If the “Donbas pacification plan” announced by Petro Poroshenko is to be implemented effectively, the region’s administrative map could be redrawn more sensibly
Following his inauguration, newly elected President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko declared he was ready to make concessions to the “people of Donbas” that are generally in line with Russia’s demands and include granting special status to the Russian language and replacing centrally appointed governors at both the county and oblast levels with executive committees elected by the local councils. All of these changes are supposed to take place after the councils are re-elected in an early local election.
In the present circumstances, there is a danger that, in the best-case scenario, a moderate wing of the separatist forces will win. At least this is what may happen in all those counties and regional capitals that the central government has no control over, because their residents are largely loyal to the terrorists. 90% of the population there have traditionally voted for the Party of Regions, the Communist Party, Natalia Vitrenko’s notorious Progressive Socialist Party or other pro-Russian projects that pretended to be in the opposition to the Party of Regions. Recent opinion polls have shown that there is an anti-Ukrainian majority there that wants to either split off or be part of a federalized Ukraine (in their perception, this will, likewise, distance them from the rest of the country as much as possible). Supporters of these options in the Donbas accounted for more than 80% of the respondents in March-April. There is a pro-Ukrainian minority there, but it is limited to the 5-10% of the population that has traditionally supported democratic pro-European forces but has never defined the political landscape of the region.
Causes leading to this situation are not hard to pinpoint: the special ethnic composition – the majority of residents in the Donbas cities have either Russian or mixed Ukrainian-Russian background. Both have Russian cultural and national identity and perceive Ukraine as merely a variation of Russia. Another reason is the information ghetto which was especially evident in the Donbas throughout independence. Add to this the heightened attention of the Russian and local pro-Russian and autonomist mass media outlets. These factors caused the majority there to support Viktor Yanukovych’s regime, reject the Maidan and its accomplishments, etc. It is equally clear that the central government (ex-president Leonid Kuchma and other former top leaders publicly acknowledge the fact) has not even set a goal of increasing the presence of the Ukrainian state in the Donbas in terms of either information and propaganda or personnel in the 23 years of Ukraine’s independence. It must have hoped, erroneously as it turns out, that this approach would help avoid separatist attitudes.
Whatever the causes, they are not going to change the situation in the region. As the new Ukrainian president is getting ready to once again recognize the Donbas’ right to essentially operate separately from the rest of the country, while remaining part of it only pro forma, he needs to at least take steps to take parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts from the separatists’ hands – these areas were once joined to these oblasts artificially and can still be preserved today as predominantly Ukrainian territories.
Many faces of the Donbas
The Donbas can now be divided into several distinct microregions. For example, most residents of ten northern counties in Luhansk Oblast voted in the presidential election on May 25 and are loyal to anti-terrorist forces. Also loyal are the adjacent counties in Donetsk Oblast: Krasnyi Lyman, Sloviansk and Oleksandrivka (that latter voted in the election). A similar situation is in western counties in Donetsk Oblast (Dobropillia, Krasnoarmiysk and Velyka Novosilka). Pryazovia, a region in Southeastern Ukraine that includes Mariupol and several neighbouring counties, also voted, even though terrorist bands are active there. At the same time, the central government has no control over some parts of these oblasts: Artemivsk and Kostiantynivka counties in Donetsk Oblast and Popasna County in Luhansk Oblast which have large inclusions with medium-sized and large cities where people are loyal to the separatists. The cities of Artemivsk, Kramatorsk, Druzhkivka, Kostiantynivka, Severodonetsk, Lysychansk and Rubizhne have the population 5-10 times bigger than that of the neighbouring rural Ukrainian-speaking counties.
Anti-terrorist forces are experiencing most problems in the rest of Donetsk Oblast where the population, the police and local administrations all show the strongest support for the separatists. These are cities that essentially blend into one industrial urban agglomeration: Donetsk, Yenakievo, Horlivka, Shakhtarsk, Dzerzhynsk and several adjacent counties. Similar attitudes are shared by the population in the south of Luhansk Oblast, primarily territories populated by coal miners. Reports from these areas strongly suggest that the Ukrainian law enforcement forces feel they are in the enemy territory there and are struggling to keep some important objects and part of border checkpoints under their control.
The territories not controlled by the central government have the population of some three million people in Donetsk Oblast (without the surrounded city of Sloviansk) and nearly two million in Luhansk Oblast (74% of the total). Kyiv controls nearly 53% of the area of the two oblasts with the population of a mere 1.1 million (less than 17%). Mariupol, where the central government has tentative control, accounts for another 7.6% with its population of 500,000. Sloviansk, surrounded by the separatists, has another 100,000 residents.
Even as a large proportion of Russian-speaking Donbas residents speak in favour of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, there is still an obvious trend. In the territories where the presidential election was not held and which are essentially out of the control of the central government, Ukrainian is native to barely 20%, while the proportion of Russian native speakers, according to the 2001 census, is greater than in the Crimea. Meanwhile, in the largely pro-Ukrainian northern part of the Donbas over 80% of citizens identified Ukrainian as their mother tongue in the same census.
The critical situation prevailing in the Donbas in the past months has highlighted regional differences and the artificiality of Stalin-era gerrymandering: back in Soviet times, territories were attached to large cities which had to become their administrative centres and the Kremlin’s bulwarks in Ukraine. Historical, ethno-linguistic and socioeconomic features were ignored or deliberately obliterated.
In 1932, “big” Donetsk Oblast, from which Luhansk Oblast was later splintered off, was set up. Its central core consisted of urban settlements densely populated by coal miners. A very high proportion of these were Russian-speaking settled who moved there in Soviet or back in tsarist times. These areas were supplemented with two adjacent, largely agricultural territories to make “big” Donetsk Oblast.
From the north, Ukrainian-speaking counties, historically part of Sloboda Ukraine and later Kharkiv Gubernia, were added, and from the south, agricultural counties of Pryazovia were incorporated. These had ethnically diverse population, including, for example, a large Greek community centred around Mariupol. Soviet national policy promoted Russian to the status of “language of international communication” and became the main language for the local Greeks. The construction of large industrial plants in Mariupol led to an influx of population from Central Russia, and the south of Donetsk Oblast, formerly an agricultural region, turned into a predominantly Russian-speaking territory. A similar process took place in the north. Newly founded industrial cities, such as Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Druzhkivka, became the centres of both heavy machine building and Russification. In 2014, they turned into strongholds of terrorists, even though the Ukrainian-speaking majority of the population in the neighbouring rural counties (Oleksandrivka, Krasnyi Lyman and Sloviansk) is largely loyal to the anti-terrorist forces.
Given the demographic disproportions between different territories in the Donbas, a snap election and the implementation of Poroshenko’s reform plan will, no doubt, bring to power precisely more or less separatist-minded politicians. They will make Russian the only official language in all of their territory, discriminate the Ukrainian-speaking population no less than is the case now in Crimea and ultimately reduce the Donbas’ place within Ukraine to a mere formality. This will put the preconditions in place for the region to pull out of the country as soon as an opportunity presents itself (for example, as a reaction to changes in Kyiv’s domestic or foreign policy that will go against Moscow’s grain). After Poroshenko’s “pacification plan” is realized, Kyiv will be left with virtually no mechanisms – and even less so political will – to counteract.
The “pacification” of the Donbas will lead – de facto if not de jure – to its autonomous status, and so a new administrative-territorial division is vital. To leave these pro-Ukrainian counties under the control of forces that will rely on the support of the anti-Ukrainian majority of the central Donbas is to hand them over to separatists.
Most crucially, Kharkiv Oblast needs to incorporate 10 Sloboda Ukraine counties (including Novoaidar County) that are now part of Luhansk Oblast; Krasnyi Lyman, Oleksandrivka and Sloviank counties of Donetsk Oblast, as well as the cities of Krasnyi Lyman and Sloviansk (once freed from terrorists). These cities need to be cut off from the uncertain Donbas also because this is where the bulk of Yuzivka shale gas deposits are. This area is now split between Donetsk and Kharkiv oblasts. Given Shell’s successful exploration of these deposits, Ukraine will stand a better chance of cutting its energy dependence on Russia. Thus, Kharkiv Oblast will receive an additional 18,500 sq km of territory and 431,000 residents (577,000 together with Sloviansk).
Western counties of Donetsk Oblast (Dobropillia, Krasnoarmiysk and possibly Velyka Novosilka), also predominantly Ukrainian-speaking and rather loyal to the central government as was shown during presidential election on May 25, could be included in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast (280,000 residents and 4,350 sq km). Southern areas – Mariupol and four or five nearby counties where the election was held in May and which are controlled by the government forces, even though to a lesser degree than in the north and west – could be made into a new oblast with 6,350 sq km and 680,000 residents.
The rest of the Donbas, where the coal mining basin is located, the least pro-Ukrainian population lives and the May 25 presidential election failed to take place, could be joined together into one oblast. After the long-awaited reform of the local government and early elections, it would de facto, if not de jure, have the special status of a region whose integration into Ukraine is problematic and would have to become the target of special central policy. New Donetsk Oblast would have the area of 31,400 sq km and the population of 5.6 million if it kept Pryazovia or 24,750 sq km and nearly 5 million people without it.
The best course may be to acknowledge the reality and adequately react to it rather than continue to underestimate the threats to the remaining counties of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and to southeastern regions in general. These threats emanate from separatist-controlled Donbas territories. And it makes little difference whether power is in the hands of a military wing or politicians who are likely to come to power after an early election. Clearly, Putin needs this territory not for its own sake but as a springboard for spreading separatism to other southern and eastern Ukrainian lands.