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14 June, 2013  ▪  Ihor Losiev

The National Reserve

The background, nature and threats of the Donbas identity
Gallery: Donbas Symbols (photos: 29)

Will Ukraine split into East and West? This is one of the first things that comes to mind with every new election campaign. In fact, regional differences are not so much between East and West as they are between most of Ukraine on one side and Donbas and Crimea on the other. The latter are arguably the most Sovietized Ukrainian territories. However, they have the potential to change, and the latest parliamentary election proved this: the locals are slowly but surely shedding their regional tribal sentiments, servile dependence on their “homeboy” bosses and mafia, and distorted local patriotism, which their steel barons and criminals have been exploiting for years. In this sense, the territory covering Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Mykolayiv and Odesa Oblasts is now a buffer zone of sorts between pro-European and Soviet Ukraine. Hence, its perpetual ambivalence between the two opposite impulses coming from different sides. Unlike Central and Western Ukraine where the majority votes for pro-Ukrainian forces, and the Donbas where the majority votes for the PR as “homeboys”, other south-eastern oblasts have a more equal divide with around half voting for the PR and the Communist Party – these people feel nostalgic about the USSR and the iron fist, and the other half supporting the opposition – these voters prefer a European Ukraine.

Election results in this internal buffer zone have lately revealed a steady strengthening of pro-Ukrainian and pro-European forces. However, these positive transformations are taking place without the due involvement of the democratic opposition that seems to have given up on this territory long ago, preferring to win their parliamentary seats in the friendlier Western and Central Ukraine. However, it is this huge area that is now deciding Ukraine’s future.


The current state of Ukraine largely stems from the fact that one territorial clan with its own regional mentality is imposing its own rules and specific values on the entire country, having established tough control over Donbas, i.e. Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, over the past 20 years. Thanks to the virtual isolation of their region and cementing of Russian and Soviet practices in it, the “Donetsk elites” have successfully shaped what is known as regional patriotism in these two mining oblasts.  In the case of the region’s business and bureaucratic elites, known as the “Donetsk guys” this is clan-oligarch patriotism that has little to do with the national interests of the state.

There are two scenarios for the evolution of regional patriotism: It can rise to the scale of national values and merge with them as a reinforcing component, or degrade into separatism and tribalism that is manifested in the “homeboy – stranger” approach, among others. If this is the case, the regional elite that takes over central power views other regions and the country overall as a prize, an occupied territory where it should set a new order and exploit its resources to the benefit of its clan. “We conquered Russia, now we must learn to govern it,” Vladimir Lenin once said. The Donetsk elites have been learning the art of governing Ukraine for four years now. In fact, they have merely been implementing governance practices tested in the Donbas throughout Ukraine. Notably, Boris Kolesnikov, the then Infrastructure Minister, made virtually all  Ukrainian-speaking top officials in Lviv Oblast speak to him in Russian during Euro 2012 preparations, despite the PR’s rhetoric of respect for every region.

Unfortunately, Donetsk’s regional patriotism has been following the second scenario, opposing the rest of Ukraine and fueling confrontation whenever possible. In Soviet times, the Donbas didn’t really stand out from the many other industrial regions of the USSR, enjoying the widespread communist image of being the “industrial heart of Ukraine, of the miners as the “Guards of the working class”, of the “hardworking Donbas” and the like. Soviet mentality monopolized the region. After Ukraine declared independence, the Donbas elites, mostly technocratic and Moscow-oriented red directors tumbling into criminal practices, felt that they had to exploit these old myths for political purposes as they competed for control over the country’s centre with other regional elites. Their key rivals were the Dnipropetrovsk groups who had a better understanding of the national context compared to their Donetsk opponents. The Donetsk elite with its vague “credit history” found it much more challenging to gain a legitimate place in the centre because this required a certain public identification with the Ukrainian language, culture, history and identity at that point. Unlike the Dnipropetrovsk region with its Cossack background and abundant history, the Donbas had much less of a cultural background. As a result, local Soviet “values” successfully filled the ideological vacuum.

A Donbas-born journalist once wrote: “A good friend of mine who lives in Donetsk, shared her sociological observations: ‘Chernivtsi is a parasitic city! Ternopil is also a parasitic city! And Ivano-Frankivsk as well!’ Other parasitic cities included Cherkasy and Chernihiv, while the main parasite – Kyiv, of course. ‘We mine coal and smelt metal here, and what about you?’ she explained.” The woman never worked at a mine or a steel plant. Since she got her university degree, she has worked in an office, with a computer. Just like hundreds of thousands of people in Kyiv, Cherkasy and Ivano-Frankivsk.”

This is a classic manifest of the Donbas regional patriotism: we are the workers, while the rest are sluggards and parasites, feeding off the “hardworking Donbas”. Meanwhile, the locals are often unaware – or prefer to be so – of that fact that the obsolete and unreformed Donbas industry is a huge burden on Ukraine. A comparison the taxes the Donbas pays to the central budget and official transfers to Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts from the central budget, indirect transfers through the Pension Fund and subsidies to coal mining companies there shows that their taxes (UAH 21bn) do not cover even 50% of the funding later allocated to them (over UAH 44bn). Moreover, without state subsidies, for instance, the extraction of Donetsk coal would be so expensive that the metal it is used to smelt would be uncompetitive on global markets – and this is the core business of many oligarchs.

However, nobody is about to tell them that. This has been the core ideology around which the Donbas community has been carefully consolidated for the past 20 years, while Kyiv preferred to stay out. This feeds the concept of separation into homeboys and strangers. “We and you are common in essence,” said Oleksandr Yefremov, Head of the PR parliamentary faction, during the 2012 parliamentary campaign addressing to the Donbas voters. This essence has been shaped by the decades of Soviet industrialization, resettlement, and 20 years of the region’s isolated existence after independence. The informational ghetto the Donbas has been in all this time prevented the locals from hearing any alternative information, made it easier to brainwash them, and nurtured their particular worldview. Rebels were made very clear – with violence at times – that “this is not Ukraine”. The environment shaped intolerance to alternative ideas or any criticism of the region. Now, the local rules, including feudalism, tribalism, opportunism and greed, are spreading far beyond the region. Many Ukrainians cede to this. One signal is the growing number of those willing to make careers in “profitable” public sectors. More and more young people apply to the Tax Academy even though tax services are among the most corrupt authorities in Ukraine. However, many Ukrainians find it easier to live that way, and some see no sense in resistance.


Working in South-Eastern Ukraine is much more challenging for the opposition compared to Western and Central Ukraine. The Donbas and Crimea are the most difficult. However, they have good social and national potential, which the opposition has so far been surrendering to its opponents without even trying to really struggle for them or offering South-Eastern Ukraine an ideological alternative.  

Pro-European forces still have a door of opportunity in that part of Ukraine. But it may not stay open for much longer. Their opponents are not exactly sitting idle. Very soon, the growing poverty – the inevitable result of the PR’s economic policy may radicalize sentiments in this region. People there will need new attractive slogans, fresh and untainted political leaders, and reasonable agendas to overcome the current crisis. This is a unique chance that may define Ukraine’s direction for decades to come. Meanwhile, if regional patriotism – in the Donbas, Halychyna, Kyiv or anywhere else – mounts and overshadows the pan-Ukrainian patriotism oriented at the state development, it may put Ukraine on a bloody path of Yugoslavia of the early 1990s. 

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