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20 May, 2014  ▪  Bohdan Butkevych

Pro-Ukrainian Donbas: Intelligent, Creative, Chaotic

Pro-Ukrainian forces in the Donbas neatly fall within the boundaries of the middle class and are in need of organization and government support

The recent events in Eastern Ukraine have raised the painful issue of whether there are any local residents loyal to Ukraine in the Donbas. Those who only yesterday believed that there are only “orcs, drunken coalminers and the Party of Regions” there have seen large demonstrations under Ukrainian banners and suddenly realized that there is a different kind of Donbas – creative, young and engaged. However, it has also turned out that these activists are in the minority. For certain historical and mental reasons, the Donbas experiences a significant lack of intellectuals who would be natural allies to the Ukrainian idea. At present, the Ukrainian state, which has done virtually nothing to foster a pro-Ukrainian environment in Eastern Ukraine, has no-one to rely on in its fight against the aggressive déclassé elements that are being utilized by Russia to suits its expansionist purposes. Patriotic forces in the Donbas are disjointed and lack adequate government support, so all their pro-Ukrainian activity is driven only by the efforts and enthusiasm of activists who often put their health and lives on the line.

The middle class defending itself

On 17 April, a large number of people with national flags gathered together in the evening in Peremohy Park in Donetsk and were accompanied by about 1,000 policemen wearing helmets and wielding shields. The slogan “Glory to Ukraine!” was ringing, time and time again, over this commotion. This was the first pro-Ukrainian rally in the past month. The previous one, held on 13 March in downtown Donetsk, ended in a tragedy: driven by malice and impunity, rabid pro-Russian supporters attacked, with the police’s support, several hundred Ukrainian activists, cruelly beating and killing Dmytro Cherniavsky, representative of the local Svoboda (Freedom) party organization.

The first thing that caught the eye on 17 April was the huge numbers of young people and intelligent faces. There were many students and members of the so-called creative class: designers, media people and IT specialists. Another large group included men over 40, most of them with wives, who looked like typical university teachers, doctors, heads of departments, engineers, etc. Yet another group consisted of well-dressed businessmen who came in expensive cars. That was a picture of 3,000 typical middle-class citizens who were not afraid to come to a rally. These people simply could not fail to come, because they had a gut feeling that this was about not only territorial integrity or national identification but also the desire of the lumpen, who have nothing to lose, to seek revenge on their most talented fellow countrymen.

People came to the rally despite the police’s warning telling them to refrain from any night-time assemblies when the negotiations on the conflict in Eastern Ukraine began in Geneva. The police expected provocations from the separatists. However, the degree of aggression against all things Ukrainian is so high in this group that they are ready to attack anyone even without orders from the Russian masterminds.

The most interesting things could be observed not on the stage but in the crowd: almost everyone had something in national colours. This may already be unsurprising to Kyiv residents, but here in Donetsk a person can be beaten up for wearing a blue-and-yellow ribbon. This is not to mention speaking Ukrainian in the street: passers-by would cast sidelong glances, some with curiosity similar to that with which people stare at roof jumpers, others with a concealed threat or fear. At the end of the rally, the participants stretched out a huge, several-dozen-metre-long flag.

READ ALSO: Who's Behind Separatism in the Donbas?

These people who were brave enough to come out into the streets risking to be shot, stabbed or beaten up are worthy of every bit of respect. “We can no longer be silent,” Andriy, a 25-year IT specialist, says. “I am a Donetsk native, and my grandfather worked in a coalmine. Now, my Fatherland is being stolen by some orcs who have drunk 200 hryvnias worth of vodka and grabbed submachine guns, feeling they are big boys for the first time in their lives.”

“We are defending our country here,” Oleksiy Mitasov, an entrepreneur from Druzhkivka and a political activist, says. “Heck, how can you surrender your city to people who are dreaming not so much about Russia as about robbing a neighbour who has a car or a flat? This group of losers and marginal elements predominates among those who favour Russia.”

“We have already won by merely coming here and showing that there is a different opinion,” Anatoliy, a university teacher in Donetsk, says. “Of course, there is a great struggle ahead. And we don’t believe Kyiv is really supporting us. We don’t believe the majority of political parties which have simply struck deals with the Party of Regions here for the past decade. And now this same party wants to drag us into Russia’s hands. But this will not happen.”

A similar situation is in Luhansk. The only difference is that for the past 20 years this oblast has been controlled by an even closer alliance of the party nomenklatura and criminal elements. There is also much less money here than in Donetsk.

READ ALSO: The Force of Hope. Who Is to Stop Separatism?

Ukrainian structure

All pro-Ukrainian activities in the Donbas are centred around a handful of political parties that barely have any life in them. “Cultural life in the Donetsk region has always resembled sad official ceremonies that no-one can fully understand,” activist Denys Kaplunov says. “A Maria Oliynyk, the leader of the local Prosvita society, speaks at every Ukrainian holiday celebration, always after the local officials. In fact, the government’s Ukrainian policy has been limited to this much all this time.” In Luhansk, a more pro-Russian region, the situation is even worse.

In reality, the Party of Regions, which decidedly seized power here in 2002 after crushing the Communists, has intentionally fostered Ukrainophobia in the Donbas, and the results are now in plain view. However, the number of people supporting the Ukrainian idea has doubled in the region in the past years. “This has to do with generation change,” social scientist Serhiy Strutynsky explains. “In the past years, the first generation that had studied in Ukrainian schools entered active life. Of course, the Donbas has a problem in that the Soviet genetic code continues to regenerate, but new Ukrainians have finally appeared here, especially in large cities.”

The pro-Ukrainian citizens here are plagued by a complete lack of coordination or a forum for interaction. Pro-Ukrainian political parties have never put in any consistent work here. Moreover, the central government has always given the Donbas into the hands of political adventurists who were unable to find a place for themselves even in the Party of Regions. The results were predictable. Add to this the complete domination of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), which has prevented other denominations from developing, especially the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which are the traditional bulwarks for the Ukrainian project.

The events of the Maidan finally forced the local political players to step up their activities. Serhiy Taruta’s appointment as Donetsk Oblast governor did not lead to any significant breakthroughs and, in all fairness, could not do so in the present conditions. However, the Committee of Patriotic Forces of the Donbas (CPFD) has been set up as a forum uniting the pro-Ukrainian forces. All political parties, except the BYuT (Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko), are represented there, as well as several NGOs and journalists. Remarkably, patriotically minded Afghan war veterans and ex-military men, especially those who had been participated in the Maidan, started joining the CPFD. It was this committee that organized the rally on 17 April, and its members say they are going to do more. The number of spontaneous pro-Ukrainian rallies in the Donbas is growing. For example, activists raised the Ukrainian flag on the highest spoil bank in Donetsk. Rallies to support the unity of Ukraine are taking place in dozens of cities and settlements, but all these processes are not consolidated. The initiative to set up the CPFD has great prospects but requires government support. In Luhansk, Ukrainian activists hold pro-Ukrainian meetings in front of the oblast administration building on a daily basis in an effort to steer public opinion in the right direction.

Paramilitary pro-Ukrainian units composed of volunteers, such as the Luhansk and Donetsk territorial defence battalions, are also being set up. They have, at the time of writing, only several hundred people in their ranks and their combat readiness is dubious, but the very fact of their existence is important, suggesting that the situation in the Donbas is nothing like that in the Crimea, where the pro-Ukrainian minority turned out to be totally incapable of action.

Donbas zones

The Donbas’ greatest problem is that it has not experienced the full cycle of urbanization, even though its official urbanization level is the highest in Ukraine – over 90 per cent of the population live in cities and settlements. All of the region’s cities, except Kramatorsk and Mariupol, grew out of industrial settlements. Typically, a coalmine or a plant would be opened and a settlement would spring up around it, populated by its workers. When such settlements greatly increased in number, they were gradually joined to form cities. However, the original settlements continue to determine the mentality of their residents and the structure of the resulting cities.

“The true proletariat has never emerged in the Donbas,” historian Volodymyr Nikolsky of the Donetsk National University says. “From the very beginning, there were certain anomalies in the way peasants were urbanized – instead of permanently staying in cities, they worked in coalmines from autumn to spring and then returned to the countryside to sow crops. In other words, most workers here were of the seasonal variety. In essence, this process started only after the Second World War. Prior to that, this kind of settlement nature of the cities allowed each coalminer or plant worker to still keep a kitchen garden and never lose connection with the land. Hence, a large number of Donbas residents stopped being peasants but never turned into urban dwellers in the full sense of the word.”

Later, this circumstance led to some very negative consequences. The intellectual class – not engineers or technical specialists but the liberal arts intelligentsia – can only emerge in full-fledged cities. But there were just a handful of them in the Donbas with its population of seven million. Therefore, the creative class as such began to take shape here only after Ukraine regained its independence. Naturally, this class is the core of pro-Ukrainian sentiments in the region but accounts for a mere 3-5% of the total population. Entrepreneurs are in a similar situation – most of them are interested in keeping the Donbas within Ukraine. In contrast, the lumpen and the dregs of society whose standard of living dropped after the breakup of the USSR associate Ukraine with hardship and poverty. In cities and coalminers’ settlements, they are the most fertile soil for Russia’s separatist sabotage activities. Remarkably, the countryside does not harbour separatist sentiments in the least. For example, seven village councils in Donetsk oblast asked to be joined to Dnipropetrovsk Oblast.

The Donbas can be tentatively divided into four mental-electoral zones depending on their economic structure. The first one is the classic central coalmining Donbas which begins in Krasnoarmiisk County and stretches all the way to the Russian border in southeastern Luhansk Oblast. “This is a region of coalmines, spoil banks and unskilled labour that consumes all of one’s strength and time,” Strutynsky says. “Hence, this region is ready to revolt over the price of sausage, as was actually the case close to the end of the Soviet era. This is why coalminers show no significant support for separatists, understanding that in Russia their coalmines would simply be closed as unprofitable as in the Russian part of the Donbas where only one active coalmine remains. The question of patriotism or national identity is not key to them.” However, there are large numbers of the obvious lumpen here who are the main component of the crowds at separatist rallies.

The second zone is the industrial Donbas, including Sloviansk and Kramatorsk in Donetsk Oblast and Stakhanov, Severodonetsk, Lysychansk and Rubizhne in Luhansk Oblast. Its key feature is the near complete lack of coalmines and the presence, instead, of large industrial enterprises, such as NKMZ in Kramatorsk or Azot in Severodonetsk. “Unlike a coalminer, who does unskilled manual labour, a plant worker has a higher level of thinking,” Nikolsky says. “Moreover, there is a significant proportion of the technical intelligentsia here.” Interestingly, this region shows the greatest support for the opposition forces. For example, opposition parties polled 25 per cent in the 2012 election in Kramatorsk. Many experts believe that Russia decided to start its aggression precisely there because it recognized that it would hardly be able to swing this region without military intervention. This is not to mention the advantageous geographical location of Sloviansk, which stands on the Rostov-Kharkiv highway, essentially at the juncture of three eastern oblasts. And then there was a need to immediately deliver a blow to a region that could put up resistance against Russian expansion.

The third zone is Pryazovia, i.e., regions along the Sea of Azov and near Mariupol, largely agricultural and very poor. Despite horrible repressions in Stalin times, there remains a very high proportion of Greeks and Ukrainians here. Separatism finds almost no support in this zone thanks not so much to the patriotism as to the indifference of the local population which only thinks about its own survival.

The fourth region is the agricultural belt of the Donbas which is both mentally and geographically closer to Sloboda Ukraine and includes Krasnyi Lyman and all northern counties of Luhansk Oblast. It is predominantly populated by ethnic and, importantly, nationally-conscious Ukrainians, and any annexation to Russia is out of the question for these people. In fact, there has been no separatist activity here. Moreover, according to recent communications, this is where the bulk of Ukrainian troops defending the Donbas are located. The locals are very loyal to the military and consider them protectors.

The Donbas is now in a state of uncertainty, but the distinct Ukrainian wave requires clear-cut government policy and an understanding, finally, of the need to work hard to create Ukrainian environment in the complicated and uneven region of Eastern Ukraine.


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