Societal resilience in Eastern Ukraine: building solid foundations for a nation

Parade devoted to the 26th anniversary of Ukraine's Independence Photo: Olena Makarenko 

Analysis & Opinion, Politics, War in the Donbas

Article by: Dmitri Teperik, Chief Executive of the International Centre for Defence and Security

The long-awaited and much-debated official adoption of the so-called Donbas De-Occupation Law by Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada provoked a heated discussion in Ukrainian society over the last three months on whether this legal act is merely a symbolic (if communicatively important) gesture to label Russia as a state aggressor, or whether it reflects a serious intention to create a strong foundation for the region’s re-integration.

In the background of ongoing debates about strengths and weaknesses of the adopted law, however, the main question remains unanswered – what point of reference should Ukrainian society recognise as a sign of the historical and even ideological irreversibility of the re-integration of the occupied territories? In other words, what is their vision of victory?

Regardless of the nature of the political intentions behind the law, there is a little room for being optimistic about the most probable scenarios. Building a strong foundation requires durable materials of high quality, meaning a clear initial vision combined with solid, concrete plans for implementation—supported by a broad societal consensus. Neither wishful thinking nor creating unrealistic illusions can help improve the situation. International experts who care about Ukraine’s future also have a responsibility to be honest in observing, reporting, and highlighting major deepening gaps in societal resilience in eastern Ukraine—not least because Ukraine’s political establishment has developed a case of (hopefully temporary) cognitive blindness towards the social dimension of groups’ activity in the region.

External and internal disconnectivity

External disconnectivity is commonly expressed as the absence of meaningful belonging to something larger, uniting and positively encouraging. Many eastern Ukrainians feel left behind by the central government in Kyiv; they only occasionally see that the capital is paying some attention to them—and when it does, they perceive it as politically motivated, as opposed to being rooted in a sincere desire to improve their lives. Accordingly, they don’t have a strong sense of belonging, in the sense that they feel that they are heard about—let alone involved in—major reforms or discussions on their country’s future. In the ICDS conducted survey, almost 80% of eastern Ukrainians confirmed a growing uncertainty and ambiguity regarding their future. There is decreasing confidence in what tomorrow may bring. Externally, they are disconnected from mainstream issues at the national level, and sporadically expressed attention does not reconnect them.

Internal disconnectivity is, by contrast, more related to broken interpersonal relations and social bonds within the local population of eastern Ukraine. Another contributing factor to this type of disconnectivity is distrust, which is not just seen with regard to state or local authorities, political institutions, or organisations (albeit with some exceptions, for instance, the church, the armed forces, and volunteers), but also widely observed among locals themselves. Interpersonal distrust deepens many prejudice-based divisions, which are still present at individual level: us versus them. Signs of societal divides directed from outside and other symptoms of disconnectivity can be observed all over eastern Ukraine and they are based not just on locality, language, or political preferences, but also on socio-economic status. In fact, main concerns of eastern Ukrainians are related primarily to everyday living, not—as one might speculate—to security or safety. Even those Ukrainians living near the separation line see security not from a defence point of view, but mainly through a socio-economic prism – utility payments, rising prices, shortages of goods or delayed salary/pension payments, and widespread unemployment. Tangible solutions to these real problems – as well as to imagined or artificially-heightened fears – seem much more important to the majority than winning the war in the Donbas or ending the occupation of Crimea. Any political force, indigenous or foreign, that meets these expectations in the short term while delivering practical results will hold keys to their loyalty.

Degradation of social capital

A sense of gloomy predetermination, if not simply doom, is a common feeling expressed by many in eastern Ukraine. Majority believes that there is no possibility of change or improvement. They do not see a brighter future for their region, since there is no solid, robust plan for reconciliation after the end of the occupation of the Donbas.

By itself, the law on de-occupation law does not reshape of societal values, it does not erase fresh wartime memories, and it does not undo the brainwashing of the affected population. While the law might create regulations in which a suitable environment can be fostered, this environment needs to be shaped, constructed, and filled with substance by motivated people. In other words, implementers, practitioners, and communicators are needed—yet, there is no evidence of their presence on the ground, no evaluation systems in place for when they do arrive—and in fact, not a single plan even to recruit or train such experts.

Let’s face the truth: many highly-corrupt officials on the national and local levels—many of whom have strongly Soviet or post-Soviet mentalities—are simply incapable to contribute to the enforcement of this law because they are widely distrusted, insufficiently trained to manage change, and not motivated to bring about societal achievements. As recently reported by the Ukrainian State Treasury Service, by the end of 2017 there was still a substantial amount of unspent funding (almost 6 billion UAH) in regional budgets, a fact that might indicate a variety of problems from a lack of interesting ideas to overcomplicated regulations. In any case, this is a worrying sign about the unpreparedness of local authorities for reshaping the destiny of eastern Ukraine (not to mention managing unpredictable consequences of de-occupation). It seems that they are capable of building walls, not bridges or foundations.

According to the ICDS survey, one in every three people in eastern Ukraine thinks that corruption among state and local authorities is one of the biggest threats to national security. After socio-economic insecurity, corruption was the most popular answer among respondents—far exceeding, for instance, the number of those concerned about Russian aggression. ICDS survey results confirm that almost every fourth person in eastern Ukraine in fact thinks that the ongoing war in the region is just “a new form of business for the oligarchs”. Consequently, the alarming incompetence of policy- and decision-makers at a local and regional level in eastern Ukraine is one of the major gaps in national resilience.

There is still no common nationwide, independent, and respected platform in Ukraine within which state and local authorities, civil society, and business representatives could meet, discuss, consensually decide, and jointly implement decisions for improving national resilience in various domains: societal, informational, psychological, communicational, economic, environmental etc. Such a platform should be created and maintained in synergy by respected visionaries, motivated professionals, and experienced practitioners. It could ensure growth of social capital—especially in vulnerable regions of eastern Ukraine.

Mentality

Four years of hostile propaganda have had a cumulative harmful effect by shaping the behaviour patterns of those social groups that are targeted by disinformation campaigns. It applies equally to both populations in eastern Ukraine: analysis of public discussions in social media shows clearly that many political, socio-economic, or security-related topics are discussed by local population on both sides of the line, using broadly pro-Kremlin rhetoric. To this should be added the more purportedly desirable effects of the large-scale “Humanitarian programme for the reunification of the people of Donbas”, recently launched by Russian proxies with alleged financial support from the Kremlin. On the surface, it is focused on improving situation in crucially important areas – health care, education, social care, culture, environment – but in reality it is an massive information operation aimed at shaping and homogenising public opinion among both audiences: those who live in the so-called “people’s republics” and those who live on Kyiv-controlled territory.

The security-related perceptions of the local populations on both sides of the separation line are much more similar than we dare to admit. Moreover, there is almost no evidence of the generational or geographic differences that researchers hoped to find. The vast majority of the population promotes pragmatism and follows the basic principle of nonalignment – meaning not choosing or blaming any side, but rather remaining neutral—or even controversially sympathetic—to both sides: Kyiv and Moscow.

It would be extremely hypocritical from side of international experts to support the common and convenient myth that there are two different opposite mentalities: one, a strictly pro-Ukrainian, free mindset of those who live in government-controlled areas, and another, an uncompromisingly pro-Kremlin, authoritarian-oriented mentality of those living under occupation. In fact, the two viewpoints are actually equally distributed across eastern Ukraine with some degree of variety. The perforated lines of Ukraine’s society do not match cease-fire, oblast, or linguistic lines. Without addressing the gaps in societal resilience, an already fragile foundation will face constant erosion. We have failed to predict what societal or political reaction will follow once Ukrainian elites realize that liberating the occupied territories will not bring the people of the region any mentally closer to Kyiv.

There is no honest public discussion about the basis on which societal reconciliation in Ukraine could be envisioned and implemented. Will it be forgiveness? Forgetting? Partial amnesty? Or, perhaps, retribution—be it hidden or overt? Or even some unhealthy mixture of all the above? Will a new social contract on reconciliation emphasize consensus among all members of Ukrainian society, or should it force some of them to make compromises? For reconciliation to work in the future, these questions have to be openly debated within Ukrainian society— the sooner the better.

The article was initially published by  the International Centre for Defence and Security.

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