Donbass learns to live without Kiev

By Loïc Ramirez
Sources : Le Monde Diplomatique, Fort Russ News

Three years after the start of the conflict between Kiev and the separatist region of Donbass, no solution is in sight. Ukrainian President Piotr Poroshenko blows hot and cold, hesitating between the establishment of a firm blockade and the restoration of controlled economic ties. On the Donetsk side, the population is organizing, awaiting a hypothetical military intervention.

« They shot the building on the night of February 3 to 4. We reopened the store on the 20th this week. » Wrapped up in her beautiful scarf and coat, the saleswoman shows us the damage caused by the Ukrainian army, before going on to welcome the customers.

Her shop has no window glass because of the blast of the explosions. Like the entire outskirts of the city of Donetsk, the Kievski district bears the marks of the conflict between the Kiev government and the separatist Donbass militias confidentially supported by Moscow.

Gutted buildings and fronts scarred by shrapnel recall the intensity of a war that has cost the lives of nearly ten thousand people since April 2014. « Until the last moment I did not think that our own army would be capable of shooting us! » exclaimed Sacha, a resident of Donetsk, as he made his way through the craters in the streets of the neighborhood.

While both sides count up their dead, prospects for a reintegration of the self-proclaimed « People’s Republics » of Donetsk (DNR) and Lugansk (LNR) into Kiev’s lap are getting more remote. And with them the ultimate goal of the Minsk peace accords signed in February 2015 between Russia, Ukraine and its two western supporters, France and Germany. Especially as life resumes its course in the separatist territories with aid from Moscow, and far from the capital.

Endorsed by referendum on May 11, 2014, the DPR is not recognized by any member country of the United Nations (UN), not even Russia. The « Republic », as it is called here, nevertheless takes on more and more consistency every day.

On the pediment of the public buildings, the Ukrainian blue and yellow flag has given way to the flag of the DPR: a black, blue, and red background, on which stands the two-headed eagle also worn by the Russian coat of arms.

« Before the war we had 800 students, compared with 665 today, » says Andrei Udovienko, director of School 61 in the Kievski district. In the entrance hall are photographs of veterans and heroes who died during the « Great Patriotic War » against Nazi Germany (1941-1945), alongside a few young faces of militiamen killed during the recent conflict. « All of them former students of this school, » says the director. At the peak of the fighting, between 2014 and 2015, young people took correspondence courses for six months. The school was hit by bombing. It is therefore the parents and we teachers who have volunteered to participate in the reconstruction, » explains Mr. Udovienko, with a soft smile that contrasts with his imposing build. « The professors received a simple help from the DPR, 3000 hryvnias from September 2014 to April 2015 [between 130 and 180 euros according to the ratio, which fluctuated during this period], against 4 000 hryvnias before the war effective January 1, 2014]. Today, the DPR pays us a real salary, between 10,000 and 12,000 rubles per month [between 170 and 200 euros].  »

In the city center of Donetsk, lovers stroll hand in hand, children ride in parks on the handlebars of their plastic tricycle. On some walls, rudimentary inscriptions reading « shelter » followed by an arrow disturb the apparent atmosphere of peace.

Suddenly, one detonation, then another. The slamming of the blasts reminds us that the front is only a few kilometers away. Since the beginning of the year, there has been an upsurge in clashes against a backdrop of a trade blockade between Kiev and the separatist regions (see « Punishing or seducing, the Ukrainian dilemma »). This winter, tensions were concentrated around the Yassinovataïa water filtration plant in the suburb of Donetsk, which was taken over by the Ukrainian army on 27 February. The system supplies power to districts on each side of the contact line.

At nightfall, the streets are empty. A curfew prohibits civilian traffic from 11 pm to 6 am, leaving silence in the city except for the echoes of the bombardments. In the morning, the traffic of cars and buses rekindles the avenues, leaving nothing to appear of the fights of the day before.

At lunchtime, the cafeterias are filled with young students, boys and girls. The nose stuck to the screen of their phone, they take advantage of a pause before returning to class.

A social rise allowed by the escape of executives

« During the war, 30% of students and professors left the school. The students came back, but not all of the professors, » recalls Mrs. Larissa Kastrovet while offering us a cup of tea. Rector of the Academy of Management and Administration, where she welcomes us today, Ms. Kastrovet was propelled to this position in November 2014 when her predecessor left. Why do others choose to stay? To this question, two students questioned in their classroom let out the words as obvious: « Because we are home here. »

The drain of many executives left a vacuum that resulted in the sudden arrival of novices to key positions in the administration. This phenomenon of rapid social advancement benefited a number of people, including the president of the DNR himself, Mr. Alexander Zakharchenko, an electrician by trade. Former teacher, Maïa Peragova wrote articles in the press « for [her] pleasure, » before her existence was uprooted by the « anti-terrorist operation » against the pro-russian insurgents, launched in May 2014 by the government resulting from the « revolution of dignity. » Now head of a department of the Ministry of Information, she summarizes well the improvised restoration of institutions during the first two years of the conflict, especially in the media sector: « When the management of the local television station K61 [Now Prime Republican channel] fled, operators recovered the equipment. The same thing happened in the newspapers: the editors left, leaving the journalists to take back the publications without any remuneration. At first they even distributed the newspapers themselves to the people, for the post had ceased to function. »

According to the Ukrainian Social Policy Ministry, 1.6 million residents of the Crimea or Donbass have fled the fighting. It is difficult to estimate the population remaining in the self-proclaimed republics. These cover the most urbanized areas of a region where 6.5 million inhabitants lived before the war and which, according to the United Nations, currently has 2.3 million people in need of humanitarian aid.

To cope with the difficulties, many have learned to live with a foot on either side of the front line. After cutting the payment of retirement pensions to residents of the Crimea and areas not controlled by Kiev in November 2014, the Ukrainian government has introduced a special procedure for displaced persons (1). « Some pensioners then took the initiative to register with a parent who remained on the Ukrainian side and received two pensions, the Ukrainian and the DNR. This practice is becoming increasingly rare, as the Ukrainian authorities have tightened controls. We now need a physical presence every three months at the counter to withdraw his pension, » says Andrei k., a young employee of a construction company.

In all, between 800,000 and 1 million people, officially displaced, regularly cross one of the five crossings, always crowded, a daily flow of 20,000 to 25,000 people. At the end of March, this figure rose to almost 42,000 due to a verification campaign about where the pensioners and beneficiaries of social assistance actually live.

Bank cards

« I’m one of the few foreigners to have one! » exclaimed Mr. Miquel Puertas, a Spanish citizen, showing one of the 500,000 new bank cards stamped « Republican Central Bank » put into circulation and used only in the territory of the DPR. A blogger hostile to the « revolution of dignity » which led to the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014, Mr. Puertas left Lithuania to join Donetsk in the summer of 2016. As a teacher he now practices his profession at the National Technical University of Donetsk. « Before, they paid me in cash. I will now be able to directly withdraw in rubles or even pay myself a beer at the bar using the card! »

As of May 2014, in the face of unstable conditions, the Ukrainian banks in Donetsk began to close their branches, before finally ceasing to operate throughout the separatist region. People who did not have a pass for the Ukrainian territory had to go to « improvised » clandestine banks that took 10% on the transactio. « To get cash, you had to go through private agents: against a transfer of money over the Internet, they would provide you with the cash after taking their commission and taking the money out of Ukrainian territory, » recalls Andrei K.

In response, the DNR founded the Republican Central Bank (BCR) on October 7, 2014. Transactions through the bank include property charges as well as retirement pensions, issued in rubles. By spring 2015, almost 90% of economic transactions were in the Russian currency. In May 2015, the BCR, like its counterpart in Lugansk, opened an international account in a bank in South Ossetia, a secessionist republic of Georgia recognized since 2008 by Moscow, which probably passes its financial aid through this channel.

Though the Kremlin does not recognize any of the two separatist republics, Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken a further step towards the normalization of these territories by signing a decree on 18 February which officializes the « temporary » recognition of passports, registration, birth or marriage certificates and other documents issued by the authorities, so long as Minsk II is honored in the breach.

The Russification of the territory is lodged in the details

From money to time zone, now aligned with Moscow, the Russification of this territory is lodged in the details of everyday life. Including in school, where the Russian language dominates more than ever. « Upon the return of September 2014, the government of Kiev refused to send us the new textbooks. So we worked with Russian textbooks, » says Udovienko. We have increased Russian language hours and now the final high school examination includes a compulsory Russian test, not Ukrainian. We have increased the share of Russian authors in literary studies, without removing the Ukrainian authors. In geography, we added maps of the Donbass. The DPR recognizes both languages, Russian and Ukrainian, although the official status of the latter was almost eliminated in 2015. It is up to parents to choose the language in which their child studies. » As of October 2014, the number of courses in Ukrainian has dropped to 4%, compared with 15% previously. At the beginning of 2016, out of eighty pupils of the first grade, only one pupil wished to continue in Ukrainian. So we offered him to go to another school, not far away, where a class adapted to his choice was open, » says our interlocutor. When asked if reintegration to Ukraine is possible in his eyes, Mr Udovienko replied: « Not with the government currently in command in Kiev.  »

« Here, the chief is the people, » says a large billboard in the city center. On the main avenue, the face of Mikhail Tolstykh, better known under the pseudonym Givi, is spread by hundreds of copies. The commander, who had distinguished himself during the Battle of Donetsk Airport in the fall of 2014, died in an attack on 8 February. While glorifying its heroes, the young « State » is adorned with the attributes of sovereignty. In the streets, police cars with impeccable bodywork wear the colors of the DPR flag, as well as the uniforms of the agents. In stores, certain products, such as biscuits or sausages, are stamped with a « made in DPR », with the colors of the flag.

Even if the economic aid paid by Moscow, a secret of Punch, remains essential for the functioning of the institutions, the new authorities have quickly sought to take some resources from the territory. Luis Hernando Muñoz, the head of a Colombian coffee importing company based in Donetsk for 30 years, insists that during the first phase of the war in 2014 and 2015 several shops were requisitioned to form the new chain of « republican supermarkets, » which became very popular because of moderate affordable prices. « I know the revenues from these stores were sent to funds used to pay for a whole series of things, including pensions. A means to stabilize the situation, » Muñoz says while remaining discreet about the direct beneficiaries and other uses of this rudiment of taxation. Secondly, the government targeted small and medium-sized enterprises. « Since the summer of 2016, they have been under intense pressure to re-register with the authorities and pay their taxes to the Republic, » assures the head of a UN development program established in December 2016 in Donetsk. (This source wishes to remain anonymous.)

Until Kiev lost control, most of the mines and industries were officially registered in Ukraine and returned their taxes to continue gaining access to the domestic market. This was a particularly important issue for the metallurgical industry, whose products – from iron ore to steel, through coal – had been circulating on both sides of the demarcation line until recently. Given the powerlessness of the Ukrainian government to lift blockades organized by nationalist militants, Zakharchenko, president of the DPR, announced on March 1 the requisition of forty-three companies, mostly mines and of the metallurgical sector owned by Mr. Rinat Akhmetov, an oligarch originally from Donbass, Akhmetov supported the separatist camp for some time, before joining Kiev. The owner of System Capital Management (SCM) Holdings also lost the Donbass Arena stadium, where he regularly distributed humanitarian aid, a guarantee of influence among the inhabitants of Donetsk.

According to data collected by a Member of Parliament from the tax administration, eight companies on the list of requisitions alone paid close to 1.3 billion hryvnias (45 million euros) in taxes per year.

Seen from Donetsk, the rapprochement with Moscow seems less motivated by a nationalist impulse than by the initiatives of Kiev to widen the separation from the self-proclaimed republics. « Nationalizing [large companies] is neither a good nor a bad thing: it is a necessity to save jobs and activity, » says Ms Yana Khomenko, a professor in the Department of International Economics at the National Technical University of Donetsk. « Because of the blockade, we have to sell production to Russia, » she explains, under the approving regard of her department head, Ludmila Chabalina. And she concludes: « It was Ukraine that forced us to respond to the blockade. At the beginning of the conflict, in 2014, Mr. Muñoz had to pay nationalist militias $10,000 per truck to cross the border crossings. With the strengthening of controls in 2015, « it is impossible to bring in anything, » he said. From now on, its products « pass through Russia legally. »

Ephemeral Republic of Donetsk-Krivoï-Rog

On 14 March 2017, the DPR authorities announced that the first coal consignments had been sent to Russia, while at the same time the Ukrainian government was communicating about importing anthracite from South Africa. Sixth largest producer of coal in the world, neighboring Russia has no need to import this fuel. « It’s a purely political decision. The goal is to prevent everything from collapsing here and then Russia inherits a chaotic situation on its border, » says Muñoz. A part of the Donbass coal could be found, by making a detour through Russia, to … the Ukraine. An investigation of the site of Radio Svoboda revealed that the coal used by the metallurgical combination Azovstal, installed near Mariupol (in territory controlled by Kiev), now transits through barges coming from Russia, but that it would come, according to a local source, from mines of the separatist territories.

Far from limiting the autonomy of the DPR, Ukraine’s policies push it towards the east. The immense Slav neighbor seems to offer a reasonable alternative to regain stability, while Kiev is made a little further afield for the Donbass people. On the immense building of the DPR government, formerly the seat of the regional government, the form of the trident, though torn from the façade, still stands out clearly, a symbol of the Ukrainian coat of arms.
« We learn much about a people by seeing their statues. Here, that of the Ukrainian poet [Taras] Chevtchenko meets that of Lenin. But that of Artyom is even more important, » explains Mr. Puertas leaving the amphitheater where he has just delivered a lecture. Under his real name, Fyodor Andreyevich Sergeyev, this Bolshevik revolutionary is considered to be the founder of the ephemeral Republic of Donetsk-Krivoï-Rog, which was born in February 1918 in the wake of the October Revolution in Petrograd. It was an episode of the civil war that tore Ukraine between the Red Army, Ukrainian nationalist Simon Petlyura’s troops, the white armies of General Anton Denikin, and the peasant insurgent army of the anarchist Nestor Makhno. The Republic of Donetsk-Krivoi-Rog was attached to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in February 1919, which in turn was integrated into the USSR in 1922. « Things here come from afar, » Mr. Puertas sardonically concludes.

Translated from French by Tom Winter
Photo: Aleksandr Zakharchenko, President of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Picture Doni Press

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