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27 April, 2019  ▪  Yelyzaveta Honcharova

Polyphonic Donbas

Who’s talking to the world on behalf of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts and what they are saying

With the start of Russia’s aggression, a tradition quickly developed that the pro-Ukrainian voice of occupied Crimea was, with a few exception, mostly that of the Crimean Tatars. From the first day, they were united and actively made their position known – and they suffered repression and persecution. Donbas produced a wider range of opinion leaders who now represent the territory at war and partly occupied region in free Ukraine and on the international level. And each of these is broadcasting a different message, depending on their own reputation.

In contrast with occupied Crimea, where the old elite has remained on the peninsula, almost to a man, Donetsk’s political mastodons had no desire to run the place from within a war zone. To this day, they are active players in Ukraine’s political, social and media environments. The old elite and its team of “doves of peace” were initially disoriented in the face of a real war and lost their positions for a time. Today, however, they are confidently involved in a variety of expert councils and actively engaged in politics at the local and national levels. Their main message is, “Give us the power and we will resolve everything in Donbas – “the country will work again,” “peace will come,” and so on.

Former Regionals scattered among the PR spin-offs are now trying from every possible tribunal to persuade Ukrainians that the war is only happening because Ukraine’s leadership is unable to cut a deal, and because of “internal conflict” in the country. If this position does not come across as persuasive and popular at the international level, domestic consumers is happy to agree with this rhetoric. Trust in experts who anticipate a rapid resolution of the conflict through a change of leadership is quite high, even when it relates to individuals who already had a chance to show themselves as crisis managers in the most critical period for the country and failed.

A separate group that is trying to broadcast its view of events on Donbas is the revolutionary elite that appeared on the occupied territories. Without doubt they have powerful channels for bringing their information to the world community through Russian propaganda media, although the “official persons” themselves are not acknowledged, don’t participate in serious international movements, and have no political clout. Against the background of Russians lobbying, the aspirations of the “people of Donbas” to be recognized and independent are unlikely to be convincing.

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Still, it would be naive to believe that the truckloads of money that Russia is investing for the “right” presentation of its aggression in Ukraine are not achieving definitely success that is growing in the fertile soil offered by the substantial network of European friends of Moscow. From time to time, different countries show a burst of unexpected although very much calculated love for the unrecognized republics among certain political forces.

For instance, by the beginning of this year, the Embassy of Ukraine in Italy was forced to respond to the provocative opening of a “DNR representation in Verona. “Alas, even Italy has its political outcasts who are obviously prepared to continue to raise the level of provocation and put their efforts into gaining the approval of their Moscow handlers,” said a statement. “Still, we are confident that these provocative actions on the part of certain representatives of Veronese political circles will not be able to put in question the firm position of the Italian government regarding support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

Not terribly patriotic but generally constructive rhetoric can be heard from a slew of Ukrainian human rights advocates and various confessions that have been working actively in Donbas since the beginning of the war, genuinely help the local population, and don’t simply follow events from a distance. They have been working very productively with international institutions, participating in high-level events, and a substantial part of those who are interested in events in eastern Ukraine, both within and outside Ukraine itself, listen to them carefully. These “spokespeople” maintain a principled neutral stance towards evidence of Russia’s aggression, apply international norms to their work and try to remain outside the conflict, emphasizing the fact that civilians are suffering on both sides of the frontline. By bringing the stories about those who are suffering during the war to the rest of the world, they make sure to add one final statement: if a state cannot defend its own citizens, it is at fault and should be condemned by the world community. The message about Ukraine’s obligation to ensure social benefits on the occupied territories for all, without exception, is the clearest example of a position that is warmly accepted by one part of the country’s population and rejected on principle by the other.

Another group of powerful opinion leaders emerged through the tragic circumstances of this war: residents of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts who became well-known because of the principled pro-Ukrainian position that had led to their captivity and torture at the hands of the militants. Volodymyr Zhemchukhov, Ihor Kozlovskiy, Iryna Dovhan and hundreds of ordinary citizens in the region endured the hell of illegal imprisonment all talk about the torture, the murders, and the illegal detentions, the violations of human rights under occupation, both at the level of ordinary social interactions and at the highest, global level. They certainly don’t hide behind neutral-sounding phrases but prove through their own cases that Russia is not “rescuing the Russian-speaking people” of Donbas but is murdering them. Trust levels towards these individuals who have shown the strength, not just to talk about their own difficult trials, but to also establish a powerful grassroots movement to counter Russian propaganda are understandably high. Many of those who have returned from captivity have remained on non-occupied parts of the two oblasts and are supporting the organization of local and national civil society organizations that work to expand the Ukrainian space in Donetsk and Luhansk. They communicate actively with the press, including foreign journalists.

Activists and journalists who moved away from the region from the beginning of the armed conflict and occupation have also been doing this kind of work. The Donetsk and Luhansk intellectual class has become an active force in running an entire range of cultural and social events. Many of them see themselves as supporting the “Ukrainianness” of IDPs, organizing and stimulating a community of active resistance through social and cultural projects, protest actions and demonstrations, participation in international forums, and work documenting the crimes of the militants and their henchmen.

For instance, the Ukrainska Narodna Rada Donetchyny ta Luhanshchyny or Ukrainian National Council of Donetsk and Luhansk Country, a civic organization wrote into its Manifesto the desire to be a voice of influence in the region: “We are no longer prepared to resign ourselves to the fact that oligarchs, criminals, guides of the Russian aggressors, and political losers aspire to represent our interests. The Ukrainian citizens of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts who moved from the occupied territories have to become a new social force that will actively and effectively defend Ukrainian interests regardless of where they happen to live today.”

Despite the professionalism and scale of these movements, sometimes trust in them is somewhat undermined by the fact that most of the leading experts have not lived in the region they are writing about and analyzing for five years at this point. Perhaps they no longer feel the speed of changes in the two oblasts and this possibly reduces the overall level of confidence, but the position that is most common among the members of this group is: We are trying to build a new world again because ours was destroyed by Russia. And generally those experts who once lived in the Donbas are still seen as quite influential and constructive.

But it’s very hard for volunteers, service personnel and IDPs who have gone into politics to continue to be homeboys for the average citizen. There are examples of commanders such as Kostiantyn Mateychenko and Semen Semenchenko or former volunteer and now official Georgiy Tuka. Although they have far more opportunity to represent the Donbas, to support or even initiate changes, there are typically plenty of challenges to them, as individuals who are perceived as connected to the establishment. In broadcasting the message, “We’re on top of things, so we know what’s better,” they often become subject to criticism from other groups that are opinion leaders, who hint that they are more focused on their own interests than the real interests of the region.

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But even more criticism comes from all possible sides against local activists who have stayed on the non-occupied territories. Having made their position clear in the dangerous early years of the war, they joined the process of active change in their own towns. But in trying to bring to light information about problems that they run into, they rarely get support from outside. In other regions, they are often perceived as being “against Ukraine,” although they are actually standing against corruption or smuggling. They are also carrying the right message about Donbas wanting to be active because it is convinced that passivity leads to war. Still, they often simply lack the experience and skills to do this and persuade others convincingly.

It’s hard to say how justified each of these messages is, but put together they provide a general picture of attitudes in the oblasts towards the situation that has resulted from Russia’s armed aggression.


Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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