Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Ukraine: Donetsk Will Resist Russian Pressure

Economist Alex Ryabchyn argues that locals are afraid of the future but want to remain part of Ukraine.
By Aleksey Ryabchyn

When the protests started in Kiev, people in Donetsk weren’t that interested. The protests were far away in Kiev, and people didn’t feel very involved. A few hundred people rallied in Donetsk – some pro-Euromaidan, some against – but there weren’t major demonstrations.

But when the radicalisation and fighting began in Kiev, people here became scared, and when Russian forces invaded Crimea, everything started in Donetsk too.

One person emerged who was totally unknown by 99 per cent of people in Donetsk, Pavel Gubarev [who declared himself “people's governor” of Donetsk region]. He was deliberately set up by Russia or by local powers interested in the situation. Only a few people knew of him before.

He was a member of a radical party [the Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine] but was barely involved in wide-scale politics. He suddenly appeared on the scene and decided that Donetsk wanted to join Russia.

Now, many people want friendship and economic relations with Russia. This doesn’t mean they want to join Russia. Gubarev does not represent our true feelings.

There are several kinds of people protesting, not all of them separatist. I would argue that those are actually in the minority. The pro-Russia demonstrators are not homogenous; they include separatists, those who just support a customs union, others who are demonstrating against austerity, and people who are afraid of losing their jobs and are scared of ultra-right wing groups.

The Donetsk region doesn’t support becoming part of Russia. According to the latest polling, fewer than 25 per cent want to join Russia. Six months ago, the figure was only five per cent. People are afraid; they trusted [former president Viktor] Yanukovich and now they feel there is no one in Kiev representing their interests.

As a result of propaganda and Russian TV, they feel the situation can only be solved with the help of Moscow.

The Kiev authorities have been very absent in Donetsk. Since the protests began, a lot of decision makers have been travelling here, but it’s too late. People are afraid of losing their jobs, of losing their social security payments, and of rising utility bills. The Ukrainian currency has been devalued by 40 per cent and people are already poorer.

The Kiev authorities should have come here to the region to speak to protestors. The protestors include people who are trained by and paid for by Russia, but also ordinary people who are afraid. If people are reassured, the numbers supporting joining Russia will again drop to five per cent.

Around ten or 15 per cent of the protesters are from Russia, but all the organisation and financing comes from there.

Right now, some protestors control the local government building. So what? That doesn’t represent the whole region. I am quite sure our police and secret service could clear the building in half an hour, but they don’t want the casualties.

Russia is trying to provoke a reaction so it can show images of protestors being beaten and ask what difference there is between these protests from Euromaidan. The propaganda machine is working very hard in Donetsk.

But it’s not a grassroots movement like Euromaidan, and those protestors said they wanted to be closer to Europe, not to separate from Ukraine.

The leaders of the protests are certainly from Russia and the Russian security services, and I have read several police reports of arrests of Russian nationals. They have deliberately brought lots of unemployed people in from the regions, and there were reports that some people came from Crimea with their Ukrainian passports to join the pro-Russia protesters.

There are some businessmen and power-brokers in the Donetsk region whose interests coincide with the pro-Russia movement. A lot of people in the region were appointed by Yanukovich and benefited from him, and they are afraid their corruption will be uncovered.

At the beginning of March, there was really big tension here and a feeling of pressure. There were lots of media reports of Russian tanks on the border and a lot of my friends were keeping a full tank of petrol in their car just in case they had to escape. This was the first time in my life I felt that war was close.

I am half-Russian – my mother is from Russia – I speak Russian and I have always felt Ukraine and Russia are brother nations. But I don’t want to join Russia. And I never had problems speaking Russian either in Donetsk or in Kiev or Lviv.

Certain people feel more secure as part of what used to be the Soviet Union, and many believe they need someone strong to show them the way rather than doing it for themselves.

Personally, I am certain Russia will not intervene by sending in troops. Crimea is one thing, Donetsk quite another. For now, it’s a case more of local powerbrokers wanting to use the unrest as a means of exerting pressure on Kiev.

I don’t see that Russia wants to push this region to separate - that is more a long-term than a tactical goal – so perhaps what they want is to disrupt the [May presidential] election and show the international community that Kiev is not in control of the situation.

Maybe it is also a means of exerting pressure ahead of the negotiations next week [between Russia, Ukraine, the European Union and the United States].

But there is no real question of Donetsk joining Russia. I would argue that the battle against separatism will be won by the local and Kiev authorities.

The most dangerous conflict with Russia – one played out through the economy – has already started.

Nevertheless, Ukrainians should understand that neither the West nor Russia will come and make our lives better. It is we ourselves who should unite to work harder and do our best to provide the future for Ukraine.

Aleksey Ryabchyn, 30, has a doctorate in international economics and returned to Donetsk five months ago after studying innovation development at Sussex University.

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