While Mr. Kovpak continues his travels of Ukraine’s Vandee (a sad moniker), I am once again reminded that, instead of ranting, I neglected to write what is perhaps THE post if one wishes to understand the underpinnings of the current war – a strange war, but a war nevertheless – and how it is blown massively out of proportion.
The topic is, of course, separatism. I think all countries, except perhaps Vatican or Monaco, have separatist movements, however minor – people advocating splitting off from the country in question and declaring independence/joining another country. This is where the gray area between self-determination and national interests begins, and I know which side I’m on, but forget that, I’m biased. Anyhow, Ukraine is no exception. The thing, though, is that Ukrainian separatism is very, very strange.
The biggest offender is, of course, Crimea. Now, Ukraine was not entirely fair to Crimeans, and this is where it becomes apparent: in 1992, Crimea declared itself an independent republic. Kyiv’s solution was to fly SBU special operatives into the peninsula, after which the republic was stillborn, and the republic’s ‘president’ got shoved onto the next plane to Moscow. Ukraine was not entirely fair to Crimean Tatars, either, because of much the same reasons plus unfounded fears of ‘Muslim radicalism’. Yeah, I’m not denying our statesmen were bloody idiots, but there’s one fact: every time something in Crimea made overtures about breaking off, they sent in the siloviki, in 2003 during the Tuzla affair and once again in 2008. In 2014, though, the siloviki were in disarray, thus the current situation.
The other interesting case is Zakarpattya, or Transcarpathia, a region much different from its neighboring Galicia; while Galicia was Polish and then Austrian, Transcarpathia was Hungarian and then, for a brief time, Czechoslovakian. Even nowadays this manifests in a significant proportion of people there calling themselves not Ukrainians, but Ruthenians, or Rusyns. The most fringe of these Rusyns sometimes make calls that Transcarpathia should split off from Ukraine, although it is not unclear as to what end. At least some are in favor of joining Hungary. Russian media tried to spin that angle in spring 2014, as to better support their ‘Ukraine is falling apart’ line, but it is kind of hard when the separatist Rusyn leader spends his days in Budapest, and SBU got its bearings by then and clamped down on his followers in Zakarpattya faster than you could say ‘Nágy Magyarország’.
Yours truly was in Zakarpattya once, actually, and the place was downright idyllic. Ukraine, while poorer, generally enjoys less income disparity between regions than Russia does, which explains why the Ukrainian countryside doesn’t immediately descend into near-Third World conditions as soon as you leave Kyiv. Galician side, the Ciscarpathia, on the other hand, has places like Osmoloda, population 60, with half the village being downright postapocalyptic, but it was still generally neat, had neat little storefronts, even neater dormitories for construction workers building dachas, and exceptionally neat dachas of the kind you expect to see in Kyiv oblast as opposed to Ivano-Frankivsk outback.
If you wondering why I’m reminiscing about that, no, it is not that I have fond memories of scaling the Carpathian Mountains, lugging a backpack that probably weighed half a cow; it has to do with something else. Separatism is rarely logical: in Crimea’s case, the biggest factor was probably the population’s USSR nostalgia rather than economic factors, although Crimea is now reeling under these same factors. Ukrainian economy is a very, very strange thing: Ukrainians bitch about the prices, the bills, the taxes all the time, but on the other hand they prefer to do that in Kyiv cafes, and prices in the industrial capital of Zaporizhzha aren’t much lower – or higher – than in Kyiv shops and stores. Why I’m mentioning the economy, though, is because of the third item in our repertoire, and the most interesting one: Donbass.
The problem with Donbass separatism is readily apparent because of one thing: its downright suspicious association with the Party of Regions. Actually, this is not entirely fair; all the way back in 1918, the Bolsheviks had a Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Republic in what is now part of Eastern Ukraine. People like Artyom and Rudnev are some of its founders; this is why having ‘Artyom Streets’ and Rudnev statues in modern Ukraine is akin to naming streets after Donetsk premier Zakharchenko and erecting statues to separatist commander Motorola. Much like the sorry twins of ‘DPR’ and ‘LPR’ nowadays, no one, even Russia, recognized the Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Republic back in the day; it existed solely as a spoiler for Bolshevik ambitions in the Ukrainian strife. Sounds familiar?
Back to the present, though, Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, which voted overwhelmingly to leave USSR and become part of an independent Ukraine, by late 1990s became the powerbase of the fledgling Party of Regions, then on an ostensibly benevolent platform of defending the interests of the various regions of Ukraine. It wasn’t until the 2000s that Party of Regions became not only entirely dominated by Donetsk and Luhansk strongmen but a spoiler for two men and their ambitions. Those people were Rinat Akhmetov, the robber baron of Donbass, a man so large he was 20% of Ukraine’s GDP until very recently, and Viktor Yanukovych, whose career as a politician (as opposed to a petty criminal) started as a Donetsk oblast governor. He was then hand-picked by Kuchma’s advisor Medvedchuk (another notorious power player and an acquintance of no one other than Mr. Putin) to become President in Kuchma’s stead, and the rest is history. Kuchma and Medvedchuk’s shenanigans probably deserve a post of their own, so we’ll just cut straight to 2004 and the Orange Revolution. At the height of the revolution, Oleksandr ‘Dickface’ Efremov, Party of Regions’ number two man and Luhansk feudal overlord, called a summit in Severodonetsk (a city in Luhansk oblast, today de facto oblast capital, where daimyo Gennady Moskal reigns supreme), ostensibly to discuss matters of local self-government. One of the attendees was Kharkiv governor Evhen Kushnaryov, who famously proposed, as the legend goes, the creation of the South-Eastern Autonomous Ukrainian Republic, to consist of all of Ukraine’s southern and eastern oblasts. Lots of other wacky shit went down at the summit (including Ludmilla Yanukovych’s famous ‘drugged oranges’ speech), but Kushnaryov’s PiSUAR (Pivdenno-Skhidna Ukrayinska Avtonomna Respublika, rhymes with pissoir) became the most famous. Of note is its shape, which was kind of like that (in blue):
Many attendees backpedaled on the summit later, and Kushnaryov himself died while on a hunting trip back in 2006 (after which ‘to go hunting’ became an euphemism for a politically-motivated killing), but one can immediately see how eerily similar Kushnaryov’s pissoir looks to… ‘Novorossiya’, Putin’s purported Eastern Ukrainian vassal state, ‘eight sacred oblasts’ and all:
This, actually, is why no one in Ukraine – no one with half a mind, at least – took Donetsk separatism as a serious, grassroots popular movement for seccession: not when it was so eerily similar to Kushnaryov and the Party of Regions’ pet project. The Pissoir was a self-admitted bluff, a ploy to force a compromise; when Maidan won and pro-Russian protests started, the Regions latched on the chance. In fact, most of the initial rebellion was supported by the local Party of Regions and the Communist Party in a big way. Akhmetov himself famously came out and prevented the Donetsk regional administration building from getting stormed by Ukrainian special forces. Party of Regions members made speeches about ‘listening to the Donbass’, completely ignoring the fact Donbass residents were running Ukraine for the last four years, more if you count Yanukovych’s 2006 premiership. Mykhailo Dobkin, a Kharkiv governor and Youtube superstar, made ‘Russian as a second language’ and ‘federalization’ the basis of his presidential platform for the May election, despite the fact Party of Regions made no overtures about federalization in their years of rule, and the nearest they’ve come to making Russian a second language was a half-assed 2012 language law. They decried European integration and praised the Russian Customs Union, despite being proponents of EU association only scant months ago, to the point Party of Regions financed paid pro-EU demonstrations in Donbass towns. Party of Regions and Communist Party helped separatists organize their ‘referendum’ in May; basically, they tried using the Donbass rebellion as political leverage, but it backfired quickly as the conflict rapidly escalated. Ultimately, Party of Regions got played again, and again by Russia; the problem is, though, that the rebellion would have proceeded fairly differently were it not for them. Not that differently, of course; Mr. Girkin had nothing to do with the Party of Regions, and he started this war in the first place.
Donbass is a very bitter place. Sure, Donetsk was looking downright prosperous before the war, but immediately outside, the destitution was apparent. The initial Donbass rebellion was as much a protest against Kyiv as it was against their feudal overlords, the ones who owned the Soviet-era mines and the crumbling factories, who had the militsiya, the courts and the prosecution in their pocket, who had forced people into illegal mining in the kopankas; who kept Donbass destitute by stealing billions of hryvnias the government spent every year keeping Donbass’ ailing industries subsidized; yet these people not only played them to their own, and ultimately failed, ends, but also delivered them right into the hands of separatists, and Donbass was plunged into a bloody war. It may emerge from it even more destitute than before; only, instead of Kyiv, Moscow now foots ‘DPR’ and ‘LPR’ bills, barely covering their budget deficits. The dreams Donetsk retirees had of ‘Russian pensions’ turned out to be paltry sums immediately eaten up by the enormous prices (even more enormous in rubles). Even some of the more die-hard vatniks grow more open to the idea that Russia betrayed them, like it did with Abkhazia or South Ossetia. Practically the only people perfectly content with this situation are the rebel fighters themselves – oh, and the separatist ‘governments’, because they are largely the same people: Ukrainian and Russian lowlifes drawn to a fantasy world where you are the brave antifascist, worthy of your grandfathers (who would most likely be mortified at the very prospect of Russians and Ukrainians at war), where any car-washer or two-bit fiction writer can be a warlord and a leader of men, where might makes right and power, as Mao Zedong once said, grows out of the barrel of a gun. And these people have a sponsor who is only too eager to provide them with those guns.
The average Donbass resident may not like the Kyiv government. Those living in separatist territory, probably more so. But they aren’t ecstatic about the ‘DPR’ and ‘LPR’, either. It would be more correct to say they hate both equally. The only problem now would be making sure they do not elect the same people again. Ordinary Ukrainians aren’t particularly knowledgeable about their politicians. Many also live in thrall to their local strongmen, people who own the mines and the factories they toil in; accidentally, those people’s factories still work in separatist territory, and they are the ones lobbying for ‘ties to Donbass’ right now, when Ukraine needs them the least.
It is, in all, a very strange war, with very little basis in reality. Russians honestly believe the bullshit about ‘self-determination’, ‘federalization’, ‘Russian language’ and whatever else Kremlin media feeds them; it is impossible to communicate to them that the Donbass insurgency is not, in fact, a grassroots movement. Rather, it is a scam, a scam of lethal proportions: started by the Party of Regions as part of their Ukraine-wide power play, hijacked by, financed by, supplied by and supported by Russia, its endless arms supplies, volunteers and vacationing Russian soldiers, soldiers like Aleksandrov, abandoned by his country, or Dorji Bartomunkuyev, almost burned alive to give Kremlin leverage on Ukraine – and Kremlin got very little of that.
But strange or not, it is war. It has made yours truly a lot more wiser: I experienced firsthand (well, second- or even third-hand, given that I live in Kyiv) how easy it is to start a bloody meatgrinder over an issue which is practically nonexistent; over a scam, a mirage, a ghost of onetime prosperity and glorious past; and how easy it is to get perfectly reasonable people to support it unequivocally, without listening to reason or even considering a different opinion. There is probably more support for Donbass in Russia than it is in Donbass itself: for the average Russian and his downtrodden life, it is escapism; for the average Donetsk or Luhansk resident, it is survival. And no matter how much Russian masses, vatnik and kreakl both, cheer on Donbass, it does not make that survival easier.
Quite, in fact, the contrary.