Countries are hardly uniform. This is one thing I couldn’t for the love of G-d understand last year: why should Crimea be annexed, why should Donbass and half of Ukraine secede if they have problems with the rest of Ukraine? Isn’t that what countries do, anyway? Most countries have traditional divisions, like North and South in the USA, or Germany’s Weisswurstäquator (sans Ostfriesland, where they eat KIPPER with their beer, of all things), or, perhaps a better example, Italy. North and South Italy are pretty different from each other; that doesn’t stop Italy from remaining whole, not to mention unitary; but Ukraine, for some reason, has to ‘federalize’ or flat out collapse because of pretty much the same disagreements?
Alas, I was naїve then, and it was obvious that Russians weren’t going to listen to reason, so there we have it. On the other hand, the question is a bit more problematic; disagreements are one thing, but what Donbass lacks is a positive image.
I’m not just talking about the region’s rundown state. Donbass started being unprofitable all the way back in 1979, when the Soviet economy was hardly concerned with capitalist things like ‘profit’. Donbass stretches beyond the Russian border; yet Russian mines were mostly or entirely closed in the last 20 or so years, much unlike the Ukrainian Donbass. Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts were among the heaviest subsidized in 2013. Ukrainian coal industry largely lives based on government subsidies – which, for some reason, are given to enterprises owned by Akhmetov’s DTEK, not simply state-owned mines (which are a minority). Illegal mining, or ‘kopanky’, runs galore, extremely profitable because in a state or private mine, there are occupational safety standards in place, and you’re entitled to a pension (and miners still receive among the largest pensions); nothing of that applies to a kopanka, earning their owners big bucks while the miners risk their lives there every single day. Much of Donbass’ industry is either similarly neglected, or owned by oligarchs like Akhmetov and Firtash (there’s also the former Luhansk overlord, Oleksandr ‘Dickface’ Efremov, now under house arrest). In fact, much of Donbass is owned by oligarchs like Akhmetov and Firtash.
This is where it gets ugly, because not only has been Donbass associated with people like Akhmetov (the man so large he controlled 20% of Ukraine’s GDP in 2013, and who still owns most of Ukraine’s energy services), but also with people like the former president Yanukovych and the Party of Regions. Right now, people are discriminated against – unofficially, of course – because they’ve got a Donetsk or Luhansk registration and their car has Donetsk or Luhansk license plates, solely based on Yanukovych and his cronies. Much of them came from the twin towns of Donetsk and Makyivka, thus ‘Macedonians’ (Makedontsy); these Macedonians openly flaunted their Donbass heritage (in form of obscenely expensive cars and not, say, their mining prowess) while being omnipresent in the government and in business – in many cases having had taken that business from its original owners. Now this resentment is not only applied to ordinary Donbass residents, but amplified, and here’s why: many Ukrainians consider Donbass residents to be responsible for electing Yanukovych and the Party of Regions. Many Ukrainians now fear that if the now-occupied Donbass territories would return, they would elect another Yanukovych. While the East-vs-West horse is steadily decaying and Poroshenko was possibly the first President to be elected by a majority in (almost) all Ukraine’s regions, there were the parliamentary elections, when many veteran Party of Regions MPs got elected in their constituencies, only just liberated by the Ukrainian Army.
And yes, the war. It is, of course, a logical fallacy to think most Donbass residents are pro-Russian or hate Ukraine; in fact, most are neither now, that is they hate both equally. Even before the war, Donetsk hosted a massive pro-Ukrainian rally; a rally that would be bloodily crushed next month, while Donetsk militsiya stood by and did nothing, or even helped the pro-Russian thugs. Local officials did nothing to obstruct the separatists and their referendums, in some cases actively helping them. Most of the population in Donbass lived in fear of the Orange banderites, who would come and force them to speak Ukrainian, or drag them into Gayropa, or, basically, whatever the Russian and some Ukrainian TV told them to believe. Ukrainian TV coverage of Maidan was hardly different from Russian TV coverage of Maidan, to the point when you could not distinguish between the two. There is no surprise people would be frightened when Maidan won. There was no surprise that, given their long-fostered East-vs-West mentality and the false ‘stability’ Party of Regions created in Donbass, much like the false ‘stability’ in Russia, these same people could be deluded into aiding and supporting the separatists. I wouldn’t say 90% of occupied Donbass attended the separatist referendum, but the amount was, most likely, large. No doubt much of those people still see the referendum as a kind of a protest vote. A totally meaningless one, at that.
However, the rest of Ukraine now subscribes to the same mentality. Horror tales of Donbass refugees were widespread last summer: how they do nothing while our boys are out there fighting, how they hang Russian or DPR/LPR/Novorossiya flags, how they laugh at the silly khokhols, and stuff like that. It is nearly impossible to rent a flat if you’re a refugee in some parts of Kyiv: either the price will be obscenely high, or the other party will refuse altogether. Moreover, every little thing may be blamed on ‘the Donetskie’: last winter, there was a series of attacks and robberies on the streets in my (extremely safe otherwise) neighborhood, which left several people in the hospital with multiple knife wounds. Immediately my groupmates at the university blamed those on Donbass refugees. I was frankly flabbergasted: these same attacks could have been the work of local Kyiv gopniks, or, better yet, of someone from the Western parts of Ukraine; is Rivne or Ternopil that much better? Hardly; yet no one thought that. I don’t have many friends in Donbass (and a few acquaintances), but for me this shit was almost blood libel.
I get offended when my Donetsk acquaintances blame the Ukrainian army for the latest artillery shelling, or when they blame the Ukrainian government for denying them pensions, but on an intellectual level I can hardly blame them.
What is in store for Donbass, I don’t know. Project Novorossiya might be buried – it turned out to be stillborn anyway – but the war is far from over. Someday, however, it will be, and it’s unlikely it would end in an unconditional surrender – not when Russia continues backing the rebels by stuffing DPR and LPR with tanks, artillery guns and vacationing Russians; therefore, there will be some form of compromise. Even Serbian Krajina ended as a compromise, despite the whole Operation Storm – an autonomous Eastern Slavonia, administered by the UN, where a ‘multiethnic’ government is in place even now. The ethnic angle of the Donbass war is overplayed, but Ukraine will be lucky to get a similar arrangement.
However, if the only alternative would be an autonomous Donbass with the power to veto foreign policy decisions, as Russia would like it to be, then Ukraine’s better off without it.