The Klondike for the Opposition

23 September 2013, 13:40


Over the past two years, big and small protests have spread throughout the Donbas. They have been more active and effective than elsewhere in Ukraine. The widespread stereotype in Ukraine has it that people in the Donbas are conformist, homogeneous and stand by their compatriots. However, they actually prefer more radical action to fruitless rallies in front of government institutions. Over the past year alone, they have stormed city councils, broken into plants, blocked roads, went on strike, took over mine administrations and more. Most of these protests had one thing in common: money or health. Their causes have been entirely local. So was the effect. Meanwhile, outrageous violations of human rights or corruption stirred hardly any reaction. The Ukrainian Week goes to the Donbas to find out why it protests selectively and locally.


The mining region is widely seen as being the most submissive one; the locals will work in kopanky – small illegal coalmines (read more in Digging for Billions) – for peanuts, but seem incapable of protesting against anything. “Indeed, our people are apathetic,” says Mykola Zavarza, an engineer and member of the Druzhkivka-based initiative group campaigning against increased utility tariffs in town. “They don’t even read newspapers. But the authorities have crossed the line and we can no longer endure this. So the locals begin to protest.”  

The Yanukovych cult that dominated Eastern Ukraine in 2004-2009 began to dispel as soon as Viktor Yanukovych became President and turned from a “solid manager” – as portrayed during his campaign – into a tsar, isolated from his voters. Having experienced the “immediate improvement” – a key point in Yanukovych’s election platform – the people of the Donbas were far from happy. 

Some parts of the region stood up openly against the government that they themselves had elected. The first big rally was last year’s environmental protest in Mariupol before the 2012 parliamentary election. 5,000 – 10,000 people took to the streets demanding that authorities stop the permanent poisonous emissions from AzovStal, the local sinter plant. After the protest, its owner and the richest Ukrainian oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, ceased its operations.

In early 2013, Ukraine witnessed the takeover of the Red Partisan mine’s administrative office by the miners’ trade union in Sverdlovsk, Luhansk Oblast. The mine is part of Rinat Akhmetov’s DTEK, an energy holding. The protesters had a list of demands for Akhmetov and the local governor Volodymyr Prystiuk. The main ones being concerned social guarantees and layoffs at mines. Nearly 24 hours after the campaign started, executives agreed to start negotiations and the miners left the office.  

READ ALSO: No Holds Barred

In spring, it was Donetsk Oblast’s turn to speak up. A wave of protests against shale gas production took place there. This was caused by the protesters’ poor knowledge of the production technology, but it signaled a growing distrust of the government. The most scandalous protests took place in Kramatorsk, a town with traditionally strong opposition sentiments. “People are completely disillusioned with Yanukovych,” comments Volodymyr Rzhavskyi, Batkivshchyna’s representative on the city council. “But they have no alternatives.”

Summer agitated the Donbas with more notorious developments. Protests in Vradiyivka, Mykolayiv Oblast, against police officers who had brutally raped a local woman and tried to evade responsibility, sparked a protest against police violations in Donetsk. It was largely organized by bloggers through social media networks without the involvement of any politicians or government officials. Meanwhile, residents of Lysychansk stormed the city council several times. They demanded that the council holds an extraordinary session about the closure of most big enterprises, at which the entire city worked.

Less than a month later, another burst of popular anger occurred in Druzhkivka, a town in Donetsk Oblast. The citizens of this industrial town – a long-time core electorate of the Party of Regions and the Communists – protested against a steep rise in utility tariffs. They blocked a central street and threatened to recall city council deputies. Any clumsy attempts by the local authorities to try the activists in court and get their relatives fired only resulted in strengthening people’s will to continue fighting. Eventually, the authorities were forced to cede and cancel the new tariffs. What pushed it though was not the public revolt but the well-coordinated actions of a group of activists who not only asked people to take to the streets, but offered a clear and legally reasonable action plan. “We are willing to the go the distance,” says activist Vasylyna Dzhura. “We aren’t afraid and we want people to finally realize that they themselves should control the government.”

READ ALSO: Yanukovych Follows in Kuchma’s Footsteps

The latest act was the storming of the Makiyivka steelwork by the locals. Owned by EnergoCapital OJSC, a company allegedly linked to the Party of Regions’ Andriy Orlov, the steelworks produced emissions that affected people’s health. Desperate, they were ready to tear the plant apart, fought with the guards and finally succeeded in holding negotiations with the administration. A few days ago, even city council deputies supported their demands to stop the steelworks: they did not extend the land lease contract for the plant. “What is this? We can’t open the windows at home,” laments Oleksiy from Makiyivka, a town known as the citadel of the Party of Regions. “We believed Yanukovych, but he simply turned out to be a liar. Neither I nor my family will ever vote for him again.”


Another stereotype of the Donbas, apart from its loyalty to the current government, is that the people there are all identical and think accordingly. In fact, however, it has several electoral zones shaped primarily by economic and ethnic factors.

In monotowns, i.e. towns built around one or several big enterprises, political preferences reflect those of the plant’s administration. Another factor shaping them is the presence or lack of opposing clans and political competition between them. The prevalence of ethnic Ukrainians or Russians also affects political sentiments, albeit less so. Given all three factors combined, south-western parts of the Donbas with about 90% of ethnic Ukrainians are traditionally opposition-oriented. National-democrats were strong there back in the 1990s. Kramatorsk has strong opposition sentiments. Home to the technical intelligentsia that settled there in Soviet times, it now has two Party of Regions rivals – Heorhiy Skudar and ex-Donetsk Oblast Governor Anatoliy Bluzniuk who ensure at least some political pluralism.  

A port town with a free mindset, Mariupol tends to vote against those in power. Its long-time opinion leader was Volodymyr Boyko, the former owner of Illich (Ilyich) Iron and Steel Works, who sponsored the Socialist Party for decades. A Greek minority lives around Mariupol, which moved to the area from Crimea under Catherine the Great. This community has an original mindset, leaning towards free entrepreneurship. “I’ve been through Afghanistan and the bandit-ridden 1990s,” Oleksandr, an ethnic Greek from a local village, now taxi driver in Donetsk, recalls. “And I can’t remember a chaos like the one we have now. The Family grabs even small businesses from people. The tax authorities and the police chased a friend of mine for a year to make him sell his agricultural freight trucking company for a third of what it was worth.”

READ ALSO: Beyond Tolerance

The mining region that includes the towns of Shakhtarsk, Torez and Snizhne in Donetsk Oblast and Krasnyi Luch, Antratsyt, Rovenky and Sverdlovsk in Luhansk Oblast is the most depressed and apathetic. The complete decay of its socio-economic infrastructure has crushed any enthusiasm for protest. Another quiet part that is easily controlled by the government through administrative leverage is the farming belt of the Donbas with Krasnyi Lyman in Donetsk Oblast and the northern part of Luhansk Oblast.

Overall, Donetsk Oblast currently seems less loyal to those in power than does Luhansk Oblast. Although the latter is in a difficult economic situation, there is no one to offer the frustrated voters an alternative to the Party of Regions. The oblast has not seen a single shift of the ruling elite since the early 1990s. In contrast to Donestk Oblast where businessmen, even if controversial, are in power, Luhansk Oblast has had Soviet partocrats all this time. All they did was steal formerly state-owned assets and misuse any cash flow. The resulting poverty and hopelessness has completely broken the local population.  


Despite high social tension in Donetsk Oblast, any mention of politics lights up a NO bulb in the minds of most activists, let alone average people. “We are beyond politics,” says Andriy Nosarev, the Donetsk-based activist of the Dorozhniy Kontrol (Road Control) movement against traffic police violations. “We want to change the entire system of law enforcement – that’s our key goal.” However, the movement stays away from any political platforms, i.e. it has no real instruments to significantly change the system. 

The Donbas does not want to see political symbols at its rallies. Makiyivka was a rare exception: the local branch of UDAR once helped protesters and arranged a “museum of failed promises” action in front of the Oblast State Administration Office. Overall, the locals do not want help from opposition parties and insist that their protests are apolitical. However, they often lack the skills and experience to arrange effective rallies. “People still have this dead-end stereotype that any word against the government is automatically politics,” says activist Pavlo Ostrovskyi. “But most don’t realize that without politics, they can’t resist those in power effectively, even if it is for practical things.”  

“The people of the Donbas are finally beginning to believe in their power as citizens”, explains Donetsk-based activist and writer Stanislav Fedorchuk. “But their traditional mistrust in politics dooms the best initiatives to failure because the most you can do without politics is complain about something in your kitchen.”

As a result, virtually all protests in the Donbas are sparked around the issue of health or money. Environmental issues, rising utility tariffs and prices, as well as unemployment will push people to the streets faster than corruption and the violation of their human rights and freedom of speech. “Today, people are unhappy about the government and Viktor Yanukovych but, to put it simply, they will only readily protest for food,” comments Kostiantyn Skorkin, a Luhansk-based activist and journalist. “In fact, this reminds me of the motivation of most Donbas citizens when they voted for Ukraine’s independence in 1991. They actually thought that separation from the USSR would let them roll in money. When this didn’t happen, many in the Donbas felt nostalgia for cheap sausages in Soviet stores. That’s basically their ultimate motivation for protests so far.”

READ ALSO: The Looming Revolt in Lysychansk

Thus, protests spark chaotically and fade shortly thereafter, without developing any clear algorithms. The Donbas has sufficient protest-ready electorate to rise for mass rallies with radical slogans but the level of its legal and political awareness is extremely low. 

This is partly the result of the local government’s systematic efforts to ruin any opposition activities in the region. “Being an opposition activist in the Donbas is extremely tough,” says Oleksiy Mitasov, Deputy Head of the oblast UDAR branch. “Most businessmen tell us privately that they will happily support us “if all this starts” but they will never openly take the first step. We are building a structure right now that will be capable of competing with the Party of Regions. Our region is extremely important: a mere 20% here is equal to two oblasts in Western Ukraine. Missing this point means giving the Party of Regions a victory in advance.”

So far, there is no organization in the Donbas that could lead the local protest potential and send it in a constructive direction. Opposition parties are inert in their attitude towards this region, a key one in terms of the number of voters. “The so-called local opposition didn’t do anything from the early 2000s through 2012,” says Denys Tokar, Head of Batkivshchyna’s office in Horlivka. “People were taking money from their central office on the one hand, and on the other, made deals with the Regionnaires. What can you say when the former head of the party branch in Horlivka was once the local Chief of police? We’re trying to change this now.”

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“For some reason, our opposition always thought of the Donbas as a hopeless place,” says Stanislav Fedorchuk. “They thought they could come here in an embroidered shirt, win their traditional meager share of votes and didn’t dare dream of more. The opposition never conducted any systematic work here, just leased its brand name to local businessmen, who used it as they saw fit for their own benefit. Most often, these were people who couldn’t even get into the Party of Regions because of their stained reputation. That’s why people here have lost hope for any alternative to the Party of Regions. Now, they ignore elections and think that any political implications will kill any good intent. The opposition should think about this.”

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