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10 September, 2014

Independence. Reboot

How the war has changed the perception of independence in Eastern Ukraine

We can now state this: after 2014, society perceives Ukrainian Independence Day in a completely different light. This holiday, which was previously associated with backroom bureaucratic procedure, has now gained truly heroic substance. The most radical change in the understanding of this historic date is in the Donbas. And this pertains to both sides of the conflict, pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian.

Until recently, the dwellers of this region on the border with Russia largely viewed Independence Day as just another day-off. The signing by Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of the independent Ukraine, of a piece of paper known as the Belavezha Accords hardly evoked any patriotic feelings in Eastern Ukraine. The unheroic obtaining of independence in 1991 became the start of the largely unheroic existence of the country, which in subsequent years experienced difficult economic and political crises, treason and finally war. The economic collapse experienced by the Donbas in the 1990s formed a skeptical and openly hostile attitude of the majority of the local population towards independence itself.

Unlike other parts of Ukraine, the Donbas had no history of battle for Ukrainian statehood until 2014 on its territory. This, among other things, allowed separatists to talk about the distinct place of the region. Until present days, Donbas has never been a centre of national resistance, unlike Cherkasy Oblast, Zaporizhia, Kyiv, Halychyna, Volyn or Transcarpathia, so it did not appreciate the sovereignty of the country that it was part of, as its own accomplishment. It was only the bloody conflict that began this spring which made the region a field of battle with an aggressor and turned into a real war for independence.

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New heroes of Ukrainian resistance have emerged there, as have new figures in the chronicles of state-building. The names of Donbas residents had been sparse in Ukraine’s statehood history until today, but they are there now, never to be removed. Today, these people are fighting for freedom for their land in the battle with Russian mercenaries. If they are victorious, their children and grandchildren will no longer see the Donbas as a Russified post-Soviet territory, but as the land that their fathers and grandfathers shed their blood for. Combat is sacralising this region. Previously, the question “Do we actually need that Donbas?” often resonated in Ukraine. Now, after so many sacrifices, saying something like this is blasphemy as regards those who have died.

The towns and cities that had been occupied and experienced military action, and were liberated by the Ukrainian army, have a completely different status. Their residents experienced war first-hand. The predatory tyranny, which emerged on the captured territories, quickly sobered those who naively expected that “to separate and no longer feed Halychyna” would be a great step to happiness and prosperity. The orators who promised them a happy life and sowed hatred against their fellow citizens, turned out to be your average rogues, because they threw themselves at robbing and taking everything that came across their path to Russia.

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Independence Day finally gained real substance in the towns and cities liberated from terrorists and the underworld. For the patriotically-minded community there, it has become a long-awaited celebration of victory in a tough battle. And for Ukraine’s enemies – not a “historic misunderstanding”, but a logical step in Ukraine’s national liberation strife.

People in the liberated eastern cities – Kramatorsk, Slovyansk and Severodonetsk – wear Ukrainian symbols and are getting used to peaceful life once more, something they were not used to during the weeks of siege and constant shooting.

Only refugees, continuously arriving in liberated cities, saving themselves from shooting and predatory tyranny, are a reminder that the war is going on nearby; that no-one knows when it will end. Perhaps now, in the 24th year of independence, the residents of the Donbas will learn to appreciate peaceful life.

And they will understand how lucky they were then, in 1991, when we became an independent state without having to go to war, something that Dubrovnik and Vukovar were not lucky enough to experience. Our bloody Milosevic was twenty years too late, but he did finally appear to teach us to fight and value freedom.

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“We want peace. Let everything remain as it is, let’s live in Ukraine, if only the others don’t return and start shooting again,” the residents of Slovyansk told me, when I asked about their position on what had happened. Terrorist Strelkov and his group, which captured and held the entire city hostage, helped people to appreciate the value of life in an independent democratic country, where human rights are worthwhile.

Ruined homes in the neighbourhoods of Ukrainian towns and cities and the bombed village of Semenivka will become monuments to this war for independence, in which the Donbas is our main field of battle.


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