Alexander Khudoteply/AFP/Getty Images
Alexander Khudoteply/AFP/Getty Images

Economic tensions worsen unrest in eastern Ukraine

Russian propaganda is fueling separatist sentiments in Donbass

March 25, 2014 7:00AM ET

Crimea looks set to leave Ukraine for Russia. Farther north, unrest is growing in the mineral-rich Donbass region in eastern Ukraine. While separatism has traditionally held little sway in the area, economic stagnation, a weak government in Kiev and the lack of credible local leadership is pushing the region toward Russia and away from the Euromaidan movement favoring closer ties with the European Union. However, the building tensions are far more complicated and nuanced than a simplistic east-west, Russian-Ukrainian divide.

The Donbass was one of the few industrial regions during the czarist Russian Empire. Peasants from linguistically diverse Russian-Ukrainian borderlands moved there to work in the mines and factories and embraced Russian language and culture. The Donbass later became instrumental to Ukrainian independence in 1991 after a massive wave of strikes in the region against Moscow’s ineffective economic policies. With promises from Kiev to better manage the economy, most people in the Donbass, including ethnic Russians, supported the 1991 independence effort. But political independence did not bring economic prosperity, leaving Donbass heavily dependent on the Russian market. Economic tensions, not just ethnic identities, are at the center of public debate about the future of the region.

Occupational differences

I traveled to Donetsk, the de facto capital of the Donbass, the weekend before the Crimean referendum. “How is that Kiev of yours?” a taxi driver inquired as we left the train station. “I heard the new prime minister has already announced pension cuts. I can help my mum, but what about the old people who don’t have children?”

Many people in the Donbass share his disdain for the new leadership in Kiev and hold a mistaken view that their resource-rich region subsidizes the rest of Ukraine. According to The Kiev Times, the Donbass region accounted for only 12 percent of Ukraine’s gross domestic product and consumed 21 percent of government subsidies in 2010. “I want Ukraine to stay together,” the taxi driver continued, “but the Donbass should be self-governing.”

On March 8, a crowd of about 2,000 people — waving the flags of the short-lived Donetsk Republic created by Lenin in 1918 — gathered near Lenin Square chanting, “Referendum! Federalism!” But the protesters in Donbass are even more divided than in Kiev and lack a discernible political direction. “I want this city to be part of Russia,” a man in his early 30s proclaims, speaking to anti-Maidan demonstrators. The next speaker emphasizes the need for greater autonomy, adding, “I don’t like Russia seizing Crimea.”

These tensions mirror the muddled regional identities in Ukraine. Observers see the Donbass as a Russian bastion that simply does not fit in Ukraine. But according to the country’s 2001 census, about 57 percent of Donbass residents identify as Ukrainians. Many Ukrainians resent claims by Russian politicians that Ukrainians are in fact Russians. Even its 38 percent who are ethnic Russians don’t have strong separatist feelings. As such, the much publicized east-west split in Ukraine is not a good indicator of political preferences.

All told, occupational differences matter more than regional and ethnic divisions in the current political crisis. Under ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s rule, small-business owners in eastern Ukraine were overrun by local mafias supported by Yanukovich’s allies. Corrupt state prosecutors used loopholes in the law to shut down those who refused to pay “protection” charges. Small businesses in the region are encouraged by the Maidan’s anti-corruption rhetoric.

But those who work in eastern Ukraine’s heavy industry see the crisis in a different light. They do not fully support Russia, but they also see the Maidan as out of touch with their needs. For example, Artyom Misyura, who runs a company that produces heavy machinery, says Russians have not placed a single order at his factory in the last four months. In addition, they have refused to pick up or pay for machines ordered before the protests began in November. Domestic orders dried out in February. A local steel company that buys machinery from his factory has been forced to halt production because it has not been able to access credit since the outbreak of political instability. As Kiev scrambles to regain control, there is a growing fear among businesses in the Donbass about the future of their manufacturing-based economy.

The power vacuum in the Donbass, economic divisions and the lack of real political leadership in Kiev has helped foster separatist sentiments in the region.

That regional divisions in Ukraine are not absolute is little consolation. Political confrontations and violence are on the rise in Donetsk. On March 9, an anti-Maidan rally in Lenin Square drew nearly 10,000 participants who waved Russian flags. The call for greater regional autonomy a day before was replaced by impassioned pleas for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s protection from what they said was the fascist government in Kiev. A mile down the road, about a hundred pro-Maidan demonstrators gathered at the city’s main cathedral to express support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The anti-Maidan protesters soon moved to the cathedral to challenge the Maidan demonstrators, whom they called fascists, whores and sellouts. The police made little effort to separate the two sides. A young man standing by my side was punched in the face as he pulled a Ukrainian blue and yellow flag from his backpack.

The escalation of violence in this industrial region is a reflection of Ukraine’s fragile borders, both physical and cultural. There are reports that some anti-Maidan protesters in Donetsk were shipped in from Russia. Photographs of Russian neo-Nazi activists at anti-Maidan rallies in eastern Ukraine are circulating on the Internet.

Donbass leaders loyal to the new government in Kiev are convinced that the main authors of unrest are outside Ukraine. Soviet-era xenophobic stereotypes confound this tension. The Ukrainian language is often associated with nationalist organizations that fought the Soviet army in western Ukraine in the 1940s and early ’50s. There is a widespread fear of the West. Pro-Russian demonstrators compare the EU to Nazi Germany, arguing that Brussels wants to turn Russians and Ukrainians into slaves. They call for close political and economic ties with Russia, invoking their shared Slavic heritage. The Russian media, which are more influential in the area than Ukrainian television, portray the new rulers in Kiev as fascists who are hell-bent on banning the Russian language and oppressing Russian speakers in Ukraine.

Power vacuum

The current power vacuum in the Donbass is exacerbating tensions. Despite growth in the number of anti-Maidan protesters, an effective political leader has yet to emerge. Pavel Gubarev, a secessionist historian who is linked to the neo-Nazi group Russian National Unity, enjoys some popularity. But he remains in prison on charges of staging a coup and undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity after declaring himself regional governor on March 3.

Yulia Tymoshenko’s return to politics has turned many against the Maidan. In 2011 Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and a key opponent of Yanukovich, was sentenced to seven years in prison for embezzlement and abuse of power. Although the case against her was driven by political considerations, she is widely seen as a corrupt oligarch whose government from 2007 to 2010 exacerbated the country’s economic problems. “Change the system, not the ass that gets to sit on the golden toilet,” protest placards read after her release from prison last month. There is a growing fear that Tymoshenko’s comeback heralds the return of oligarchs to power in Kiev.

The new leaders in Kiev have done very little to allay these fears. On March 2, Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov appointed steel tycoon Serhiy Taruta as a governor of Donetsk, a post held by Yanukovich from 1997 to 2002. But protesters do not recognize him as a legitimate leader and are demanding to elect their own governor. Head of the Udar party and former heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko visited Donetsk a week later but refrained from addressing angry crowds. In a televised appeal on March 18, Ukraine’s acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk sought to reassure the country’s Russian speakers that their rights will be protected under his caretaker administration. But in the absence of a functioning police force, the government seems unable to control militias in makeshift uniforms that patrol central Kiev. Maidan protesters continue to wave black and red flags that are seen as anti-Russian fascist symbols in the east and south. This makes Yatsenyuk’s attempts to assuage Russian speakers’ fears feel like empty rhetoric.

It is still not certain whether Russia’s annexation of territory will expand to eastern Ukraine. But it is clear that the power vacuum in the Donbass, economic divisions and the lack of real political leadership in Kiev has helped foster separatist sentiments in the region.

Zbigniew Wojnowski is an assistant professor of history at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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