According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Social Policy, there are more than 1.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Ukraine; a direct result of the ongoing conflict in the Donbas region, and Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea. Due to antiquated, Soviet-era registration laws, IDPs, and other “mobile” groups, face challenges and difficulties in exercising their Constitutional right to vote in Ukrainian elections. However, there is momentum and support from civil society organizations (CSOs) and members of parliament to address these issues, including consensus on a new draft law.
Background on Ukraine’s IDP Challenges
On February 27, 2014, the Russian government formalized its hostile annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. Almost overnight, more than 2.3 million persons found themselves de facto citizens of another country, and were given a short deadline to change their passports from Ukrainian to Russian. This particularly affected ethnic Ukrainians voters which number around 400,000 in Crimea (according to the 2001 State Census) and the indigenous Crimean Tatar population which has grown in recent years to more than 200,000 voting age persons. These two groups began searching for ways to maintain their Ukrainian citizenship, which resulted in many of them migrating to mainland Ukraine. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 60,000 Ukrainian passport holders from Crimea (the majority being Crimean Tatars) found themselves as IDPs in 2015 alone. This annexation came just a few days after a new Ukrainian government was elected, due to the previous president fleeing the country following three months of widespread public protests known as Euromaidan. As a result, the new government was not prepared to manage the large numbers of IDPs. While the new government worked to tackle the financial and political crisis it inherited, Ukraine experienced its first IDP wave since the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Before the government could successfully manage the Crimean migration wave to mainland Ukraine, an armed conflict erupted in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk (known as the Donbas) in March 2014. As a result of the fighting in the Donbas, the lives, property and stability of nearly 4.7 million citizens were affected. While the front lines in the Donbas have been more-or-less static since January 2015, the continual low-level fighting with occasional serious clashes, combined with the economic disruption from this war, and combined with Russian-backed forces that continue to occupy parts of those regions, have created a steady flow of new IDPs away from the conflict zone. Additionally, some ethnic Russians from the Donbas have fled to Russia although the exact numbers are not known. According to a 2014 UN report, an estimated 110,000 Ukrainian citizens had fled to Russia, but noted that they were unable to verify their estimate and were relying on local officials and
volunteers for their estimates. According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Social Policy, as of June 2016, there were about 1.8 million IDPs in Ukraine with more than 90% from the Donbas. In addition, a 2014-2015 poll by the International Organization for Migration noted that there are approximately 1.64 million internal labor migrants in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s Burdensome Registration System
IDPs suffer a wide variety of hardships, which, according to the Human Rights Information Center, includes disruption of their lives, loss of their homes, economic difficulties, social stigmas, and government bureaucracy. This bureaucracy affects many aspects of the lives of IDPs from medical care, to social benefits like pensions, as well electoral rights. The electoral rights of IDPs are impeded by the government’s continued use of the antiquated propiska system for registration. This propiska served as both a residency permit and a migration recording tool for state planning. While in recent years Parliament has made attempts to align Ukraine’s legal framework with international standards on the right to freedom of movement, and Ukraine’s Constitutional Court struck down the propiska in 2001, the possibility of exercising a variety of rights, including the right to vote in elections, by and large depends on one’s official place of registration. Since IDPs are, by definition, displaced from their homes, they have difficulty voting since each voter is identified with a physical address determined by his/her propiska.
In order to register at a place of residence, a person must submit an application to an executive body of their local council (or an administrative service center). The applicant should provide a list of documents, including those that prove the individual’s connection to a property (either ownership documents or a lease agreement). However, the government registration bodies establish rules and procedures that essentially differ from existing legal provisions. For example, even if a lease agreement exists (and sufficient per the law), local authorities often require the presence of the property owner to express his or her consent for the individual to register at their premises. It is common for property owners who are required to give consent, to refuse to do so due to the incorrect belief that their consent will endanger their own rights to the property in question. Refusals may also be linked to the fear of additional tax burdens on the landlord. Registering an individual to a property/premises gives that individual the right to use that property (such as the right to live there) in exchange for compliance with certain contractual conditions (such as paying rent).
With a population of approximately 42.6 million people (excluding Crimea and Sevastopol due to the occupation), 1.8 million IDPs represent more than four percent of the entire electorate (including all IDPs over the age of 18). Given that up to an estimated ten million Ukrainians work and live in locations different from their propiskas, the electorate is affected to an even greater degree. This Soviet-era mechanism for controlling the population is still part of Ukrainian law and daily life. The propiska problem is well documented by observers of politics in the former Soviet Union. The 2016 IFES white paper on “Internally Displaced Persons and Electoral Participation: A Brief Overview”, highlighted this problem in Ukraine, as well as in Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The Link Between Propiska Registration and Voting Rights
Under the current laws governing elections in Ukraine, citizens vote in elections at polling stations to which their voter addresses are assigned; their voter addresses are determined based on their registered places of residence (unless temporarily changed prior to an election). Changing one’s registered place of residence, or, so-called propiska, and, subsequently, one’s voter address, is burdensome and creates significant barriers for Ukraine’s displaced communities.
Under article 70 of the Ukrainian Constitution, all citizens who have reached the age of 18 have the right of suffrage, with no mention of restrictions based on location. However, because of the antiquated, Soviet-era propiska system that is still in effect, citizens are legally registered at a specific location. Thus, due to the existence of this system, citizens must then vote at the same location where they are registered by propiska. While citizens now have the right to change their place of voting to another location (assuming that they can prove a legal right to do so at the new location), it must be repeated for each election, and does not grant the citizen the right to vote in local elections at their new location. Thus, the rigid propiska system limits citizen’s rights, and particularly the rights of IDPs in the sphere of elections.
In Ukraine, IDPs are allowed to vote at a different location than where they have a propiska, however the law varies according to the type of elections. Chart 1 below outlines the differences in voting rights for IDPs in presidential, parliamentary and local elections.
Chart 1: Differences in Voting Rights for IDPs by Election Type
Thus, in presidential elections, IDP’s may receive a ballot to vote in a location separate from where they are registered with a propiska. However, according to Oleksandr Stelmakh, Head of the State Register of Voters with the Central Election Commission (CEC) of Ukraine, they must do so with the local Voters Registry Office no later than 5 days in advance of the election. If they do not apply with the Voters Registry Office beforehand, they can only vote in the voting station assigned to where they have their propiska. Due to the difficulties in changing voting locations, just 6,038 Crimean IDPs (and 12 Donbas IDPs) changed their registrations prior to the May 2014 Presidential election, according to information from the CEC.
In parliamentary elections, IDPs may again apply with the local Voter Registry Office to have the right to receive a ballot for voting up until 5 days before the election. However, the IDP will receive only the proportional/party list ballot and not the single mandate ballot. Under Ukraine’s current election law, voters elect half of the members of parliament from the districts where they live, as well as half via nationwide party list ballot in which any party that receives five percent or more of the total votes, receives seats in parliament. Thus, the IDP voting in a different location only has the right to participate in the election on the proportional ballot and has no say in which candidate will represent them in the district of their current residence. It should be noted that 27 parliamentary districts in Ukraine (ten in Crimea, two in Sevastopol, nine in Donetsk and in six in Luhansk) currently have no member due to the conflict and ongoing military occupation, which prevented elections from being held in October 2014. Many of the IDPs are from these disenfranchised districts. Prior to the October 2014 parliamentary election, 3,635 Crimean IDPs and 32,823 Donbas IDPs (according to information from the CEC) changed their registrations to their new living locations (which allowed them to vote in their new places of residence). These 36,458 IDPs represent just two percent of the 1.8 million IDPs now in Ukraine.
In local elections, there is no mechanism for IDPs to vote in a different location. The only option is for IDPs to return home to where they are registered by propiska to vote. This not only entails financial costs (transportation, tickets, etc.), but potentially puts the IDP in physical danger due to returning to the areas near the conflict zone. In addition, local elections have not been held in the currently occupied territories since October 2010, and thus IDPs from those areas have been unable to exercise their electoral rights for more than six years. In a recent December 2016 special election for the newly amalgamated Illinivska village community (hromada) in Konstantinovskiy Rayon of Donetsk, 60% of the voters were IDPs but were unable to vote.
Efforts to Enfranchise IDPs and Economic Migrants
While the Ukrainian government has taken some steps to address the needs of IDPs such as upgrading the agency of Temporary Occupied Territories and IDPs to a ministerial level status, most initiatives aimed at improving the situation for IDPs and economic migrants initiate from Ukrainian civil society organizations or international organizations and external donors. For example, the Ministry of Temporarily Occupied Territories and IDPs focuses the work of its 70 employees on drafting laws and implementing changes to Cabinet of Ministers decisions to meet European standards, while the work of actually providing benefits to IDPs is still done by the Ministry of Social Policy. In addition, the media generally does not report on IDP and internal economic migrant issues, as other matters tend to take priority. Thus, the impetus for new proposals to address the current needs of IDPs and internal economic migrants mostly originates from NGO’s like the Group of Influence, Civil Network OPORA, the Human Rights Information Center, Krym Diaspora, Krym SOS, DonbassSOS, and VostokSOS. As Kateryna Zhemchuzhnykova from the Group of Influence NGO notes, “the needs of IDPs are changing. Two years ago, the immediate need was for food, shelter and warm clothing. Now the needs are evolving into voting rights and other issues.”
In 2015 and 2016 there were five draft laws (#2501a, #2501a-1, #2502a-2, #4471, and #5148) registered in Parliament to address IDP voting rights. However, none of these drafts were passed because there was no consensus before the October 2015 elections on how to accommodate large numbers of IDPs voting. The primary concern was that IDPs could be organized and transported to vote in certain districts, which was seen as potentially having adverse effects on local political interests. Some favor continued disenfranchisement of IDPs based on the historical voting preferences of residents of Crimea and Donbas for widely perceived pro-Russian candidates. Adding to this, some politicians and lawmakers argue that the issue should not be addressed for local elections since many IDPs would eventually return to their homes. Finally, some local authorities are concerned that by adding IDPs to voter rolls would simply increase the number of angry constituents. However, advocates argue that the law already allows for university students who live in dormitories to vote where they attend classes. In the same way, the IDPs would vote at the nearest polling station to their current place of residence.
Recent Momentum in Enfranchising IDPs to Vote
Recently though, Ukraine has seen momentum in reaching consensus and empowering IDPs by guaranteeing their full electoral rights. In February 2017, efforts by a group of CSOs, led by the Group of Influence and Civil Network OPORA, together with Members of Parliament Mustafa Nayyem and Svitlana Zalishchuk, merged and refined the texts of three draft laws into a single proposal and through consensus, and following a range of stakeholder, government, and civil society meetings, reached a consensus on the draft bill’s registration in Parliament. The new draft law was sponsored by 24 Verkhovna Rada members representing the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, People’s Front, Samopomich, Batkivshchyna, Oleh Liashko’s Radical Party, and the Opposition Bloc and registered in Parliament on March 27 (registration No 6240); it would remove the current restrictions on IDP voting and alleviate registration barriers to voting faced by a large number of Ukraine’s internal economic migrants.
The proposed draft law seeks to enfranchise the millions of Ukrainians who are displaced by conflict or are voluntarily residing in places that differ from their registered places of residence.
Key aspects of the draft law:
- any voter will be able to change his/her voter address to their current/actual place of residence by submitting a written application to the Voter Register Maintenance Body (RMB) whose jurisdiction expands to the territory of the voter’s original place of residence;
- to prevent electoral tourism, such an application can be filed with the RMB at any time in between elections but no later than five days from the official start of the election process for national or local elections; no changes to one’s voter address would be allowed afterwards until the end of specific election;
- a written application for changing one’s voter address must be accompanied by a copy of a document which supports/documents one’s actual/current place of residence; the draft law expands the list of eligible supporting documentation that can be used to prove one’s current place of residence to include a lease agreement, private entrepreneur or IDP registration certificates, a document confirming home ownership, a document certifying that the voter is caring for a person who is registered at the relevant address, a document proving marriage or other family relations to a person registered to an individual registered at the relevant address, a national ID (currently included in the law);
- a voter will be allowed to change his/her voter address through a written application to the RMB no more than once in a 180-day period.
This renewed effort to enfranchise IDPs was sparked by an IFES-led initiative funded by the UK government. IFES, through the support of the UK government, facilitated a range of activities designed to give voice to Ukraine’s IDPs and to strengthen their ability to communicate their aspirations and desires at the national level; IFES also provided support to legislative deliberations and technical expertise to drafting efforts with an eye to international standards and good practice in the area of IDP enfranchisement. IFES’ initiative promoted sustainable, consensus-based solutions for internally displaced populations in Ukraine through a consultative process with all stakeholders including IDPs, political parties, the CEC, and key ministries.
Proponents of expanding IDP voting rights are optimistic that the merged draft law can be passed this year in preparation for the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2019.
These changes would improve the opportunities for IDPs and other “mobile” groups to exercise their voting rights in Ukraine over the near term. Longer term, Ukraine must update its antiquated propiska law to reflect modern realities and empower its citizens to fully realize their guaranteed Constitutional rights. As Judith Gough, the Ambassador of the United Kingdom in Ukraine noted at IFES’ March 2017 conference on the electoral rights of IDPs, “Ensuring IDPs’ electoral rights is not only important for IDPs themselves. It is crucial on a broader plane: for the legitimacy of the electoral process overall and the practice of good governance. It is imperative that Ukraine’s IDPs have a voice – and a vote – in determining the future direction of the country, including how best to approach the truly urgent imperative of building peace.” Thus, with nearly two million IDPs, Ukraine needs to address these needs of this significant portion of the population. Meanwhile the support of CSOs will remain critical to the success of IDPs wanting to fully exercise their electoral and broader civic rights.