministers of France, Germany, Poland, and the Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation call for an immediate end to all violence and confrontation.
Under the constitution of 2004 Ukraine witnessed six years of deadlock between then-President Viktor Yushchenko, at times-Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, and then-opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych. Clearly, this constitution was not, in itself, conducive to creating a political framework within which everyone agreed on the same rules of conduct. Granted, in 2010 Yanukovych did take power in what was generally seen to be free and fair elections, but they were polarised, too, thus partly creating the current crisis. Also, with Yanukovych having fled to Moscow and the current government being supported by the oligarchs, who formerly aided Yanukovych, it is difficult to see how a genuine "national unity government" can be created. While the legitimacy of the current administration in Kiev can at times be questioned, it is difficult to see how the groups occupying Donetsk town hall and forcing the UN out of Crimea can be judged representative even for their parts of Ukraine.
Following the hapless Yanukovych it seems sensible to reduce the power of the presidency, bringing the parliament back as an organ of central legal importance. Yet presidential systems do have some advantages over parliamentary ones. The latter can come across as slow to react, even paralysed, as demonstrated during the Yushchenko presidency. Even the USA, the epitome of the tripartition of power, has in recent years suffered severely in both a political and an economic sense due to deadlock created by a consitution, which is designed in a number of ways to shackle the presidency. Given the currently dire state of the Ukrainian economy, and the requirement from Western donors that Ukraine must implement tough IMF demands in order to qualify for aid, legislative deadlock in a constitutionally balanced system may not be the best solution for the country right now.
This point leaves nine months before presidential elections are to take place. Apart from the obvious problem of finding monitors for all of Ukraine on which Ukraine, Russia and the West all can agree, we return to the difficulties presented by Point 1. Who can the current opposition present as a viable presidential candidate? The leaders of pro-Russian groups in Donetsk and Simferopol? Even if these people would stand they would never stand a chance in a genuinely free and fair nationwide election. Not with their lack of political experience (Tymoshenko and Yushchenko had been Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister, respectively, prior to the Orange Revolution), their lack of funds (unless Moscow is ready to foot the bill, which could become very controversial), and their substantial lack of trust in the provisional government in Kiev. Come to think of it, who is the obvious presidential candidate for the provisional government? Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov was parliamentary speaker before appearing as a compromise candidate for now, Vitali Klitschko has no experience of government, and Yuliya Tymoshenko has far too much experience - among most Ukrainians she is not fondly remembered for her time as Prime Minister. She even managed to lose the last presidential election to Viktor Yanukovych, hardly a born politician.
You can just see this one go wrong, can't you... Disagreement persists over who actually shot and killed demonstrators and police officers in Kiev during the February unrest. Some of the people conducting the investigation could well be people who were involved in the violence in the first place. And as for the Council of Europe - a very admirable institution, which has a history of talking candidly on difficult political subjects, and of being roundly ignored by its members, if required. How this point could be fulfilled given the current levels of mistrust in Ukraine is very difficult to see.
What are "illegal weapons"? Weapons held by anyone not under the direct command of the Kiev administration? What, exactly, are the odds that pro-Russian groups in Donetsk and on Crimea will hand over their pen knives, let alone any automatic firearms, to Kiev-controlled police and military forces? Especially since Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insists that the "self-defence militias" on Crimea have nothing to do with Russia? Of course, if the provisional government in Kiev could get the assistance of all those handy Russian troops already in Ukraine to disarm non-governmental militias... Yeah, right! And as for the provision that "forces of authorities and of the opposition will step back from confrontational posture" - well that is not a method to achieve the aim of solving the crisis, but the aim itself! Finally, it is difficult to give the authorities a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence when there is no agreement on who the legitimate authorities actually are...
This, again, is not a way to a solution but a statement of intent which, aprtly at least, seems hollow today. It is worth noting, though, that Poland is included and that the USA is not - clearly an attempt to localise the conflict, which might be necessary in the medium term.
All in all, however, the February 21st agreement will not help to solve the current crisis - which is probably why Lavrov is using it to stall. If Russia can further consolidate its position on Crimea it might secure long-lasting domination of the peninsula without bloodshed. And should Kiev and the West follow Lavrov in supporting the agreement this might be the clearest recognition yet that these parties, too, consider Crimea a lost cause. For now, at least, but probably not for an unstable future.