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Democracy in Donetsk

Working-class city in Ukraine’s east votes for autonomy; gives the finger to free trade

by Chris Scott

Voting in Donetsk. Photo: Chris Scott
Voting in Donetsk. Photo: Chris Scott
Independence referendum in Donetsk. Photo: Chris Scott
Independence referendum in Donetsk. Photo: Chris Scott
Fishing in Donetsk. Photo: Chris Scott
Fishing in Donetsk. Photo: Chris Scott
DONETSK, Ukraine–The officers of the Donetsk People’s Republic don’t know what to do with me.
We stand in the paved courtyard of a primary school across from my budget hotel, the morning sun beating down on us as I proffer my passport and try to convince the two beefy volunteers guarding the entrance to the polling station here that I am a journalist.
It is Sunday, May 11, a decisive day when citizens of a seven-million strong population block in eastern Ukraine will vote on whether to secede in a pair of referenda that the Kiev government has condemned categorically and is threatening to disrupt.
I come expecting to find a warzone, but in this leafy, riverside city of a million the mood is festive. A passenger in a honking car sails past us brandishing the Russian flag. Inside the polling station someone has rigged a loudspeaker, which is pumping a track of jolly Soviet marching songs into the street. As we stand in the courtyard, a steady stream of voters, arriving in pairs or family units, some stopping to make small talk with the guards, file past us into the building.
The officers confronting me are unarmed, and not unfriendly, but they have been ordered to be on the look-out for “provocation”, and as an undocumented freelancer it is hard for me to prove my status. It takes the intervention of a supervisor for me to gain admittance–after my bag is searched–into the polling station. Once inside, I am immediately struck by the crowd, almost the crush, of citizens. From young parents to octogenarians, they are lining up to present their passports and have their names struck off the voting lists by bespectacled matrons, and then to mark their ballots behind a curtain.
The ballot, which I am allowed to photograph, is written in both Russian and Ukrainian. It reads, “Do you support the act regarding the state autonomy of the Donetsk People’s Republic?”. Because Donetsk, like the neighbouring region of Lugansk, which is holding a parallel referendum, is majority Russian-speaking, there is an understanding that this poll may be a precursor to a later vote about joining Russia.
At one polling station I will visit later, security guards are sporting the orange and black ribbons associated with Russian nationalism, and it is in fact questionable to what degree those who control this process are impartial as to the outcome. But there is no dismissing the groundswell of public support the vote has generated, or the significance that those who participate attach to the process. Throughout the morning, at the three polling stations I inspect randomly I will discover packed halls and witness similar iconic scenes: a pensioner in a three-piece suit walking stiffly to the ballot box. A younger man arriving with a bouquet of flowers. A babushka in a headscarf crossing herself after voting.
Two Solitudes
I came to Donetsk via a sixteen-hour ride on a near-empty train from Odessa, on the Black Sea coast, flitting past farms and landscapes reminiscent of the Canadian prairies. Getting off at the regional station I hobnobbed with a pair of twin sisters from central Ukraine who study medicine at the university here. “Our parents didn’t want us to come back here,” one of them confided.
I can understand the sentiment. By early May, as eastern Ukraine spirals into confrontation, there have been clashes involving civilian casualties, between supporters and opponents of the Kiev government that has succeeded ousted president Yanukovich. Most prominently, forty-six unarmed anti-government demonstrators burned to death in an attack on a building In Odessa on May 2, while Ukrainian troops shot and killed several activists at a march in Mariupol, situated in Donetsk oblast, a week later. In Donetsk proper, armed activists with the Donetsk People’s Republic–those organizing the referendum–have seized and barricaded themselves inside a public building.
To Donetsk residents this violence, which they blame on a government of Ukrainian nationalists, is new and traumatic.
“I was born here,” exclaims one woman pensioner, part of a troika of friends composed of a Greek, a Russian and a Ukrainian, that I run into outside a polling station. It seems her words cannot spill out fast enough. “I was born here. “But my father and mother were Russian, because when they were founding the Donbas [the Donetsk region] and the mines and factories, they sent them here. I’ve lived all my 70 years here. How can I not love this country? I speak Ukrainian, and Russian. And now they want to hang me [..] because western Ukraine wants something different! We lived in peace and quiet, and now this junta has seized power in Kiev and wants to change course”.
“I’m a pure-blooded Ukrainian,” pursues her companion. “The three of us belong to different nationalities, but we get along”.
Though it is a working-class centre–flatbed coal trains snake through its downtown–Donetsk has a multinational flair, and tolerance is part of its identity. In repeated interviews the voters I meet excoriate the Kiev government for its violence and unilateralism.
“The more incidents occur like the recent ones [e.g. in Odessa and Mariupol], the less I want to live in the same country with this sort of people,” declares a man who appears to be in his thirties, and says he works for the city administration. “They [the Kiev government] appointed themselves. Why should a majority of free folks follow a minority that is occupying Kiev?” He adds: “When fanatics start punishing us for having a different opinion, this frightens me.”
Stay or go?
Many journalists have portrayed the Ukraine crisis as an atavistic contest of nationalities, but it seems clear there are policy decisions at stake whose consequences will be felt differently in different parts of the country. Western Ukraine, in particular, is more dependent on agriculture and tourism, while the east is more industrial. The Maidan protest movement, responsible for overthrowing Yanukovich and orienting Ukraine towards trade with the European Union, is less popular in the east.
So does this mean that the split between Kiev and its eastern region is irreparable? It occurs to me that some easterners, like the pensioner who says she “loves” the Ukraine, harbor divided feelings and/or are hedging their bets. “It’s not about independence,” that male civil servant replies when I ask him to explain his vote.
“We’re also citizens of Ukraine. I was born in Donetsk. But it so happens I’m Russian. […] In general I would like to live in a united Ukraine. But for that to happen there needs to be a way for us to defend our opinion. This [the referendum] is only about defending our opinion. It’s because in Ukraine people have come to power that we don’t accept.”
So what happens next?
“[I hope] people come to their senses,” he says.
Playground politics
It’s noon hour, and I find myself in a playground outside an apartment block near a polling station where I am referred to Alexandra Deyshinka with the assuring phrase: “she’s the clever one.” I find a mother accompanying a small girl with a sandpail who turns out to be a professor at the university. Alexandra has lots to say, and is indignant:
“The problem starts in Kiev. They should ask the country. Why didn’t they hold a Ukraine-wide referendum to ask people whether they want an association [i.e. a free trade accord with the E.U.] or a customs union [with Russia]? Why did they decide for everyone that we need an association? We don’t want an association! Our region is linked, its industry is linked with the Russian Federation. We have 80,000 Russian businesses here. Are they supposed to close now? That’ll mean people out of work. It’s a nightmare!”
She continues: “Maidan’s responsible for what’s happening in the east. The east kept quiet for a long time. In the beginning people weren’t asking for separation; they wanted federalism inside the Ukraine. Why didn’t Kiev listen?!”
Alexandra goes on to describe poor living conditions among some countries of the European Union. I expected to chat for five minutes, but we end up talking more than twenty, Alexandra’s voice vibrating with emotion, as her daughter raises her sand shovel, wails and tries to catch her mother’s attention.
“They [the government] acted in such a way that they’ve lost the Crimea, and lost Donbas, and Lugansk, and they refuse to see this. It’s a chain reaction! [Next it’ll be] Dnipopetrovsk. And Kharkiv. And Odessa. And it’s their own fault. They’re the ones that tore the country apart, not us.”
Counting the Ballots
I spend the afternoon and part of that evening interviewing people at random in different parts of the city. Based on this sampling, I estimate that about two thirds of Donetsk’s adult population has participated in the referendum, and that almost all of these voted yes. Two teenage girls, too young to vote, whom I bump into on Lenin Square are almost the only Donetskites to voice their opposition to the process to me. Both plan to leave the region to study. I ask them why they wouldn’t vote even if they could. “Because they won’t recognize the results,” one of the girls answers. One woman is still struggling to decide whether to vote an hour or two before the poll closes, while two eighteen year-old guys, still friends happily, indicate that one of them has just voted no, while the other has voted yes. But these are the exceptions.
At suppertime the day after the referendum I take a walk through one of the wide, shady parks on the edge of town. At a reservoir formed as a by-product of a mining operation youth in boxer shorts are jumping off a dock. Older men stand under a streetlamp fishing, while in an all-but-abandoned amusement park a radio announces that Russia is threatening to cut off the gas supply to the Ukraine.
Earlier in the day the authorities of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) reported that there has been a 89% vote for autonomy in the region, with a 75% voter turn-out. (Authorities in Lugansk announced similar results). DPR officials have already asked the Russian Federation to consider annexation. Later that night outside the DPR’s fortified headquarters there will be fireworks.
Based on what I have seen and heard in Donetsk I have no reason to doubt these official figures. But some qualifications seem inevitable.
First, Ukraine is facing a crisis of legitimacy insofar as both the Kiev government and the Donetsk People’s Republic are the outcome of armed protest movements that have overthrown a constitutional order. Both enjoy wide- though not unanimous- support locally, but are called illegitimate in the other part of the country. In this context, a poll- and this applies to both the referenda in the east and the upcoming Ukrainian presidential election on May 25- that is organized by one locally powerful party will automatically be denounced as coercive and non-indicative by its opponent.
Next, it is clear that Donetsk residents harbored a range interpretations regarding the immediate consequences of a “yes” vote in the referendum. By petitioning Russia to consider annexation straightaway instead of putting this issue to a second plebiscite,officials with the DRP have broken their pledge to the population and exposed themselves to charges that they are advancing partisan interests rather than facilitating the general will
Last, there is a substantial block of alienated voters in the east who under some circumstances would prefer to stay part of Ukraine. However, the Kiev government, confident of western backing has decided to demand their loyalty rather than try to earn it. Unilateral action, military threats and extremist language ( calling opponents “terrorists”) have characterized Kiev’s policy toward the east. As testimony in this piece shows, all this has only added fuel to the flames. If Ukraine is to stay united, Kiev’s leaders will need to show they can listen to and accommodate eastern interests- including in terms of foreign trade policy. Otherwise conflict will fester, and a divorce–mutually agreed or otherwise–will only be a matter of time.


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dru (Dru Oja Jay)
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Writer, organizer, Media Co-op co-founder. Co-author of Paved with Good Intentions and Offsetting Resistance.

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