: Transformation of Donbas identities after liberation by Ukrainian army

16:44 Jul. 2, 2016

Transformation of Donbas identities after liberation by Ukrainian army

Ukrainian troops sitting atop of an armored personal carrier at their base in Devhenke village, Kharkiv region, eastern Ukraine, July 8, 2014 (AP photo)

Residents of eastern areas choose new regions to associate themselves with

The following article is a Ukraine Today translation of the interview which originally appeared in texty.org.ua

The term 'Donbas' has lost its applicability as it ceased to exist as a single political space. Its previous gravitational pull was connected to the large amount of money accumulated in Donetsk, causing the eastern regions' readiness to adopt the identity called 'Donbas'. Just like in case of the northern part of the adjacent Zaporizhya region, which has always been drawn to Donbas.

After the occupation of Donetsk – a lynchpin for money, opportunities and influence in Donbas – the situation has changed. A lot of pro-Ukrainian oriented people were forced to leave the occupied territories, triggering the need to rethink the position of the region.

We have seen residents of almost a half of the Luhanks region, and the north of the Donetsk region starting to rethink their identities in terms of Sloboda Ukraine, a historical and geographical area in north-eastern Ukraine with the centre in Kharkiv.

The reasons for such a reframing are rather rational. Kharkiv has become the main hub for hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people fleeing the militant-occupied areas. These people have a natural will to associate themselves with a key centre of the region they are living in.

Sloboda identity is growing in strength, although it is not yet prevailing. There are still regions with strong connections to Donbas identity, such as the miner regions of Dobropilya, Troitske, Pokrovsk, and some others.

It is important for the miners to see themselves as Donbas. But in other areas with no mines (accounting for the larger part of the region), the people do not have that perspective anymore.

Read also Minister specifies cost of Donbas restoration

Another identity coming to replace Donbas is Pryazovia, named after the area around Ukraine's south-eastern Sea of Azov. It is mostly characteristic to Mariupol and its neighbouring districts, and it gradually flats out as one move southward along the Sea. Mariupol has never belonged to Donbas as such but was captured by the gravitational pull of money. Now it is free and autonomous.

According to the previous sociological surveys, the Pryazovia identity existed earlier but was kept in the background. Now, after the militant occupation, the residents have to choose which identity to follow.

What makes Donbas today is the war.


A militant fighters' APC stands abandoned near the city of Lisichansk, Luhansk region, eastern Ukraine, July 26, 2014 (AP photo)

Since the middle of 19th century the area was characterised as 'Russian-Ukrainian alliance', as both of these peoples were colonising the land. In 2014, the alliance broke up as the people started to choose who they were, and the choosing process was not ethnic but political.

The reality is that Donbas is no longer a single identity. Now it is difficult to say how long the transformation will take and what shapes it will assume. This is a long-term process largely depending on the frontline developments, as security is what people are striving for.

Three social orders on Ukraine's territory

Identity rethinking means rapid transformation of social order, that is, a system of values, rules and ways of decision-making. The new post-Soviet order started to set in since the massive demolishing of Lenin monuments across Ukrainian cities and towns as well as decommunisation. That is why the main opponents of 2013-2014 pro-European revolution were huddling together around communist statues.


Ukrainian protesters stand atop the monument after the statue of Vladimir Lenin was toppled by protesters in Kiev, Ukraine, on Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013 (AP photo)

The problem is a different social order has been established on the occupied territories as well. Now there are three social orders in Ukraine, although there should be only one of them.

The first social order, encompassing the major part of the country's territory, combines both authoritarian and liberal-democratic features. The second one, in the militant-occupied areas in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, can be called criminal. The third social order is in Russian-occupied Crimea. It differs from the occupied areas, because Crimea was officially annexed, and the social order that is taking shape in Crimea is different.
At the same time, the non-occupied part of Donbas is experiencing a complex pro-Ukrainian identity transformation.

New factors, such as war and competition appear, rational choice remains unchanged

The changes in the region are the main reason for its transformation. And the key change is the war. Without it the changes would be less visible, individual and detached.

Donetsk and Luhansk regions has always been, due to many reasons, the self-contained formations. Even the transport routes connecting the region with the rest of Ukraine have been in disastrous state, making it a huge problem to get to the regional centres.

The lives of people in these regions have been unchanged until the Ukrainian army came. The army was a new and an absolutely unexpected factor.

These self-contained formations had no other culture except the Soviet one. They had not seen any innovations and the political elite was interested not to introduce any innovations there. That is why the Ukrainian army became the very first innovation on these territories.

The first reaction of people was shock. Later the shock gave a way to the rational choice. This did not mean the locals became loyal to the post-revolution Ukraine. They were heads-up.

When it became clear that Ukraine would not retreat from there, and the new rules became a reality, the mimicry started. The old Soviet culture is trying to adjust to new rules, and this process is not all that simple. The positive thing is that conflicts are taking place constantly, and these conflicts are propelling the situation.

From this perspective, the situation in the city of Severodonetsk in Luhansk region is very illustrative. The city has had a monoculture with one enterprise and one political party, imposing its will on others. But then the thing has changed, a competition appeared as well as deputies of pro-Ukrainian parties. The conflict started, because the person from these territories cannot make arrangements, they are not used to finding a common ground and do not want to do that.


In this photo taken on Thursday, June 11, 2015, a boy rides a bicycle past the sign reading "Severodonetsk" in the town of Severodonetsk, Luhansk region, eastern Ukraine. Pro-Russian sympathies have historically been strong in a region where Ukrainian identity has tended to be much weaker than elsewhere in the country. (AP Photo)

But the conflicts are taking place, and this is a positive sign, the sign of changes. Eventually the conflict between Severodonetsk mayor and deputies was settled. Except it, there are also other towns with a number of pro-Ukrainian deputies, who have their influence.

The political competition has appeared in Donbas for the first time in the last 10-15 years. However, the economic competition is still a problem. The regional economy is in decline, the small businesses are trying hard to stay afloat, and are not ready to get engaged in politics.

In Severodonetsk a group of local entrepreneurs helped the border guards from April 2014, before the war started. And the same group is a key one now, considering the changes which are happening in the city.

Apart from the competition and conflicts, the city communities emerged. Earlier they were just cities populated by workers. They performed a certain social function and were under control of Party of Regions [party of the fugitive Ukraine's president Yanukovych], or local oligarchs. But for the last two years some cities started to turn into something united.

Donetsk region still has city communities, and just cities that did not turn into communities. For example, Slovyansk is a city community, in contrast to Kramatorsk – the city that did not turn into community despite it is a center of the present-day Donetsk region.

Bakhmut [former Artemivsk] is one more example of a city community. When asked about the changes in the city since Ukraine's independence, Bakhmut residents were the only ones not to complain on decay of industry, but instead were talking about the construction of a new stadium, opening of a new plant, and getting the prestigious award by the manufacturer of sparkling wines.


Ukrainian troops ride on armored vehicles towards Artemivsk, eastern Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 23, 2015 (AP photo)

Another example of city community is Mariupol.

The city lived through hard times, and now, it is, without doubt, a separate world. It was hard to awaken its people after the shelling.


A piece of an exploded Grad missile is photographed outside an apartment building in Vostochniy, district of Mariupol, Eastern Ukraine, Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015 (AP photo)

There were times when its residents were packed and ready to go. But when the danger has passed, people started to come up with new ideas and get interested in politics.

Mariupol is complex, because it comprises Mariupol and anti-Mariupol.

Anti-Mariupol means industrial areas, totally controlled by Metinvest [holding of mining and steel companies owned by Rinat Akhmetov]. And the people living there give their voices for Metinvest. This is the case when a plant is dominant in only a part of a city.

If Mariupol had only the Primorsky district, the general landscape of the city would look different. But still, the ball is already rolling, and the changes cannot be stopped. This is what makes Mariupol unique among other cities and towns.


Residents wave Ukrainian flags as they cheer Ukrainian troops coming back to their headquarters after combat operations against Russia-backed separatists in Mariupol, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015 (AP photo)

Coalitions ‘for' and ‘against' the changes

Before the war, the social division of these territories was the classic one Soviet-style culture. There was a layer of nationally oriented intellectuals, who in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions were perceived as clowns that had no influence, but still were there.

There was a medium-sized business, which was largely affiliated with big business. There were the old party elite, who came from the Communist Party and Komsomol. They simply joined in due time the Party of Regions. There were also officials, more or less democratic. And the plants that dominated.

For example, if the Azot plant worked in Severodonetsk the word "Azot" was the last.

After the revolution, the war, and the liberation of the territories the medium business and pro-Ukrainian forces (nationally oriented intellectuals) as well as displaced persons who were forced to leave their homes and had pro-Ukrainian sentiments, formed an alliance against what is called "the old political elite" - the former Party of Regions officials, factories.

Nobody knows what will happen next. But Akhmetov's position and power in the region will inevitably decrease at all levels. And, according to the law of conservation of energy, these voices and influence will flow to someone else.

Will the changes hold?

In the Donetsk and Luhansk regions one can see a situation where there are no clear answers or obvious results. The key question today - is resources. The situation depends on whether the state and the parties interested are willing to give them to the people who work for changes.

The main task now is to level the opportunities of these groups taking part in the negotiations. After all, the negotiations are possible only when the parties are more or less equal. Otherwise, they fall into a stupor, as it was in Severodonetsk. Stupor means that it is impossible to do things as before, but they do not want to do them in a new way.

Political and social changes will happen faster when there will be some visible changes in standards of living. Especially if the restoration of infrastructure and setting up communication of the region with the rest of the country will take place in the long run.

Although this is unlikely. And if everything happens just like it is now, there will be sluggish transformation, which will drag on for decades with the result absolutely unclear.

Electoral base of pro-Russian parties remains very strong. Opposition bloc [political party] still enjoys strong support. The residents of these territories have no values of open society, they in general have difficulties with values. Therefore, without economic, transport and other changes we cannot win the trust of these people.

Read also Two Years of War: Human cost of Russia's undeclared war in Ukraine's Donbas (Infographics)

This is what we should expect from the state. Because when the people in these areas were determining their position, they were determining what state they want to live in. Not just the country, but the Ukrainian state.

As well as other Ukrainian citizens they are waiting for support: money, goods, protection, and much more. The belly is not filled with fair words about identity. We're talking about a rational choice of this people. It is not only in Donbas, but also in other regions.

Watch also Some 500 people protest in Donetsk against war

After all, the rational choice works on the occupied territories as well. When we see the results of sociological surveys that say that locals support so-called "L / DNR", this surveys are absolutely worthless. Because under occupation people's answers are defined by rational choice. People voice support to ensure their safety.

As soon as the situation changes and Ukrainian military comes to the occupied territories, the people immediately trigger their rational choice and say "okay" to Ukraine and its flag.

The only question that matters is what flag will hang there, and what social order will exist.

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