A difficult return

20 October 2017, 17:32

Ukraine’s strategy in the Donbas is as it was before: to wait for the Russians to leave the occupied parts of the Donbas, then follow the Minsk scenario. The inevitability of the Russian withdrawal sooner or later raises no doubts. Yet, Kyiv is likely to face a big problem with the territory.

Reintegration of the Donbas requires, first and foremost, the establishment of state power hierarchy there. Right now, Kyiv controls a system of military-civil administrations on the part of the Donbas it governs, i.e. 2/3 of the region. They ensure that the frontline area is controllable and are unquestionably loyal to Kyiv: the heads MCAs are appointed by the National Security and Defense Council and coordinate their work with the SBU Anti-Terrorist Center. Another factor ensuring calm in the region is the presence of the Ukrainian military.   

Kyiv will have far less leverage in the currently occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, if freed. The Law on the Special Procedure of Self-Governance in Some Areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts states that the power will go to local councils once the “republics” are abolished. The Government will make agreements with these councils. They will control the “people’s militia” and approve the administration of the local prosecutor offices and courts. In theory, the only way for Kyiv to increase its influence in what is currently ORDiLO, an abbreviation for the Occupied Regions of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, is to dilute the local councils with pro-Ukrainian deputies through elections. However, Kyiv will hardly be able or willing to use this opportunity.  

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First of all, it is wrong to assume that pro-Ukrainian forces can quickly win the support of the voters who have spent years under occupation and intense brainwashing. Second of all, Kyiv is hardly interested in a change of the current political landscape in the Donbas. It has powerful tools to influence the territory it controls, yet it is not trying to create a pro-Ukrainian alternative there. Instead, it places its stakes on the local bosses from the ex-Party of Regions ranks. As a result, most deputies in local councils are still from that cohort.

Worse, those in power in Kyiv are repeating the mistake of their post-Orange Revolution predecessors who had once left the separatist revolts in Severodonetsk and calls to create a South-Eastern Ukrainian Autonomous Republic known infamously as PiSUAR, unpunished. Today, most criminal cases for separatism in the Donbas do not lead to a guilty verdict, while a number of pro-separatist mayors — in Druzhkivka, Dobropillia, Rubizhne — remain in their offices. The impression is that Kyiv will lean on people like them rather than on pro-Ukrainian cadre in ORDiLO as well. It is quite likely that the loyalty of the Luhansk and Donetsk Kadyrov-style leaders will have to be bought with generous subsidies. Meanwhile, they will be nurturing local independence, just like Chechnya does in Russia. Plus, there will be no guarantee that the flows of donations makes the local bosses more loyal to Kyiv than Moscow.

The other aspect of the challenge is the reconstruction of ORDiLO after deoccupation. The estimated cost ranges anywhere from USD 1.5bn to USD 50bn. Ukraine’s Western allies pledge to cover a lion’s share of that. In 2015-2016, Ukraine’s government attracted USD 1.5bn of donor money to restore the part of the Donbas it controls. In 2018, the EU will unfold a EUR 600mn development program in the East. Assistance comes from other places, even the Vatican.

This could give Kyiv a chance to try and show the Donbas residents that unity means “improvements today”. To do this, it would have to deliver quick restoration of the Donbas with noticeable results. That, however, raises concerns. 

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In 2016, the budgets of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts received UAH 3.8bn for restoration. They managed to use less than 20% by the end of the year. In 2015, the EU allocated EUR 3mn to renovate five dormitories for IDPs in Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. Two years later, the work has not been done, part of the money is gone, and corruption scandals are brewing locally. This incapacity puts Ukraine in a negative light in the eyes of the Western donors. But the key concern is that it leaves local problems unsolved.

Similar problems will be far more acute in ORDiLO: its concerns go beyond lost residential buildings and destroyed infrastructure. The industry in the Donbas had been generating losses long before the war began. Now, barely anything is left of it: some plants were hit by the shelling while others were dismantled and taken to Russia by the occupants. Some have been looted. So the economy will have to be built from scratch, not restored after deoccupation. Otherwise, the region will remain an area of social disaster. For now, the occupants are suppressing social disappointment. But local chieftains will inevitably use it against Ukraine, blaming the hunger and unemployment on Kyiv, if they have a chance. 

Ukraine has seen that in its recent history when the restructuring of the coal mining industry was launched in the Donbas. In an effort to help the region soften the social impact of that restructuring, Kyiv was drafting transition roadmaps while the World Bank and the IBRD were allocating significant donor funds. The implementation of these good intentions failed: new jobs never appeared, professional training programs delivered no results while a lion’s share of the funding was misused. As a result, dozens of miners’ towns degraded, while the local elite (actively involved in making the restructuring a failure) blamed it all on Kyiv by fueling anti-Ukrainian sentiments.

The media aspect of integration will take more than counterpropaganda. The Donbas will have to be drawn back into the Ukrainian media space. In May 2017, the Ministry of Information Policy presented its Strategy of Information Deoccupation and Reintegration of the Donbas. This is a solid document mentioning things like the creation of special content for the residents of ORDiLO, as well as work with the IDPs that communicate with people on the occupied territory. Here, again, turning theory into practice can be challenging.

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Information integration requires, first and foremost, cooperation with the local authorities. The Donbas was never an easy place to cooperate with. Before the war broke out, the Party of Regions people had implemented their own information policy in the East. Kyiv barely had any say in it compared to Donetsk. If ORDiLO is deoccupied and gets its “special status”, Kyiv will have even less influence on what the local media say. Plus, Kyiv still has little systemic information policy even in the part of the region under its control. Ukrainian broadcasting covers only 70% of the part of the Kyiv-controlled Donbas, and the Information Policy Ministry asks Western donors for transmitters.

Information work is impossible without cultural, education and civic organizations. We have seen some progress in that: Ukrainian artists are going to the Donbas more often; local libraries are being filled with Ukrainian books; children are taken on tours to other parts of Ukraine and more. Yet, all these measures tackle the problems on the surface. After vacations in the Carpathians, local children often return to their schools with pro-separatist teachers who can only be sacked through a public scandal. It is scary to think of how many pro-separatist teachers will work in ORDiLO schools.

All this considered, the prospects of deoccupation look gloomy. An end to the fighting and withdrawal of the Russian forces from Ukraine’s territory will be a huge victory of Ukraine and the civilized world. Yet, Ukraine will then have to start another fight: one for the real, not formal integration of the Donbas. The beginning of it will most likely be full of defeats on all fronts, from political to economic and informational.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj 

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