17:30 Jun. 5, 2016
Many fear city's widening split from rest of Ukraine could complicate reintegration
At an electronics store in Donetsk, stronghold of the Russia-backed separatists who control Ukraine's breakaway east, Vasili declines payment of 100 hryvnias (USD 4) to install the internet on a mobile phone.
"We don't accept hryvnia any more, only roubles," the shop assistant says, explaining that they exclusively use the Russian currency now on orders of the region's separatist leadership.
A short distance away in Makiivka, a conversation with factory worker Marina underscores how Russian money has become the de facto currency.
The steel plant where she works is one of the few in the war-torn region that was once Ukraine's industrial heartland that continues to pay salaries in the national currency.
"We immediately exchange it to roubles as you can't buy anything here in hryvnia any more," the shop assistant says.
Two years after the Ukrainian conflict erupted — when Russian-backed rebels seized government buildings in scores of towns across the country's Russian-speaking east and set up their own breakaway republics — the Donetsk and neighbouring Luhansk regions have not (unlike Crimea) been annexed by Moscow.
The Russians held back, perhaps fearing further western sanctions — although many say it was more Moscow's reluctance to shoulder the cost of a densely populated region and its hundreds of thousands of pensioners.
But more than 25 years since Ukraine broke away from the Soviet Union, Donetsk is a city that feels increasingly Russified — politically, economically and socially. The fibres that once held the east to the rest of Ukraine are being torn away, thread by thread.
At local supermarkets the shelves that were emptied at the height of the conflict that has so far claimed nearly 10,000 lives and continues to smoulder, are stocked mostly with Russian imports.
Russian textbooks supplied by Moscow are used at local schools that no longer teach Ukrainian history. Children instead learn a Russian version of the past that glorifies the Soviet era. Russian and separatist broadcasting has replaced Ukrainian channels. Websites are registered under .ru and not the .ua domain.
Even speaking Ukrainian, two years ago the state language, can be dangerous, sparking animosity from locals or suspicions of subversiveness from gun-toting rebels.
Many worry the ever-widening split with the rest of Ukraine could greatly complicate reintegration should efforts succeed in rekindling the stalled, 15-month-old Minsk agreement aimed to plot a path to peace in the breakaway regions.
Worse, if Minsk continues to languish, the fear among residents is that they will end up living in a frozen conflict zone, similar to Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia or Moldova's Transnistria — propped up by Moscow but not properly part of either country. Full story