in Swiss newspaper Le Temps, June 24, 2015
Translated from French by Tom Winter
This report has appeared in various Russian language outlets. Your Fort Russ staff has chased down the French language original.
On the Ukrainian front, blockades and corruption stir hatred.
The proliferation of checkpoints to filter the passage of people and goods to the separatist “republics” angers residents and tarnishes the image of Kiev. Over the period of six days, “Le Temps” takes you along the frontline that divides Ukraine to meet the actors and victims of this crisis.
Under a blazing sun, a young woman, in tears, walks up along the column of cars blocked by the Ukrainian army. The first hospital is thirty kilometers. But with the war and the security checkpoints, who knows how long it will take to reach it. Near the end of her pregnancy, she asked a favor: Could she leave the “rapid” line (reserved for the sick and families with children) to go first? Dry refusal.
– “And if I give birth here?”
The soldier with a machine gun pointed to an ambulance.
– “And if I die?”
– “No dying here. People die on the other side.” The other side, where she comes from, is the territory managed by pro-Russian separatists.
On the Artemisk-Gorlovka road, going from Ukrainian government control to the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR, self-proclaimed), the waiting at checkpoints can last for hours, each way. We are in a region where the boundary is the entire front line that splits the country in two. An area where arbitrariness sets in, where humiliations are frequent, where corruption and trafficking flourish.
In eastern Ukraine, it’s officially the the time of armistice. But the cease-fire is violated daily. Since May, the exchange of fire is frequent, weapons are massed along a line taken by the Minsk agreements, raising fears of a new outbreak of violence this summer. Kiev accuses Russia and the separatist rebel territories of preparing a “total war.” The separatists say they’re responding to the provocations of Ukrainian fighters.
Moscow denounces the “bad faith” of Kiev and its Western allies. Europe and the United States point the finger at Russia, pouring weapons and fighters into Ukraine. The climate is oneupmanship.
From Gorlivka to Mariupol, through the western suburbs of Donetsk, troops are digging trenches across the newly plowed fields. Construction materials — logs, cement, rails, concrete anti-tank blocks — are piled alongside backhoes that are tracing the furrow of a Donbass Maginot Line. It could stretch over 500 kilometers. In places, there are bunkers of stacked up sandbags. And both sides mine the land around the strategic axes.
In this conflict, which has claimed more than 6,400 dead, artillery plays a central role. But soon, this could become a war of trenches that could settle in the margins of Europe, a century after World War II.
In the Ukrainian official language, they call it the anti-terrorist operation zone or ATO. “This is not a civil war or a war against Russian speakers as stated by the Russian propaganda, but a police action against the terrorists,” said Colonel Valentyn Fedichev. Because of this combat Kiev decided late last year to stop the payments of pensions and freeze the banking system of the separatist side, as well as to restrict trade, to ensure that this money is not diverted to the leaders of the rebellion. Moscow and the separatists call it economic blockade, pure and simple.
These are the barriers that feed corruption and smuggling. Sergei, a businessman, tells us about a truck carrying five tons of chicken at a Ukrainian check point. After negotiating, three soldiers on duty agree to collect three hryvnias for every kilo of chicken, or a total of 45 thousand hryvnas (about 2250 francs).
“At first it was the battalions of volunteers who were looting, they were not very disciplined. Now, we do not really know who they are, says this former Marinka resident who fled to Donetsk afterhis house was destroyed. He asks to remain anonymous. “The people are furious. We are held hostage. The only way to stop this corruption is to drive the Kiev government that works like that of Yanukovych.”
Valentyn Fedichev does not deny the problem. “The police are tracking down the rotten elements and punishing those guilty of infractions. But the corruption is linked to a few individuals, it is far from the rule in the army, nor is it systemic.” Two officers were arrested.
A Semenivka, less than ten kilometers from the front line, not far from Avdiivka, there is Tania, a young pensioner, selling strawberries at the roadside. “We live on 23 hryvnias per day. It’s nothing. For bread and butter, I spend half the money,” she explains. Her retirement monthly is 45,000 hryvnas (about 2250 francs). But now, with the “toll”, it costs 100 hryvnias in transportation costs to get it. “How do they expect us to go? They weren’t asking for anything, everything was fine. But since the Ukrainian army arrived, we have problems.”
Oleksander Kikhtenko, Governor of Donetsk Oblast, isn’t far from agreeing with her. “The problems of delivering food, medicines, and the payment of pensions are working against Ukraine,” he explains. The retired general appointed last summer by president Petro Poroshenko explains that “the more one multiplies the checkpoints, the more one makes them leakproof, the greater the risk of corruption. A blockade is impossible, or then may as well throw your cards on the table and leave the territories. If it were up to me, I would abandon the pass system.”
Oleksander Kikhtenko estimated that 20% of people in the separatist regions side with Ukraine. “We can not let them go.” Economically, the eastern regions under government control could not survive without the ties that bind them to the separatist Donbass, mainly because of energy supply. “Russia knew very well how to use these arguments in its favor against us.”
A few days after this interview, the governor was sacked because of positions deemed too soft against rebels.* His successor, Pavel Zhebirvsky, appeals for a law to establish a complete economic blockade. This is what what the government seems to be resolving, determined to suffocate the “terrorists.”
At the check point Horlivka, soldiers check the number of cigarettes and the amounts of money (10,000 hryvnias per person maximum).
Addressing us foreigners, they add: “Tell the truth, there are Russians fighting on the other side. We need more sanctions against Putin. “
I have to wonder if this is one of Saakashvili’s purges — tr