I have just returned from participating in a four-day reporting tour to the city of Donetsk and the countryside that lies between Donetsk and the Russian city of Rostov to the south and east. I was part of a media tour group organized by Europa Objektiv, an initiative of citizens in Russia and Germany working to provide information about the war in eastern Ukraine to writers and journalists.
Our tour group consisted of writers and filmmakers from Canada, the United States, Italy, Holland, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. We learned a great deal about the political, economic and social situation in the people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk.
For me, perhaps the most important part of the tour was the insight gained into the political aspirations of the leading social and political forces of the movement for political autonomy of these regions. The most difficult part was seeing the very harsh conditions which people living close to the ceasefire demarcation line with Ukrainian armed forces are suffering.
I will be writing a series of articles about the visit in the coming days and weeks. One place where they will all be compiled and easily accessible is on my author page on the website which I help to edit: The New Cold War; Ukraine and beyond and in CounterPunch.
The following is an overview of what I will try to bring to readers.
The Political Outlook of the Novorossiya Movement and the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk
The term “separatist” or “pro-Russia separatist” is a false as well as pejorative description of the pro-autonomy movement in eastern Ukraine. This I already believed. What we learned is that the movement is not “separatist” at all. And it is pluralist. The final political outcome of the autonomy struggle in eastern Ukraine will be determined by the course of political events and a democratic process, not by a pre-determined goal, still less by assumptions by hostile outsiders.
Many people in eastern and southern Ukraine favour the creation of what they term ‘Novorossiya’, a political entity conforming to the historical arc of territory sweeping from eastern Ukraine across southern Ukraine to Odessa in the southwest. But is this to be a contiguous territory? Will it be a distinct or even independent political entity? What about future relations with Ukraine?
The one answer to these question held by everyone we encountered is that the Ukraine of oligarchs, of war and of monist Ukrainian language and culture that would discriminate against others must end. That is a precondition to future relations with or within Ukraine. Apart from that, all political options are open. For many, a decentralized and federated Ukraine would be just fine, provided it is democratic and not run by oligarchs, and provided it can live in peace with its neighbours, particularly with Russia.
Our delegation met with Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexandr Kofman of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Acting Minister of Information Elena Nikitina. We also met members of the Novorossiya Parliament. I will bring you their views in my forthcoming articles.
Social and Economic Prospects
Our delegation had a meeting with the director of the finance and budget committee of the Donetsk People’s Republic. A comprehensive economic plan for the republic is in preparation. We learned there is a very strong anti-oligarch and social egalitarian determination amidst the autonomy movement in eastern Ukraine.
A nascent banking system has been established in the two republics by nationalizing the banks of the billionaire bankers, notably the Privat Bank of the rightist oligarch Igor Kolomoisky. The grocery distribution and retail systems have been nationalized, as have electricity generation and supply. Industry, notably the large metallurgical holdings of Rinat Akhmetov, has not been nationalized and it is unlikely this would or should be done in any immediate future. Akhmetov’s enterprises provide employment to thousands and they are paying taxes to the people’s republics. At the same time, the days of oligarchs dominating government (including being appointed as provincial governors) are over.
The currency situation is difficult due to Ukraine’s economic blockade. Four currencies are legal or de facto tender—the Ukrainian hryvnia, Russian ruble, Euro and U.S. dollar.
The Humanitarian Situation
Our delegation saw the two extremes of Donetsk city. In the center of the city (a very beautiful city center, located on the Kalmius River and full of green spaces, public art and attractive buildings) there is little visible war damage. Shops are reasonably full of provisions. But in the outskirts of the city, particularly near the ceasefire demarcation line, residential districts have been heavily damaged by the shellings and ground forays by Ukrainian armed forces and extremist militias. The provision of humanitarian aid is uneven. (See here maps of the demarcation lines in eastern Ukraine and a listing of the damages to the territory caused by Kyiv’s ‘Anti-Terrorist Operation’.)
Due to the escalation of shelling in the past several weeks, adults and children are once again spending nights underground in dank and cramped basement shelters. We toured one neighbourhood near the shattered Donetsk airport as shells were falling a few kilometers away. The resumption of daytime shelling is new. Residents are distraught and angry. They condemn the shelling and wonder why the large countries of Europe let it happen. They expect that their most immediate needs should be met by humanitarian aid. Governing authorities as well as countless citizen volunteers and agencies, including from Russia, are working mightily to meet humanitarian needs. But the needs are many and the resources are limited.
The people old enough to remember the German Nazi invasion of World War Two (80 years of age or older) told us they cannot believe they are re-living the nightmare of their childhoods. This generation of citizens of the former Soviet Union call themselves “children of war”. I suppose they are beginning to call themselves “the elders of war”.
In a background briefing provided to our delegation in Moscow, we learned of the two reports that have been published by the Foundation for the Study of Democracy on the widespread use of torture by Ukraine forces in this war. I will devote a specific forthcoming article to this subject. (Here is the first report, issued on Dec. 24, 2014, and the second report, issued on March 1, 2015.)
Ukraine has imposed an economic blockade on Donetsk and Lugansk, including cessation of payment of old age pensions and other social benefits since last June. One piece of good news while we were in Donetsk is that the new government is in a position to assume payment of old age pensions as of April 1. We talked to elderly people lined up at the branches of the new banking system to receive their pensions. They were happy to be receiving payment, finally, but none too happy with the war that finds them in such a lineup.
Realistically, the string of killings in the streets of Kyiv recently of journalists and opposition politicians does not bode well for peace in the short term.
I have never before traveled in a war zone. (Two visits to Haiti almost qualify as a war zone, but not quite.) Our safety and personal protection were paramount in the plans of tour organizers. We never once felt endangered.
We were emotionally disturbed at times by what we were seeing and hearing. The most difficult was to see the poor and elderly people living with shelling going on around them and nowhere to go for complete safety and peace of mind.
Something I did not expect to see were the large numbers of schools, hospitals and medical centers that were damaged by shelling.
One large school we stopped to observe had every window blasted out. It was a solid building, structurally sound. A colleague commented, “They sure knew how to build solid public buildings during the Soviet era.” As I walked around the schoolyard, I began to notice large numbers of metal fragments. I bent down to look and discovered they were shards of ghastly-looking shrapnel, some the size of fingers. Shrapnel lying everywhere on a school ground? In Europe in the year 2015? It was too much, a rough end to a long day already packed with emotional reactions to things heard and seen. More than a few tears were shed as we boarded our vehicle to head back to our hotel for the night.
Roger Annis is an editor of The New Cold War: Ukraine and beyond. In mid-April 2015, he joined a four-day reporting visit to the Donetsk People’s Republic. He is reporting from Moscow for one week after that.