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12 November, 2014

Broken Democracy on the Frontline

Unhappy, poorly dressed people, mostly elderly, trudged to the polls to cast their votes for one of the richest people in the Donetsk region

The Donbas is in a state of devastation following the horrors of the past summer. The region has been ravaged by war, and recovery will be slow. Kramatorsk, Sloviansk, and Kostiantynivka are recuperating as if from a serious long-term illness. Decay is felt throughout.

The weeds lining the roadsides have not been mowed all year, creating the impression that the area has been abandoned. The asphalt still retains traces of shelling and tank treads. Drivers carefully navigate amidst the abundant potholes. One feels the proximity of war, though it thunders 50-70 kilometres away. Along the road, one encounters several roadblocks billowing with smoke from bonfires used to heat the soldiers.

The lack of cars on the road is startling. The Donetsk-Kharkiv highway, once full of traffic, is now deserted. Life here is frozen, though shells have not fallen in this part of the Donetsk region since June. Once the sun sets over the horizon, a thick, heavy darkness descends over the road. No lights shine in the windows of neighbouring homes. The town along the road seems completely empty. This scene is in striking contrast tothe Poltava region through which one passes on the road from Kyiv to Donetsk. There, one sees lights twinkling atop gas rigs, hotels and gas stations along the road. Heading from Kramatorsk towards Donetsk, however, a bleak, gray, neglected landscape begins.

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The Donetsk region has changed drastically since last spring. The trouble brewing beneath the surface in Eastern Ukraine proceeded ever so quietly for years, suddenly causing an uncontrollable chain reaction. These small industrial towns were already dying a slow death. They were dying in spite of the country’s rising GDP and the encouraging statistics of the mid-2000s. Soviet factories gradually reduced their personnel, resulting in decreased populations and the closure of schools and hospitals. This degradation began in the early 1990s and continued under every subsequentgovernment. Whole buildings, shops, andfactories vanished from the face of earth. What happened here in 2014 was the culmination of a long process.

Kostiantynivka and Dzerzhynsk look as if the war had raged there for years. But most of this destruction occurred during peacetime before the war had even begun. The war seems to have become an excuse for these ruins—a way to justify them all.

In the centre of Kostiantynivka stand two abandoned, gloomy “palaces of culture” - typical Soviet buildings with windows caked in dirt. To get from here to Dzerzhynsk, the last city before the border of the territory controlled by the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR), one must endure almost a half hour drive through pits and potholes. There, two identical concrete monuments to soviet secret police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky stand watch over poorly lit streets and houses rendered unrecognizable by the grime that covers them. There is hardly a soul in sight.

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The local mines, they say, never reopened after the brief occupation by the DNR. A few months of confusion and disorder hit the industry hard, and this frontline town could not recuperate after the fighting. Shells still sometimes land here, although the attacks are not as fierce as those that occurred at Shchastia or Vuhlehirsk. On Sunday, Dzerzhynsk held parliamentary elections where, through the use of fraudulent tactics, Ihor Shkirya was able to secure a victory. Unhappy, poorly dressed people, mostly elderly, trudged to the polls to cast their votes for one of the richest people in the Donetsk region.

There was a certain tinge of surrealism to it all. This impoverished, godforsaken town became a springboard to power for a person completely alien here. The voters that plodded to the polls didn’t understand why they should even bother, what might change, and whether change is even possible.

Observers, journalists, and Maidan party supporters accused Shkirya of fraud, but nothing could be done about it. The soldiers guarding the office of the regional electoral commission shrugged off the allegations and carried on with their job - to ensure that thisformer Party of Regions member who supported the separatists and voted for the January 16 legislation would get to parliament. To ensure that no one could disrupt the election process.

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