According to political expert Andriy Okara, without Kyiv’s accounting for the specifics of Donbas, the attempts to mollify the separatists will remain “a dialogue between the deaf.”
Experts are considering the reasons why the conflict in the east of Ukraine turned out to be so difficult and transitioned into a long-term military phase. Are there, besides Moscow’s intervention in the development of events in the neighboring country and mass Kremlin propaganda, grounds for such a sharp void between public opinion in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts on one hand, and the majority of Ukraine, on another?
Political expert Andriy Okara from the Moscow Center of Eastern European Investigations told Radio Svoboda about his thoughts on the values of Donbas citizens.
“The main problem in the relations between Kyiv, the central Ukrainian government, and Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts is not political or economical, but humanitarian. Kyiv and Donetsk don’t hear each other, they cannot prove their point of view to each other, their global or small truth. Before, the mediators between the government in Kyiv and the local governments in Donbas were the Donetsk politicians and oligarchs. For example, during Yushchenko’s presidency, it was the Party of Regions and Rinat Akhmetov.
When Ukraine was governed by the Donetsk clan, the citizens of Donbas had no cognitive sense contradictions: they thought that the entire country was one big Donbas. Now the situation is different, and the people ended up in an intellectual and cognitive vacuum. The central Kyiv government should have probably employed means to establish an understanding between Kyiv and Donbas. At first gland everything is simple, and this simple technology was explained by Moscow, by the Kremlin: the Russian language as the second official one, federalization, a cult of local heroes, non-accession to the European Union and the NATO, prospective joining of the Customs and Eurasian Unions. But this simplicity is abstract and will only satisfy Moscow.
The problem is very complicated in the economic sense, since Donbas is a powerful industrial region, there are very few such places in the world: wherein such a relatively small territory has such a high concentration of industrial production, and all of these factories emerged in the 20th century and were oriented towards the Soviet socialist economy, therefore under new conditions they have difficulty surviving. Many of my acquaintances and even family members work for various Donetsk companies, therefore I have a vague understanding of the structure of the Donetsk industry.
On the other hand, the problem of relations between Donbas and Kyiv has a political dimension, because in the political and socio-political dimensions Donbas is different from “the rest of Ukraine,” including Crimea as well. Its distinctive features are the paternalistic type of consciousness, characteristic of the majority of the population, especially the people who do not live in Donetsk and Luhansk, but in suburban industrial towns such as Kramatorsk or Mariupol. Ukraine in general is characterized by horizontal self-government, and Donbas is dominated by vertical social relations: there is one person in charge, the rest are serfs. It is unacceptable for the vast majority of Ukrainian territories and regions, unacceptable, say, for Odesa or Kharkiv (and this is why the political “Russian Spring” bomb never worked there), but to Donbas this is exactly what they need. Such a type of social organization, characteristic of industrial and mining regions, has always been cultivated there. Besides, it is different space in the humanitarian sense, and I am not talk about the relatively big percentage of Russian-speaking population compared to the rest of Ukraine.
Before Yanukovych, Yushchenko was in power in Ukraine, who was preceded by Kuchma, these Presidents are not from Donbas, just like the representatives of the current government, but nonetheless there have been no “people’s republics” in the southeast of the country. Is the explosion only conditioned by Moscow’s intervention, or would this bomb have exploded even without the Kremlin’s involvement?
Of course, the main factor is the support of separatist projects from the outside of Ukraine. If not for this support, if there was no direct effort of primarily TV propaganda, possibly the separatist moods would have remained marginal, just like before. Plus, Donbas is a specific region in light of the sociocultural policies that were carried out there since the beginning of the 1930’s. The Soviet government told the Donbas population that it is an absolutely exclusive region, populated by the best people: the most hard-working, the best miners, workers, metallurgists. It is the land where the most important, real sector of the economy is working: not agriculture, services, banks, seafaring trade, but industrial production. The Soviet ideology, oriented first and foremost towards the development of the real sector of the economy, passionately told the citizens of Donbas how unique they were. Besides everything, it was confirmed by social subsidies and preferences: life in this region, by Soviet standards, was quite good, and people considered themselves happy. Such things, as stability, confidence in the future for the citizens of Donbas are not abstract terms but the basis of their perception of the world. And now, in the recent months, this worldview was taken away from them. Instead, the received a lack of clarity, chaos, shooting, some people who are offering them an alternative bright future within the People’s Republic of Donetsk.
By the way, I recently talked with my family from Donetsk oblast. They voted for the PRD. They say they are patriots of Ukraine and against separatism, however they are for the PRD as a subject of a Ukrainian federate state. So there. It seems to me, this is where Kyiv’s conceptual error lies. The people living in Donbas, for the most part, are almost like children in their mentality, in their psychology – both in the good and problematic senses of the word. They are trusting, sincere, good-hearted, touching, stubborn, they believe in fairy tales, such as “the Russian World” or the resurrection of the USSR. Such things like intrigue, betrayals, hypocrisy exist everywhere, of course, but it seems to me there is much less of this in Donbas. These people need some sort of leader, a tsar, a president, a firm hand – a symbolic Stalin or a read Rinat Akhmetov and Yanukovych, – then their worldview becomes stable. The government gives them work and salaries, plus entertainment, such as the football Donbas Arena. And they are ready to love and support such a government, some are even ready to fight for it.
But during the revolution this paternalistic Donetsk world was ruined: Yanukovych vanished, the Party of Regions, which used to constitute the basis of the Donbas political system, disappeared, the symbolic figure of the Big Brother or father Rinat Akhmetov lost its mystical halo. All this put together created a basis for the destabilization of the situation in Donbas. The lies the citizens of Donbas are being told about events in their region (especially about the May 9 tragedy in Mariupol and May 2 tragedy in Odesa), which have been pouring in from the internet and Russian propagandist airtime, became a powerful detonator of chaos. The people who enlisted in the PRD army said the following: yes, we were disoriented, we did not know who we were for, we did not like Strelkov and Boroday, but after what happened in Odesa, we understood that it’s impossible to go on living like this, we have to protect the PRD. This is the motivation, though it is based on absolute untruth.
Another important feature that distinguishes Donbas from the rest of Ukraine, and I think it became the main detonator of everything that is happening, is a special attitude towards violence. For the majority of the Ukrainian population violence is not an effective way of social behavior: if you are a bandit, a hooligan, a terrorist, it means you have to be arrested and judged, and the public opinion supports the law enforcement bodies that will isolate you from normal people. In Donbas the picture is different, which has to do, amongst other things, with a difficult historical heritage: many people were really sent here to prison or reservations. This resulted in the fact that some part of Donbas has criminal ancestry. If you are a bandit in Donbas, if you take away other people’s property, if you are a robber, in the eyes of certain social layers you may look quite relatable, you are a cool guy who is bravely fighting against the rich. The cult of force and violence is characteristic of teenagers, which is why the population of Donbas is so childish.
To your mind, what are the possibilities to organize some form of efficient dialogue between Kyiv and Donbas? When Petro Poroshenko comes to Donbas and meets with the representatives of the government appointed by him, this has no influence on the development of combat and in the mollification of the arguments. Are Kyiv and the leaders of the rebels that represent various social classes able to make peace by way of direct dialogue?
If we are talking about such rebel leaders as Igor Girkin-Strelkov and Alexandr Boroday, they come from Moscow intelligentsia, and they are no criminals. Alexandr Boroday’s father, Yuriy Mefodiyevich Boroday, was a well-known Soviet philosopher, friend of Lev Gumilev and Alexey Losev. So it is the higher intelligentsia circle which could have only existed in the Soviet Union. Of course, Kyiv and Donbas speak different languages, but not in the sense of Russian and Ukrainian, but different semiotic languages, they use different paradigms of meaning.
One of Kyiv’s main mistakes, to my mind, is that the representatives of the capital are talking to Donbas representatives as if they were a priori adult, mature people and citizens. The Soviet Union, and then Yanukovych’s Ukraine regarded the population of Donbas as a beloved child, and suddenly it so happened that the child is no longer loved. Or even an orphan. The child takes offense, they say: you don’t want to understand us, you don’t hear us! They really do expect a “firm hand” from Kyiv. Why is Putin a popular figure in Donbas? Because Putin embodies the contemporary image of the “father of the people.” Poroshenko, Turchynov, Yatseniuk are political leaders of a different category, therefore many people in Donbas are not ready to accept such types of charisma. It is also a very understandable problem for Russia, when the people feel less like citizens and more like subordinates. it’s as if they are saying: “Be our political father, solve our problems, tell us what to do! And we, on our part, rescind our responsibility for ourselves and hand it over to you. You solve everything, and we will love you and vote for you for it.” The Ukrainian government is not ready for this, and the citizens of Donbas expect it. And this is not only the reasoning of hooligans and the proletariat in Donbas, not only people involved in hard labour, but intelligent, good, educated, cultured people working at factories and the humanitarian sphere both.
The cultivation of such a type of political conscience in Donbas cannot be undertaken by Kyiv now. Petro Poroshenko is not Putin, not Stalin and not Peter I. Kyiv is offering Donbas some unintelligible horizontal solutions – as equals. This was especially characteristic of Arseniy Yatseniuk, when he came to Donbas and told the miners: “Let’s write the new Constitution project together!” Imagine you were in the miners’ shoes, who are visited by a man in glasses and offered to write the Constitution together…
Am I correct in understanding from your words that Kyiv has to immediately seeks such a mediator and such an influential regional leader, who would be able to combine these two different semiotic planes?
I think it would be the best option – if they could find such a person. It seems to me that the appointment of Irina Herashchenko as Poroshenko’s representative in Donbas is a search for such a person who, possibly, may not be known as an efficient crisis manager, but who would be able to convince the locals, be a good teacher of sorts, tell them how much the Kyiv government loves Donetsk and the citizens of Donbas. I don’t know what effect this appointment has yielded. Possibly, another Verkhovna Rada member, Oleksandra Kuzhel, could have played the part of such a mediator – she was born in Konstantinovka, she lived in Zaporizhya, she herself is from this industrial region. There are several more politicians which may become efficient “mediators” – peacekeepers between Kyiv and Donbas. Oleg Liashko didn’t manage this. I think there have been destructive changes to the conscience of the people in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. It seems to me that many, the mass conscience was not only subjected to psychological or informational influence, but a physiological influence as well. I think, under such critical conditions, it would be efficient to use some civic authoritative figures, famous athletes, actors or singers, leaders of public opinion, say, Svyatoslav Vakarchuk or Oleh Skrypka.
But in any case Kyiv has to change the language of dialogue and seek words that Donbas needs and understand. Keeping in mind that the majority of these people are not “adults” but “orphaned children,” psychologically. I suppose, after the horrible tragedy in the Donbas skies with the Malaysian airliner, the situation in this region might change radically, and the issue of re-establishing normal life will soon become very relevant,” thinks political expert Andriy Okara.
Translated by Mariya Shcherbinina