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Ukraine

Opinion: Mission impossible for Ukraine's round-table talks

Time is running out for meaningful mediation in Ukraine. The goal of orderly elections may be hard to achieve unless Moscow relents, says DW's Europe correspondent, Bernd Riegert.

Whether or not the round-table discussions in Ukraine, organized by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), will run smoothly is difficult to predict, but the conditions for the success of the diplomatic effort are not good.

As moderator for the OSCE, top German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger is under enormous time pressure to begin a conversation between deeply divided adversaries. He is expected to have visible results before the Ukrainian presidential elections in less than two weeks. The EU, the US and, to some extent, even Russia are backing this last attempt to defuse the standoff.

But there's a catch: the two main parties, namely the Ukrainian government and the pro-Russian separatists, don't want to negotiate. Ukrainian acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk only wants to speak with groups that have pursued their goals through legal channels. This therefore excludes the self-proclaimed republics in eastern Ukraine, which have used violent occupation, illegal referendums and independence proclamations to achieve their goals.

The activists, controlled, or at least influenced by Moscow, have rejected Yatsenyuk, as an illegitimate puppet of the West, and as separatists are naturally loath to talk about national unity. OSCE chairman Didier Burkhalter offers only a harried smile when asked about these contradictions. The neutral Swiss president knows that the Ukrainian parties must find some way to overcome their differences. The only apparent alternative is a further escalation of the conflict.

A moderator with experience

If Ischinger is unable to bring government officials and separatists to the same table on the first attempt, he'll have to resort to shuttle diplomacy, conveying messages and offers back and forth until a solution is found. The experienced diplomat previously acted as a moderator in the Dayton peace negotiations for Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 and in the 2007 Kosovo talks, negotiations which also involved the EU, US and Russia. The Kosovo talks ultimately failed - hopefully, this is not a bad omen.

Part of the OSCE's mediation package includes the disarmament of militias on both sides, a stipulation of the Geneva agreement that was worked out just before Easter. Without bringing an end to the violence, it's hard to imagine the success of the round-table.

Which side would be able to enforce the disarmament, however, remains unclear. Russia, of course, could speed up the process by quickly and unequivocally withdrawing its support of the separatists. But that's unlikely to happen, since the pro-Russia separatists are the only thing securing Moscow's influence on Ukraine's political future. Therefore, the West must gradually increase its pressure on Russia and present a united front. The round-table discussions would be a success if, at a minimum, they were able to calm the situation ahead of the presidential election on May 25, allowing for an organized vote and credible results.

Meeting with EU leaders in Brussels, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk has insisted he has been holding national unity talks for the last two months - though it seems with little success. He should now accept the help of the OSCE. The EU is getting impatient with the Ukraine government, with diplomats accusing officials of being inflexible and overwhelmed. But what can you expect from a government that constantly has its back to the wall?

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