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How to save the Donbas

How to save the Donbas

By Pavlo Zhovnirenko, for UP, May 13, 2014

The Internet is abuzz with dissatisfaction with the actions, or rather the inaction, of the government and security forces in the East. This grumbling is appropriate. However, many also disapprove of the “passivity” of the Donbas residents themselves, of their so-called ignorance and lack of patriotism.

On the basis of these assumptions, the view of many regarding the pro-Russian population of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts is that “it isn’t worth fighting for them. Let them go to Russia,” “if they won’t come out in the street, then let them leave.” An additional “argument” is on the order of “the lizard gave up its tail and stayed alive.”

Let’s try to understand.

First, what true patriot — even without sympathizing with the views of a region’s population —  would want to advocate not for the expansion but for the contraction of his country’s territory? After all, preferences, views, and even populations change, but the territory remains.

Second, it has long been observed that those who generally speak about the lack of patriotism among the citizens of Donetsk and Luhansk have not lived there, do not live there and, at best, make only short visits once a year.

It would be worthwhile to pose several questions to the authors of these accusations regarding the passivity of the residents of the Donbas and their low participation in pro-Ukrainian demonstrations.

Do you understand that, for three decades without even a month’s break, those who were dissatisfied were simply beaten, repressed, and driven out? That Yanukovych, who provoked an explosion among people in the rest of Ukraine, reigned here for thirty years?  That all local organized democrats, liberals and nationalists — the official Kyiv — have been totally absent for 30 years?

Now put yourself in the shoes of an average resident of Shakhtarsk, Stakhanov or Kramatorsk, who, like most anyone else, pays his taxes, including those for the maintenance of the police, the security services, the prosecutors, and the courts, which are supposed to protect him. But never do.

Even worse, these “authorities” are actually fighting against him on the side of the “colorados” (slang for Russian soldiers whose tri-colored military ribbons have the same colors as the Colorado potato beetles — Ed.) And he has no weapons, whereas they do have weapons and are quite ready to use them without any hesitation. What claims do we have on these ordinary citizens who have been abandoned by their country for more than two months, and who, on a daily basis, witness the orgy of lawlessness, paralysis by the government authorities, and the impotence of law enforcement?

Imagine yourself in the place of the ordinary apolitical coal miner from the Luhansk who sees one morning that into his town have arrived several dozen “Cossacks” from the Novoshakhtynsk Rostov Oblast (in Russia), calmly, through the state border, and during the anti-terrorist operation. Furthermore, they’re conducting a registration for the “local self-defense” in the mayor’s office, they’re handing out machine guns, and the mine police are bringing them food!

Will you quietly go home or will you stay — if only to get the weapons you can use to protect your family if something happens?

The English word “power” has two meanings — authority and strength. Therefore, by definition, authority cannot be weak. Powerlessness, and even more so, the obvious weakness of the government, does not just delegitimize; it simply destroys.

Every hour of delay in the restoration of government control in the East will result in the exponential growth of residents who will support the transfer of their city, district, and oblast either to the “people’s republic,” or to Russia, or even to the devil himself, simply to avoid living in constant danger due to anarchy and the dominance of unknown armed people who can do anything.

As for the analogy between the Donbas and the lizard’s tail, well that parallel is a great delusion. The destruction of the Donbas will be an absolute guarantee not of peace with the Russian Federation, but of its further intrusion into Ukraine.

Giving just a bit of blood to the vampire with the expectation of escape is useless. It will not work. The smell and taste of blood will only inspire him. The question here is either fight — or at least demonstrate a willingness to fight — or die. There is no middle ground.

One key problem is the longtime absence of communication with the residents of the Donbas, both vertically — with the central government — and horizontally — with residents of the other regions of Ukraine. The logical result of this gap of an informational exchange is misunderstanding and mutual propensities toward myths and fears.

For example, the ordinary supporters of the “people’s republics,” unfortunately, do not yet understand that these created entities are not the means to ensure independence from Kyiv, but a further move toward the “Syrian option” and incorporation into Russia.

The government has not listened to the Donbas, nor has it learned about the Donbas. Decades of neglect by Kyiv have produced the expected “fruit.” The situation started to escape the control of the central government still in 2003 — let’s just remember the anti-Kyiv riots of October 31 near the Yunist concert hall in Donetsk.* All the advice to Kyiv politicians on how to control the disintegration in the East and the South was simply ignored.

What can be done in this situation?

The main thing is not to simplify and not to generalize about the protestors.

The protesting masses in the Donbas can be divided into 6 main groups:

  1. The core group — composed of citizens of the Russian Federation —  consists of the military and “Cossacks.”
  2. The second is composed of Russian civilians who volunteer for ideological reasons.
  3. Ideological Moscophiles from the local population.These three groups sincerely believe that people who live in Ukraine and Russia are the same and therefore only one state is possible.
  4. Local thugs, athletes, security employees who have no political opinions and who are simply carrying out the commands of the local “authorities.”
  5. The unemployed, those whose businesses have been taken away, who can barely survive on their income — therefore all who profoundly hate the government, which has failed to ensure legal and social justice.
  6. Ordinary people who are tired of the two-month-long lawlessness and who see that the illegally armed men are not being punished but who, on the contrary, have no problem punishing anyone at will.

The last two groups are the most numerous, and the numbers of their members are several orders of magnitude higher than in the first four groups because their motivation is the simplest and most basic: physical and social security for themselves and their families and the desire to have any kind of order that can ensure personal safety in their city, their region, and their country as soon as possible.

What must Kyiv do?

First, it must take a differentiated approach, both to the protestors and to the methods used to influence them. For separatism to disappear, the separatists must be separated from ordinary citizens.

The first four groups fall under the category of anti-state actors, the fifth and sixth groups simply represent the population that has become involved in the protests due to the state’s inactivity. This is the population whose social needs the anti-state players are manipulatively distorting into political demands. While security services, prosecutors, and the criminal code are the means to be used with the anti-state groups, the government in Kyiv must rapidly offer simple and clear reforms to the people, and only to the people.

What reforms?

Kyiv need to listen not to the local “godfathers,” but to the people, and must begin to work for the people.  Without administrative and budgetary reforms, Ukraine for 23 years has remained in the USSR, changing only the rhetoric, symbolism and the capital — from Moscow to Kyiv.

The federalization of Ukraine represents, among other negatives, its further Sovietization, only now at the regional level, where the taxes from the bottom and the subsidies from the top will be portioned out (or rather embezzled) directly by the local “elites” without the participation of Kyiv.

What needs to happen is not federalization but rather “communitization” — in other words, the creation of a mechanism for the realization of the constitutional rights of the local communities to become full masters on their own territory, where cities, villages and towns decide how to spend their own budgets at their own discretion. Kyiv would retain the purely national functions: defense, finances, foreign affairs, security.

A program of the social-economic development of the Donbas should be offered immediately and should be focused on the individual and not on the Party of Regions “mediators” who vanished, or the coal and metallurgical barons who crept in. For example, instead of subsidies to the coal industry, 80% of which, even according to official figures, is simply stolen, the money should be addressed to personal accounts in the form of direct payments to miners.

Second, reforms should be carried out together with a strong information campaign that explains in simple language the reasons for the changes and their necessity for the people of the Donbas. This awareness campaign must be developed and implemented immediately, unlike Ukraine’s information strategy that was promised by the National Security Council still in March and is still missing.

Third — also immediately — the law on forming territorial defense units that was proposed still in 2009 must be passed. Fourth, foreign volunteers should be invited to Ukraine to fight the Russian aggression.

What should Ukrainian citizens do under conditions where a large-scale invasion could begin at any moment?

Do not wait for anyone else to act — not the government, not the Europeans — but individually begin to create territorial defense units where you live in order to be ready to defend Ukraine, as well as your town, your home, your family.

Think about who in your city, neighborhood or village could be a commander. Organize meetings, create defense units, organize into units, assign responsibility — for information analysis, reporting, communication with neighbors,the district, the oblast, Kyiv. Make a register of available firearms and set up a communication and notification system.

Contact neighbors, exchange mobile and line phone numbers and e-mail addresses. Become familiar with available materials on the strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare — there is plenty of information. Conduct training that is as realistic as possible. Learn how to use weapons for defense. Then act according to the circumstances.

One resident of Luhansk writes on her Facebook:

“I appeal to all those with St. George (Russian military — Ed.) ribbons. If you don’t like the government in Kyiv — go to Kyiv! Do the same thing as the previous Maidan. After all, they removed the government that did not serve the people. If you find that the new government is not serving Donbas, then why destroy your cities and buildings. Go there and in a similar fashion remove them from the presidential administration and the Verkhovna Rada.”

Therefore, Donbas is still Ukrainian. According to recent polls, over 70 percent of its residents see no other option. However, the government has no time left to continue dreaming of reasonable discourse with weak muscles. Either it exhibits power, in both meanings of the word, or it will be swept from power by a new Maidan composed of its opponents who very probably will suddenly realize their own real interests and goals and not those imposed by others.

Instead of a summary

In the East, the Kremlin is taking advantage of the dissatisfaction of local residents with pervasive unemployment, low wages, poverty, and governments that for 30 years allowed all this to happen.

Under the rule of the Party of Regions, the people of the Donbas could not even imagine mass protest. However, with the fall of Yanukovych, the collapse of the Party of Regions, the paralysis of the police and the Security Service (SBU), they, following the example of Maidan, have taken to the streets.

Russia is attempting to channel this discontent into mainstream opposition to Kyiv and for the federalization of the country. Ukraine, the government, and Maidan (pro-Ukraine forces) must clearly and calmly divide and separate — on the one side, the Russian military and agents, and on the other, the local protesters. It is not difficult if the will to do it is there.

A week ago, I visited my own “small homeland” in the Donetsk Oblast. I spoke with businesspeople of Torez, with railway workers and retired workers of Khartsyzk, with officials, with members of Euromaidan and the local occupiers of the Donetsk Oblast Administration building.

If you reject the externally imposed propagandist garbage, you can easily find common, unifying thoughts and requirements:  the erroneous myths exist in the minds of people on both sides. The revolution is not yet completed; not only faces but the system must change!

The government must be reformed into the one proclaimed by Maidan: a professional one, not organized along party quotas. We must remove from government the incompetent, especially in law enforcement — it is high time we stop paying with people’s lives and the country’s honor for their blatant lack of professionalism. We must urgently place maximum governing authority on-site– in the cities, towns, and villages — not in the regions.

The talks and joint statements by the self-defense in Kyiv and Donetsk regarding the requirements outlined above are not a fantasy, even when they include the requirement to remove foreign symbols and to dissociate from citizens of other states.

Ukrainians can and must agree among themselves and not shoot one another — especially not without even trying to form individual opinions about the other, who is considered an enemy based on information provided by the real enemies, not the fictitious ones.

*Ed. Note: Widescale, violent demonstrations organized by local and regional leaders successfully stopped an effort by Yuschenko’s political organization “Our Ukraine” to hold a congress in the city on October 31, 2003.

By Pavlo Zhovnirenko, head of the Center for Strategic Studies, member of the organization “Male Kolo” (Small Circle), for Ukrainska Pravda, May 13, 2014

Translated and edited by Anna Mostovych

Original Ukrainian:

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