What kind of model is needed for the de-occupation of ORDiLO?
De-occupation means not only re-establishing control over Ukraine’s eastern territories, but also returning local residents to the Ukrainian political, economic and socio-cultural environment. It’s this last bit that is causing a fair amount of anxiety in political circles, ranging from muted skepticism to open alarm. It’s clear that reintegrating the people who have been living under occupation now for over three years will be very difficult. To a large extent, the outcome will depend greatly on the approach that Kyiv takes.
In 2014, the country’s most densely-populated counties in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts found themselves under occupation, affecting 3.5-4 million or nearly half of the population of Donbas. Today, it’s hard to know exactly what the population of ORDiLO—as the occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts are called—might be. Based on the number of IDPs in Ukraine, 1.5 million, and an unidentifiable number in Russia, it could be between 2 and 2.5 million, similar to Lviv or Odesa Oblast. Although it is suffering from negative demographics, the population is very slowly growing again as IDPs began to return with the de-escalation of the armed conflict. People are being pushed to return into occupation largely by the fear of losing the property they abandoned and the inability to adapt to their new homes.
In order to develop an effective policy towards the people living in ORDiLO, first Ukraine has to decide what these people mean to it. Public opinion is pretty clear on that: most Ukrainians see their fellow citizens on the occupied territories as hostages to personal, political and military circumstances. Only 6% see them as having betrayed Ukraine. This is really the most productive approach, because if Ukraine takes that position that “our” territory” is populated with “outsiders,” the only option will be internal colonization based on police force and the administrative dictates of the central government. If the Donbas had really been a civil war, there would not be any other option. But fortunately the situation in ORDiLO is quite different: most of people are not participants in terrorism but its hostages.
Hostages, not perpetrators
Of course, there are people who believe in separatism in ORDiLO. But too many outsiders use the results of the 2014 pseudo-referendum in which Russia’s proxies claim Donbas voted unanimously for the two pseudo-republics to say “they’re all like that there.” What evidence of the “love of the people” for the occupying force there is, is based on chasing locals out to participate in rallies, large-scale farewells to dead militants, and so on. Opinion polls in the occupied territories show a very different picture. According to one survey in occupied Donetsk Oblast, only 18% of the local population consider themselves “citizens of DNR.” What illustrates the real level of separatism in ORDiLO even more strikingly is the number of residents who have actually acquired a “republican passport:” the proxies in “DNR” and “LNR” themselves put the figure for the last two years at 190,000.
Despite the damage to political and economic ties, it seems that the local population continues to link its future to Ukraine, sometimes even in the face of its own political convictions. Of course, living under military occupation has had its impact on people’s worldviews, practices and so on. But it’s not worth overestimating this influence, for two main reasons. First, the occupation looks unlikely to last long enough for the militants to raise an entire generation. Secondly, their propaganda affects the day-to-day life of locals far less than practical considerations. In the liberated towns of Donbas, at any rate, the term “Novorossiya” only comes up in kitchen gossip or in marginal circles.
If someone wants to see “treason” in the fact that millions of Ukrainian citizens are under occupation, they can, but the fact is that Ukraine needs its people there. They have lived in Ukraine all their lives and are far more integrated than the Russians who are busy buying up housing in Donetsk and Luhansk. Unfortunately, Ukraine is constrained by the Minsk accord and cannot really effectively interact with the residents of ORDiLO until the Law “On the specific nature of self-government” takes effect. Until then, however, the groundwork for a strategy in the Donbas needs to be laid now. If Ukrainians want Donbas to become a proper part of Ukraine, and not just a formality, any policy towards the region needs to stand on three pillars: restoring security and justice, rebuilding democracy and developing a new, modern economy.
Security is tied to justice
Security and justice are two sides of the same coin in this case. Firstly, it means retaking control over the country’s eastern border and re-establishing legitimate state institutions across ORDiLO territory. Security measures will not be completely effective without ridding the region of the pro-Russian separatist movement. In order to do so, Kyiv can use legal instruments, that is, to sue those who will not be eligible for the amnesty required by the Minsk accords. If the guilty are convinced that they will inexorably face justice and punishment, many of the more dangerous separatists will likely flee Donbas together with the Russian forces.
There also needs to be some form of restitution in ORDiLO, to restore the property that the Russian proxies have been confiscating since 2014. Moreover, a broad-based campaign needs to be carried out to persuade locals to sue the Russian Federation to compensate them for the moral and material damage the war brought them. Such lawsuits have already been launched, but the government in Kyiv, human rights activists and international organizations need to support systematic and mass-scale efforts, like class action suits in other countries. Even if Ukraine is unable to find a mechanism for enforcing the payment of damages, the campaign will mean a lot politically and socially: the Ukrainian state needs to eventually declare its right to demand reparations from Russia. The rest of the crimes by the occupying forces also need to be documented and submitted to courts of various instances, including international ones.
Democracy for Donbas
Since it was trampled under the occupation, the restoration of democracy in Donbas will be a major factor in the real reintegration of the region. This is critical, both in terms of values and in terms of political purpose. The local population needs to be confident that in returning to the Ukrainian flag, they won’t be treated as second-class citizens but will, on the contrary, have their rights and freedoms fully restored. The growth of civil society and political pluralism should weaken the monopoly of pro-Russian forces that was fostered in the region by the Party of the Regions for more than a decade. In the future, Kyiv will have to foster the establishment of local civic alternatives to pro-Russian and separatist elements, something that is critical, not just at the tactical level, but strategically as well. The drive for unity should be moved from a “Kyiv vs Donbas” framing to the internal regional level.
What’s more, once its “special status” expires, the population of ORDiLO will have to accept decommunization, the new language law and other changes that either have taken place in Ukraine or will have done so while Donbas eked out a living under occupation. Moreover, such changes have to be promoted by local national democratic forces that enjoy sufficient local support, not officials who are simply following orders from above. It may be easier by far to simply reconstruct the local administrative chain-of-command, but history has shown that the loyalty of bureaucrats is the least reliable support system when push comes to shove. And so, the few years that ORDiLO is officially under “special status” provide the timeframe during which Kyiv has to attract the support of local activists and help them gain political weight.
Rebuilding Donbas economically will also go along way to foster the reintegration of the local population. First of all, the residents of ORDiLO need to be encouraged to stop seeing themselves as the passive recipients of outside assistance but to become engaged as broadly as possible in rebuilding civilian life. At the communication level, the restoration of Donbas needs to be presented as making a better future for all Ukrainians, not as simply resolving a local problem. Moreover, rebuilding Donbas is the perfect opportunity to strengthen interregional ties in Ukraine through horizontal communication. This means engaging teams of workers from other oblasts of Ukraine while workers from ORDiLO are retrained or learn a new specialization outside Donbas. For Donbas, with its highly industrialized history and culture, this kind of experience could be at least as valuable as travel exchanges and similar programs.
Over and above this, Ukraine has an opportunity to westernize the region economically in the process of renewing Donbas. International corporations are already beginning to actively launch new manufacturing facilities in Ukraine, which means that they should be offered not just attractive but “greenhouse” terms to do so in Donbas. In addition to socio-economic benefits, this will bring political dividends as well.
Firstly, reorienting the local economy towards western technologies and investments to will weaken pro-Russian tendencies and put an end to the myth of Donbas’s dependence on Russia. The expansion of foreign business in Donbas will also weaken the grip of local oligarchs whose loyalty to Ukraine is suspect at best. Indeed, Donbas was originally developed by European industrialists who were invited by the Russian Empire to come here in the mid-19th century. The effect was explosive: within a few decades, the region had undergone an economic miracle and—unfortunately temporarily—was on track towards normal European development.
In short, the de-occupation of Donbas is a historic opportunity to begin a huge undertaking with the people of the region. Understandably, this will take enormous effort, but there will never be a more favorable time than the turning point of the post-war years. This is the moment when Ukraine can invite Donbas to build a common future together. Still, this time around, no stillborn “compromises between East and West” should come up. Ukraine’s development course has been decided and all Donbas has to do is come on board.
Could the region see this as a historic defeat? Undoubtedly this will be true among the pro-Russian, degraded, neo-soviet elements of Donbas. But contemporary, democratic and Ukrainian Donbas, on the contrary, will finally have a chance to emerge and flourish. For these tectonic changes to be launched, Ukraine’s leadership needs to drop its ideological blinders and act proactively, with a long-term strategy in its sights. Most importantly, over the next few years, Ukraine needs to move along the path of reform as far as possible, otherwise this region will find itself integrating, not to the Ukrainian project, but to a rotten post-soviet bureaucracy and corruption.