Sovietism is deeply rooted in the Donetsk prairies. Unless it is liquidated, the region will see no progress or solution to the current situation
Ukraine has changed significantly in the 23 years since the declaration of independence. In 1991, it was simply the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, albeit formally independent of Russia, but at the same time, steeped in Sovietism. In 2014, an entirely different country has arisen. Most regions of Ukraine, which were once part of the “red belt” and voted for Communists and Socialists in elections, have changed fundamentally and become steadfastly blue-yellow. The Communist Party of Ukraine even won the 1998 parliamentary election in Chernivtsi with 20% of the vote. Today, something like that is unimaginable.
Ukrainians have experienced a reformatting of consciousness over the years of democracy. Life without censorship and totalitarian control has changed the nation. It has taught us to value freedom and human rights. However strange it may seem though, the complete opposite has occurred in certain regions of Ukraine, even in a democratic society. The Donbas, instead of gradually becoming more Ukrainian, has slowly transformed into a centre of Soviet reaction.
Since it was more convenient for the regional elite of Eastern Ukraine to cooperate with Russia through corruption and old criminal connections, than with other European countries, financial-industrial groups in the Donbas have opted to preserve Soviet traditions in the region, creating a true centre of Soviet imperial reaction there, and, after many years, a source of guaranteed trouble for Ukraine.
The Incubator of Intolerance
First of all, today, the Ukrainian authorities must think not only about the liberation and rebuilding of the Donbas, but about fundamentally changing its essence, rebuilding the region in its entirety and ridding it of the encumbrance of Soviet totalitarianism.
This is no easy task. And it is not that most of the people of the Donbas do not accept the concept of a united Ukraine. If they just hated Ukraine, this could be written off as a result of the particularly complex history of relations with Ukrainians. The problem, however, is that people in this region hate the entire world.
The local population speaks with loathing of Europeans and Europe, decisively brushes off any tolerance and lenience, accepts and praises violence, repression, torture, ethnic cleansing and religious persecution. All this is not against Ukrainians alone, but against people from the Caucasus and Baltic States, Poles, Asians, Africans and Americans. The list of nations and peoples they think of as odious is very long, but the residents of the Donbas can also quickly and easily come to hate their neighbours on the slightest provocation. For example, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) militants in Slovyansk killed eight parishioners of the local Protestant Church, in spite of the fact that they were native residents and Russian-speakers.
We can spend a ton of time thinking about why the Donbas has become this incubator of intolerance and why it didn’t resist those, who so assiduously spurred society towards this moral decline. Obviously, this abnormal state is a threat to both the surrounding regions, and the Donbas itself. It has already become a victim of its own prejudices and hurt feelings. To leave it unreformed once more is to simply preserve the sickness and wait for the next destructive relapse.
It is still too early to talk about the liberation of the region. The war continues. But reform plans must be ready beforehand. Meanwhile, unfortunately, officials are only talking about the amounts they are ready to reclaim within programmes to restore Donetsk and Luhansk. They are talking about billions, but spending such funds to rebuild the old, reactionary Soviet Donbas is a crime. Painting a shrapnel-hit statue of Lenin blue and yellow in your average Donas town will never resolve the problem of separatism.
How did the Donbas become the nest of Soviet reaction? The problem stems not only from the history of Eastern Ukraine and the treason of local politicians, but also from its economic specificity. The brutal economic crisis, which boiled in Donbas in the 1990s, devastated its cities. Here and there, industrial output fell 60–70% and never returned to its initial levels. The epidemic of closing mines has ruined the infrastructure of mining villages and led to mass unemployment. The arrival of capitalism in a region that was designed by the standards of a socialist economy could hardly affect it differently, but the locals cared little for what experts tried to explain to them. They were enraged by capitalism and Ukraine, which brought it to them. Rogues and criminal leaders quickly realized how they could take advantage of the large-scale discontent, using Soviet rhetoric as their weapon. The seeds of separatism and anti-Ukrainian sentiment fell on fertile soil. They declared that ineffective reforms were machinations of the enemies of the Donbas. Revisionist sentiments were used as easy lifts to power and usurpation. The rest is history.
The ideas of Ukrainophobia, Stalinism, ultra-nationalist black-hundredists, and of Soviet militarism have not simply remained here, but have found new, young supporters, reinforced with due propaganda. It appears that this stronghold of Soviet reaction does not intend to renounce its destructive misanthropic rhetoric, until radically re-organised. Decisive elimination of all sources of Donetsk separatism must be begun immediately. After all, a large portion of the region’s territory has already been liberated from pro-Russian rebels.
Donetsk’s Soviet imperialism did not exist on its own, or in a vacuum. Its bacteria have long been evolving in a relevant nourishing environment made up of mining villages with their primordial criminal spirit, cult of force and hard drinking. Soviet officials who united in cartels, first with people employed in workshops, then with criminal groups. Obsolete industry with no prospects, its directors cultivating the old order of the outdated system. No wonder that the coal-mining and industrial parts of the Donbas have become the centres of separatism today.
The lack of real reform further aggravated the problems of the Donbas. The process of mine shutdown transformed into predatory robbery. At the same time, there has been no real restructuring of the coal industry. It remained state-owned, unprofitable and archaic. Miners considered any innovations to be evil and demanded all attempts to change the archaic system to be stopped, striving to hang on to the calm and absurd world to which they were accustomed instead. Populist politicians echoed that. Reforms were stopped short. This vicious circle threw the Donbas into ever greater poverty and rage.
The guidelines for transformation
Reforms in the Donbas should be bold and decisive. They can start with the cleansing of the local authorities and the fundamental reform of the administrative division. Donetsk Oblast is vast, with a population that is two to three times higher than that in most other Ukrainian oblasts. In this case, the size and economic potential have become the factors playing into the hands of separatists. It was easier for them to interact and find a common language. This is why Donetsk has to be divided into at least two parts. Debates are already in place to set up Pryazovska Oblast, and they are right. The demarcation of borders will break down groups.
Economic transformations have to be most radical. The Donbas must be reformatted economically before its mentality is tackled. There is a popular concept of restructuring in economics. This means total restructuring and the re-equipping of enterprises; quite often, complete liquidation of old plants and facilities, and the construction of new production lines. For the archaic industry in Donetsk, restructuring is the only option.
Once and for all, Ukraine has to decisively get rid of unprofitable coal mines. It is worth the pain because it can’t get any worse than it is now. Unresolved problems of mining villages have culminated in the current civil unrest and, ultimately, war, as well as the large-scale collaboration of the local population with separatists. There should be no more state mines and corrupt coal schemes in Ukraine. All mines and enrichment plants must be transferred to private ownership or closed. All kopanky, the illegal mines, must obtain licenses and operate legally. These “model areas” should be declared tax-free zones for several years and foreign investors should be invited to build new enterprises there from scratch. Chinese investors would be preferable since they already have the leverage to put pressure on Russia, and fueling separatism in the zone of their interest would no longer be as easy as it is now. What can Chinese investors build in Ukraine? For example, in Crimea, the Chinese are currently building a massive plant to make corn-based mixed fodder. In Russia, they are building an automobile plant to assemble inexpensive Lifan vehicles. Such facilities could be built in the Donbas as well. The Chinese have long been interested in the local agricultural sector, which is developing in Ukraine and produces plenty of material for further processing.
Another thing to consider carefully is the optimal use of funds to restore that which has been destroyed by war. There is probably no point in re-building the five-storey buildings in the suburbs of Shakhtarsk and Torez, extremely depressed towns even before the war. The workforce is already leaving the Donbas. Reversing this outflow is hardly worth the efforts. This region was over-saturated with industry during the Soviet era. Now, This legacy is naturally ageing and declining. In addition to that, the Donbas is over-populated. There are more miners than there is coal. After the conflict, the Donbas can expect a mass exodus of people and a reduction in the population by several hundred thousand people. It is time to think about ways to help them settle in other oblasts, where there are more prospects.
The residents of old dying villages would benefit more from being resettled. This will save money on the restoration and subsequent support of their infrastructure when their future is quite doubtful. In many, houses have had no central heating or water for the last 15 years. This is a solid fact.
In order to resolve the problem of the Donbas and to develop a plan to reconstruct it, the government could establish a relevant ministry and announce a tender for projects for immediate revival of the economy in Eastern Ukraine. This will not solve all the problems that have accumulated over the years in one fell swoop. But with a team of foreign professional economists and crisis managers are involved, successful steps could quickly give positive results. Coupled with consistent de-Sovietization, they should change the face of the Donbas within three – five years. We need a clear business plan, which we don’t yet have.
When it comes to reforms, political will of reformers is always what matters most. It is also what all Ukrainian leaders unfortunately lack.
Serhiy Zakharov is an artist from Donetsk known for his plywood caricatures of “Novorossia” leaders installed on the city streets in 2014. The installations resulted in his captivity in Donetsk that year. In his interview with The Ukrainian Week, Serhiy speaks about his complex relations with his city and the attitudes of the creative crowd to politicians
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