The Chief and His Tribe

29 November 2011, 16:00

New appointments in the government have hardly raised eyebrows. Inevitably followed by a shakeup within the top ranks of the Interior Ministry and State Tax Service, such appointments are a logical result of the personal ambitions of the President, his family and their closest allies, as well as the Donbas social framework.

The Donbas, or Donets Basin, is a unique territory both in Ukraine and the entire former Soviet Union. The turbulent progress in mining and heavy industry that began there in the late 19th century was accompanied by the less turbulent rise of a peculiar quasi-urban culture. Here, conservative patriarchal family relations were transferred to cities, industrial villages, and later to urban agglomerations. Although largely populated with ethnic Ukrainians, the Donbas was a creature of the Russian Empire at the dawn of its nation-crafting efforts. During World War I, the local workforce of miners and plant workers proved extremely useful to the Bolsheviks, known more commonly at that time as bolshaks –a word that refers to the patriarch of a big traditional family. After the war, the embarrassing village-like towns grew into more or less modern cities, yet preserved their obsolete industries and outdated social structure, thus cementing the region’s soviet nature. 

After WWII, the authorities began to forcibly relocate “special settlers” to the mine region, among them Gulag prisoners. The Donbas was mostly intended for criminals and former police officers who had worked for the Nazis, as well as other “traitors,” while political prisoners were exiled to more remote places. Tradition prevailed: in the late soviet years, up to 35% of all men in some Donbas towns had been arrested or served a prison sentence at least once. Thus a special tribe appeared with its own taboos, tattoos, rules and slang.

Donbaslifestyle and identity are not Russian as many believe, but a mixture of soviet and local cultures. Most locals have no national identity whatsoever, for such an identity can only be formed within a community that is free or seeks to be free. The Donbas, however, is dominated by a regional or tribal mindset and identity that are expressed on all levels.

The classical concept of tribalism is focused on cultural, sociopolitical and cult tribal segregation and differentiation. It is a typical feature of societies that are in the process of transferring from archaic tribal systems to the early stages of capitalism. A common tribalistic practice is to give preference to people of a certain ethnic origin when selecting government officials, while discriminating against others. In unstable nations, tribalism uses a democratic facade to allow a certain ethnic group from a certain region to take control over the entire state mechanism. Voters elect politicians on the basis of their own regional loyalties rather than candidates’ ideology and charisma. In postcolonial Africa and parts of Asia where tribalism is commonplace, selection of public officials based on ethnic and regional affiliations often leads to separatism and civil war.

The Donbas is a place where locals commonly address one another as zemlyak, meaning “local” or “countryman,” and “real men” are valued for the uniqueness of their character. This is where the Party of Regions raked in 72.05% and 73.53% of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblast electorates in the 2010 parliamentary election. Seven out of the top ten PR members come from the Donbas. Add votes in support of Communists and Socialists, and nearly 85% of Donbas voters will have supported their native countrymen.

No other region of Ukraine could manage such a feat. The Crimean public has similar preferences but theirs are based on ideology more than anything else. They vote against “Bandera supporters”—as they commonly refer to Western Ukrainians—and in favor of brotherhood with Russia. Other eastern and southern oblasts were less enthusiastic about the Party of Regions, which won 43% of the vote in Kherson Oblast and 55% in Zaporizhzhia Oblast. The Yulia Tymoshenko and Our Ukraine-Self-Defense blocs failed to garner the kind of support that the PR received in its southeastern stronghold during the 2010 parliamentary election, even in the western oblasts where they have the most supporters. Halychyna, for instance, voted 50-52% in favor of Tymoshenko’s bloc and nearly 36% in support of Our Ukraine-Self-Defense. Neither of the parties’ top-five lists included politicians from Halychyna. Their leaders hail from an array of different regions, unlike the Donbas hometown heroes in the Party of Regions and Communist Party. Western Ukrainian voters are more concerned with an all-Ukrainian ideology than with their candidate’s origin.

The ideology that dominates the Donbas is hardly political. It is more of a tribal mythology centered around “the image of the Donbas as a model soviet region,” according to Ivan Dziuba, a Donbas-born literature critic and dissident who knows his fellow countrymen well. This idealized Donbas is “populated with skillful bogatyrs[1] who walk the trail of life with heads held high.”  He interprets this as the original “Donetsk patriotism, sincere and misleading in some ways, but tragicomic mostly, based on the sense – even if exaggerated – of the Donbas’s unique role as the sole support for the entire USSR, and now Ukraine.” Amidst all this, reality never really mattered. “The popular slogan, ‘nobody has ever put the Donbas on its knees and nobody ever will’ was born exactly at the time when both the Donbas and the whole soviet country were down on their knees,” Mr. Dziuba wrote.

Iosif Kobzon, a Donbas-born singer, businessman and Russian MP from the United Russia party, described this phenomenon from his own perspective. “The whole world knows what the Donbas is,” he wrote. “Many say it has taken all key niches in Ukraine because the President was born there. That’s perfectly normal. He knows the people he’s hiring. He knows his compatriots, he trusts them and he’s responsible for placing them in all key offices. God has placed an aura of sorts over the people of the Donbas. He protects us and shows everyone we are the chosen people. Until now, people said the chosen ones were from Israel, but I say they live in the Donbas.”

The integration of the Donbas into the overall Ukrainian political and cultural environment is a separate but important issue, and will be impossible without overcoming homo sovieticus and tribalist myths. As it is now, most of the region’s population has a tribal mindset which carries a number of consequences.

The first is the appointment of Donbas natives to all key positions. This occupation extends down to district police department heads all over Ukraine with majors and captains from Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts serving in offices previously occupied by colonels alone. Being a countryman means being reliable. Needless to say, staff selection is based on relations among fellow countrymen rather than professional qualities, ignoring laws and generally accepted moral norms and following only the ‘native versus stranger’ rule.

The second consequence is the inevitable transfer of clan relations to the national level of state administration, as described above in regards to the shaping of Donetsk’s character. The traditional mafia had a patriarchal pre-national basis and was imported to the US by immigrants from South Italy, predominately Sicily. Reluctant to dissolve in the American melting pot, they knew no other means of efficient interaction. It took over a century for the US to eventually assimilate them all.

The third consequence refers to various circles of trust and initiation that exist within the tribe of today. For instance, Donetsk-born members are privileged compared to those from Luhansk, Yenakiyevo or Horlivka. There are exceptions to this general rule, however, that depend on the extent to which one has proved his loyalty, by action, to the regional chiefs.

Ultimately, the group of chiefs inevitably produces the main chief, who is a living totem of sorts in the tribal community and the incarnation of its real and mythological virtues. The main chief seeks to hand over power as heritage to his family—sons foremost, and their sworn brothers. The recent rise of Yanukovych Jr. to the status of multimillionaire along with his energetic young cronies, as well as the swift promotion of other close supporters of Mr. President himself, is a plainly visible trend that proves this assumption.

What should be done about this phenomenon? Is everyone in the Donbas, let alone other regions, willing to live by the tribal rules of a barbaric world?

[1] Valiant heroes of Russian folklore

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