It’s a territory ruled by local warlords. It’s a no man’s land where private property can be confiscated on the whim of an armed group citing a shadowy martial law; where people get sentenced to death by dubious makeshift “courts”; and where women face punishment for alcohol consumption in public. It might be surprising to some that this place in fact is located in the continent of Europe.
The government in Kiev calls it “temporarily occupied Ukrainian territories”, referring to the separatists’ rule imposed on this land through the Russian invasion. The separatists themselves identify this land as two separate independent republics – Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). The most devoted pro-Russian activists go as far as calling it “Novorossiya” (New Russia).
Whatever its supporters or opponents want to call it, this land stands for one thing only: a tragic political, socio-economic and humanitarian disaster. Its people are currently suffering a failed attempt to create some semblance of statehood which takes from the local population but does not give back.
Lawlessness and disorder
Donetsk and Luhansk regions fell under the spell of separatism in the aftermath of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea declaring its independence from Ukraine back in March. The Crimean precedent encouraged the pro-Russian population in eastern parts of Ukraine to seek autonomy and closer ties with Russia by more violent means. In May, they had a self-rule referendum that Kiev denounced as illegal.
Since then, tensions escalated and transformed into a lingering military confrontation, which has led to heavy losses on both sides – military and civilian. Currently the two regions, Luhansk and Donetsk, are under the control of different anti-Ukrainian paramilitary groups, which do not necessarily respond to a central command; this set-up undermines any attempt to preserve the rule of law and much less provide any services to the local population.
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There have been a few rather farcical attempts to demonstrate that there is normalised political life in these regions. One of them was the local elections that were held on November 2. DPR’s leader Alexander Zakharchenko was elected with the overwhelming 79 percent and his LPR counterpart Igor Plotnitsky with 63 percent.
The vote was not recognised by any western government, but was praised by Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. To get the starved local population to vote, their rulers had set up vegetables stands selling cheap produce right by the polling stations.
DPR’s “new” government includes two shadowy figures who up until 2012 were security agents in Moldova’s breakaway region Transnistria. Minister of State Security Andrei Pinchuk and Minister of Interior Oleg Bereza used to work under the infamous Russian national Vladimir Antyufeyev, who up until September was the vice prime minister of DPR. Antyufeyev used to be a security chief in Transnistria – a breakaway region in Moldova – where he set up a local security force following the model of the KGB. In 2012, he had to flee to Moscow after he was implicated in abuse of power.
Antyufeyev, Pinchuk and Bereza clearly did not go to DPR to work on the security and wellbeing of the local population, but to follow orders from Moscow. The locals are very much at the mercy of armed groups and arbitrary justice. There have been multiple reports of forceful confiscation of property or businesses by militias. The old judiciary system has been dissolved to make way for the so-called “people’s courts”. The rules by which the jury in these courts is elected are unclear, but it has the authority to deliver sentences for crimes and to send people to “military service” at military camps. These courts have handed down death sentences for rape and theft.
Recently these institutions have started concerning themselves with their citizens’ morality as well. In particular, during a court session in Luhansk separatist commander Alexey Mozgovoy declared that women should not be allowed to go to cafes or clubs, but should instead focus on preserving family values.
“If you want to stay faithful to your husband, stay at home and embroider,” Mozgovoy was reported as saying at the session.
A looming socio-economic crisis
Six months after this senseless conflict started, DPR and LPR find themselves in a bizarre limbo with their patron Russia. On one side, the Kremlin is willing to supply weapons and risk the lives of its soldiers to help the separatists continue their resistance. On the other hand, it clearly has no intension either to absorb the two self-proclaimed republics, or to pay their bills.
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The separatists were ironically forced to ask Kiev for help. The DPR and LPR governments issued a joint statement in which they called on the government in Kiev to keep paying pensions to “innocent civilians” and threatened to stop peace negotiations, if it doesn’t.
“We are ready to supply Ukraine with coal so it could have a normal heating season. We need assistance with electricity, agriculture products, transportation, and export-oriented production,” said the joint statement.
It is hard for Ukraine’s government to trust promises made by separatist leaders after they had repeatedly broken ceasefires and other agreements outlined in the Minsk protocol. Thus the economic and social welfare of the separatist-controlled areas is not on Kiev’s to-do list. So far the government has been paying pensions and social payments to DPR and LPR residents, but they had to travel to the closest cities under Ukrainian control to collect their payments. State-run institutions within the separatist regions were sporadically receiving some money, but this will change soon.
On November 5, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk announced that the government was suspending funding for social security and state institution payments to the temporarily occupied territories starting December 1. All social payments will be waiting for their beneficiaries and will be paid as soon as the area re-joins Ukraine. Gas and electricity supplies won’t be cut off. How DPR and LPR will provide for their “citizens” during the winter remains to be seen.
This blend of absurdity and horror is not unique to Eastern Ukraine in post-Soviet times. Transnistria, the Republic of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have a lot in common with their Ukrainian counterparts DPR and LPR: All of them appeared as a result of a military conflict, they have not been recognised by most of UN member states but Russia’s allies and all remain under Moscow’s direct control. Yet if what is going in Eastern Ukraine is allowed to continue, the regions will succumb even further into chaos, insecurity and misery.
Olesia Markovic is a Ukrainian journalist.