May 13, 2018 – Fort Russ News –
By Eduard Popov, translated by Jafe Arnold –
Four years ago, on May 11th, 2014, the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics held referenda which posed the straightforward question: “Do you support the Act of Independence of the the DPR and LPR?” In the Donetsk region, with a turnout of 74.87%, 89.7% of voters responded positively, while 10.19% voted against self-determination, and .74% of votes were invalid. In the Lugansk region, independence was supported by 96.2% of voters and opposed by 3.8% with a turnout of 81%. These referenda were held amidst a sluggishly progressing war that had already claimed lives on both sides.
The biggest number of victims was in Odessa, where the House of Trade Unions was set alight by Maidan supporters and, according to local experts, 397 people were killed (either burned alive, killed while trying to escape, or missing). According to the Ukrainian opposition, several thousand people were arrested and at least dozens were killed for participating in the anti-fascist resistance in Ukraine’s regions. The death toll among civilians also began to rise in Donbass, largely at the hand of artillery fire and snipers. However, the most severe losses among the civilian population of Donbass were yet to come, and would enter the thousands.
The Donbass republics were not only defending themselves. They became the center of gravity for all anti-fascist forces in the former Ukraine. The most passionary-filled and courageous members of the former Ukrainian opposition went to Donbass, while others fled to Moscow and busied themselves with their own ‘war’ in the Garden Ring.
What has Donbass achieved over the last four years of independence, and what remains unrealized?
The main achievement is obviously that the Donbass republics have successfully defended themselves. In terms of territory, the DPR and LPR have held on to around a third, or at most 40% of the former Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine. The population of both republics is approximately 2,800,000; meanwhile, according to official data, Ukraine’s population is 42 million people, but independent experts say that Ukraine has declined to no more than 32,000,00 (other analyses have yielded between 35 and 28 million). According to the most minimal calculations, the Ukrainian population 10 times exceeds that of Donbass. Nevertheless, big Ukraine with its “best army in Europe except for NATO” (Poroshenko’s words) failed to overwhelm the militias and then armies of the DPR and LPR. Moreover, the People’s Republics’ armies have destroyed the Ukrainian Armed Forces and nationalist battalions at every turn. And every time, Ukraine begs for a truce (the first Minsk Agreements and then the Minsk Agreements 2.0 were concluded after the Ukrainian side’s persistent begging).
In defending their independence, the Donbass republics have established a foothold for the liberation of the rest of Novorossiya and the regions of Malorossiya (Ukraine). A significant portion of the population of current Ukraine’s regions supports the People’s Republics of Donbass, and in some regions this support is overwhelmingly predominant. Even the most “Anti-Donbass” regions of Ukraine, such as nationalist Galicia, might join Donbass’ liberation crusade if such helps liquidate the Kiev regime.
Another major result of these four years since the referenda has been the construction of state institutions in the republics of Donbass. In 2015, the DPR and LPR were “statelets”, whereas now state mechanisms work in all spheres of life and society. Pensioners receive pensions; families with young children receive social benefits; secondary, special, and higher education systems are working, as well as communal services ensuring functioning infrastructure in cities.
The Donbass republics have given birth to various parties and social movements, have held elections with international observers, and have been recognized de-jure (by the Republic of South Ossetia) and de-facto by many others. By order of the President of Russia, some DPR and LPR documents are now recognized in the Russian Federation, such as birth certificates, drivers licenses, secondary education certificates, etc. The people whom Ukraine abandoned can now use DPR and LPR documents in Russia. A very important, albeit subtle process of uniforming certificates between the DPR, LPR, and Russia is underway. Children in the Donbass republics’ schools are using textbooks from Russia, and graduates are entering Russian universities on preferential terms. Industrial enterprises’ certificates have been brought in line with Russian standards. Teachers and museum workers from the DPR and LPR participate in joint events with colleagues in Russia, and the People’s Republics’ athletes participate in Russian and regional competitions.
In 2014, Donbass became part of Russia’s spiritual space. Today it is increasingly part of Russia’s social space.
Unfortunately, much remains to be accomplished. The Donbass republics are “people’s” only in name, as the Ukrainian administrative element is strong. The task of “purging” the administrative apparatus and DPR and LPR bureaucracies of Ukrainian oligarch lobbies and SBU agents is evermore pressing. This is to a large extent behind the brakes in democratic development. But there is also a much deeper reason: the people of Donbass passed through the school of Ukrainian statehood, which could not but affect the quality and motives of their new administrative system.
The introduction of external management at enterprises belonging to Ukrainian oligarchs was not carried out in full (especially in the LPR), although in the six months since Igor Plotnitsky was removed as head of the LPR and Leonid Pasechnik was appointed, this process has accelerated dramatically. Positive trends are now even more obvious in the LPR than in the more prosperous DPR.
It is highly likely that the Donbass republics will be faced with serious tests in the present year, like the resumption of full-scale war with Ukraine, which has been actively armed with Western aid. The very existence of the DPR and LPR will be at stake. I wish the Donbass republics success in withstanding this war. I, like many likeminded in Russia, will not be an indifferent observer to this war.
Eduard Popov is a Rostov State University graduate with a PhD in history and philosophy. In 2008, he founded the Center for Ukrainian Studies of the Southern Federal University of Russia, and from 2009-2013, he was the founding head of the Black Sea-Caspian Center of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, an analytical institute of the Presidential Administration of Russia. In June 2014, Popov headed the establishment of the Representative Office of the Donetsk People’s Republic in Rostov-on-Don and actively participated in humanitarian aid efforts in Donbass. In addition to being Fort Russ’ guest analyst since June, 2016, Popov is currently the leading research fellow of the Institute of the Russian Abroad and the founding director of the Europe Center for Public and Information Cooperation.