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26 May, 2017  ▪  Denys Kazanskyi

The good, the bad and the ugly

How life has changed in three years in occupied and liberated Donbas

On April 12, 2014, a group of saboteurs led by GRU officer Igor “Strelkov” Girkin entered Sloviansk in Donetsk Oblast —the same group that had taken part in the annexation of Crimea. That day was the start of a bloody military conflict in Donbas that continues to this day. Later on, Girkin confirmed in one of his interviews that it was he and his gang that got the war going: “I’m the one that pressed the trigger of war. If our group had not crossed the border, everything would have ended up the way it did in Kharkiv and in Odesa. A few dozen dead, burned or arrested. And that would have been that,” he proudly recalled the events of spring 2014.

Today, those living in the occupied territories controlled by “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic” (“DNR” and “LNR”) militia can only envy Kharkiv and Odesa, whose residents look in horror at what is going on in Luhansk and Donetsk.

Once considered the locomotives driving Ukraine’s economy and laying claim to a unique role in the state, these two eastern oblasts are now divided by frontlines and borders, destroyed by shelling and buried in a deep depression. The “Russian spring” brought massive killings, broken lives and poverty to those same Russian-speaking residents of Donbas whom Russian saboteurs came to “save.” The war for Pax Rossiana or Russkiy Mir have made millions of people suffer on both sides of the line of contact while bringing joy to a very tiny circle of individuals who have taken advantage of the situation to enrich themselves on the tragedies of others.

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The Minsk talks have dragged on for nearly two and a half years now, and have brought no measurable results. Indeed, with the takeover of Ukrainian enterprises by Russia’s proxies in March 2017, all that’s left is to declare Minsk officially dead. So far, the two sides have not even managed to make a single ceasefire stick.

Three years of war have made bulletins from the front and reports of losses a daily occurrence. Nor is there any indication of a way out of the Minsk cul-de-sac. The way the situation looks today, it seems as likely to last months as to last years. Of course, the economy of Donbas is unlikely to survive such a long period of self-mutilation.

Three years down the line, the Occupied Regions of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (ORDiLO), the slice of Donbas grabbed from Ukraine, remains divided into two quasi-statelets by a border whose purpose remains a mystery to all—other than perhaps the armed Donetsk and Luhansk gangs that make money by taking tributes from all those who cross it. Their territories are marked as the self-proclaimed “people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk”. In the last three years, these Russian-managed entities have established nearly all the structures that are typical for unrecognized states. So far, however, this policy has not brought a higher standard of living to those residing there.

All this time, the economic situation in the occupied territories has been deteriorating. And after the militants took over management of Ukrainian enterprises in ORDiLO at the beginning of March, the territories have gone into complete economic collapse.

Posts to social networks sound like the chronicles of a dive-bomber. Mine warehouses are bursting with coal that no one wants to buy. It seems that Russia simply has no need for such quantities of fuel. Meanwhile, the mines are suffering a shortage of lumber for support structures, which was previously shipped from Western Ukraine, and so they’ve had to stop operations and send miners off on unpaid leave. On April 18, the miners working for the Zasiadko Mine[1] in Donetsk were sent on unpaid leave for a week. Mines of the MakiyivVuhillia Mining Association in Makiyivka are currently working in water-pumping mode.

Steel plants in ORDiLO are working to only partial capacity. Coking plants are barely operating at all. The most difficult situation is in the machine-building industry: their complex production cycles, the breakdown of old production links and the lack of necessary legal status have made it virtually impossible for these companies to operate.

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Right now, a second wave of migrants from ORDiLO to the rest of Ukraine is underway. After Ukrainian companies were “nationalized”, i.e. taken over, and stopped operations on the occupied territories, the management of DTEK and MetInvest plants has moved away. This time, however, the migration is also limited primarily to the most qualified professionals. Low-skilled and unskilled workers are unlikely to find jobs somewhere else without problems. For this reason, there has been no mass movement of ordinary workers from the occupied territories so far.

Despite their low wages, beggarly pensions and the lack of certainty, people are afraid to abandon their homes and risk the unknown. Propaganda has played no small role in all this, with which the militants and their Russian handlers have been bombarding ORDiLO residents. Many of them now really fear the Government of Ukraine, believing the fairytales that bloodthirsty fascists and punishers are simply waiting for them on the other side of the line of contact.

The hardest fate has befallen pensioners on the occupied territories. Many of them have no way to collect their Ukrainian pensions—they have to be registered as IDPs on the government-controlled territory and reside here to be able to do so —and are now forced to survive on the pittance that Russia provides. Until recently, they received considerable humanitarian aid from Rinat Akhmetov’s charities. But since the militants prohibited them from operating, ORDiLO residents lost even that small amount. Some families are literally at the verge of starving to death.

“How are we supposed to live?” ask people in Donetsk who call Akhmetov’s hotline. “They hang around and drink and then they demand that we pay for utilities that we can’t afford!” These kinds of conversations with residents in the occupied territories are regularly recorded and published by employees of the foundation.

Still, outside occupied Donbas, in those areas that were taken back from Russia’s proxies in 2014, life is not sweet, either.

The economic situation in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts remains as difficult as it always was. The nearness of the front and the break in old economic ties make themselves felt. Although the central and western oblasts of Ukraine showed marginal improvement in 2016, depression and decline have not been overcome yet. The settlements that are actually in the areas under regular bombardment are particularly hard hit in every sense.

Certainly, their situation is not comparable to what is going on, on the other side of the frontline. Ukraine has already begun restoration work in the battlefields of 2014: the bridges in Sloviansk and Lysychansk that were blown up by the militants have been rebuilt, and some infrastructure has also been reconstructed. Food is both cheaper and better quality on Ukrainian territory than in the occupied territories. Still, the situation in Ukrainian Donbas cannot be called positive. The region has accumulated a vast array of problems that need to be addressed. But the old local clans of strong Party of the Regions managers aren’t capable of doing this.

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If anything, the political situation is even worse. In the three years since the war started, mostly the same people have remained in power as were busy fanning the flames of military conflict in the spring of 2014. Those who organized anti-Ukraine rallies and the illegal May 11 referendum in 2014, encouraging massive social unrest, are still warming their seats as deputies and mayors. The mayors of Severodonetsk, Rubizhne, Druzhkivka, Mariupol, Kurakhovo, and Dobropillia who cooperated with the Russian proxies have not felt any consequences under Ukrainian law. Worse yet, they are doing everything they can to bring back the separatists and collaborators who sat quietly for awhile after the militants were expelled and appear to have now decided that enough time has passed that they don’t need to hide themselves any more.

For instance, on April 12, Druzhkivka Mayor Valeriy Hnatenko tried to appoint his friend Serhiy Berezhniy as municipal police chief. But in 2014, Berezhniy led the police in Druzhkivka and patrolled the town’s streets together with Girkin’s fighters. There’s even an interview of his from a local paper where proudly admitted that he was collaborating with the “home guard.”

Obviously the government needs to pay immediate attention to these worrisome signals. Right now, we see all the conditions being set up in Donbas for a new anti-Ukraine putsch. Should there be a new political crisis, those who betrayed their country before will do it again without hesitation. Why should Ukraine wait for the same rake to hit it in the face again?

Unfortunately, it does look like the government still hasn’t learned its lessons from 2014. Right now, a separatist comeback slowly making its way across Donbas. In order to prevent another tragedy in the future, civil society needs to actively counter these negative trends and do its best to get through to those in power.


[1] It was part of the DonetskVuhillia, a holding in in the orbit of the long-time MP, including with the Party of Regions, and former Vice Premier investigated for office abuse, Yukhym Zviahilskiy. The mine has been the most accident-prone one in Ukraine.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj 

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