Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine agreed on Tuesday to postpone unofficial elections planned for October 18 and November 1 until February 2016, backing off a move that could have derailed a shaky peace deal.
The self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) had planned to hold elections separate from Ukraine’s regional elections, which are set for October 25.
Separate elections would have been a violation of a February agreement reached in Minsk, Belarus, that specifies elections should be held under Ukrainian law.
Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko had said elections in rebel-controlled areas would cross a line and signal the end of the Minsk peace deal.
Rebel representatives said Tuesday after meeting in Minsk with representatives of Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, however, they would postpone the elections until February 21, 2016.
The backtracking came after summit talks in Paris last Friday between the leaders of France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine, which put the rebels under pressure to cancel the elections.
The statement by DPR representative Denis Pushilin and LPR representative Vladislav Deinego said they made the decision after studying recommendations by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande.
The postponement was quickly welcomed by the Kremlin. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted by Russia’s Interfax news agency saying the action was “another example of a flexible and constructive approach in order to implement the Minsk agreement.”
Poroshenko, who said Monday he expected the postponement, also welcomed the action. He said a road was now open for elections in the rebel-controlled areas, known as the Donbas, to be held under Ukrainian law.
The Russia-backed rebels have yet to agree, though, to elections under Ukraine.
In the meantime, the DPR and LPR statement said they expect Kyiv to grant special status to Donbas and amnesty to rebels, and to include them in negotiating amendments to Ukraine’s constitution.
The controversial demands will be hard to stomach in Kyiv, where an August vote in parliament to grant greater powers to the east led to deadly clashes in the Ukrainian capital between police and nationalists opposed to appeasing the rebels.
Hasty rebel elections a year ago were widely condemned internationally as being illegitimate and illegal.
Some political analysts say with Russia’s military attention now turned to Syria, it is looking for a political solution to the fighting in Ukraine. Others say the Kremlin will turn up the tension in Ukraine as needed to maintain leverage over the Western-leaning government in Kyiv.
The Minsk agreement’s end-of-year deadline also is expected to be postponed, by at least several months.
The peace deal set out a series of steps, beginning with a cease-fire, legitimate elections and constitutional amendments, and ending with the withdrawal of foreign troops and rebels, and the restoration of Kyiv’s control over part of the country’s border with Russia back.
Russia has consistently denied sending arms and troops to support the rebels, despite evidence to the contrary.