People’s Republics: Summating the Donbass Socio-Political and Economic Experience – Part 1


April 27, 2017 – Fort Russ – 

By Eduard Popov – translated by Jafe Arnold – 

A protest in Donetsk in spring 2014. Signs from left to right read: “Fascism won’t pass”, “Donbass is with Russia!”, “The South-East is against fascists!”

We are proud to present Fort Russ guest analyst Eduard Popov’s recent article featured in the journal Post-Soviet States: 25 Years of Independent Development (in two volumes) published under the editorship of the famous expert on the South Caucasus and doctor of historical sciences, Alexander Krylov (Moscow) from the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences. We thank Dr. Krylov for so generously allowing us the opportunity to translate and publish this article by Popov, supplemented and updated specifically for the readers of Fort Russ. This article is based on the findings of expert and sociological surveys conducted by the author in the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics in 2015-2016 mainly among the military, political, and business elites of both republics, but also among trade union members. 

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Russian Spring: The Socio-Political Dynamics of the Donbass Independence Movement

The rise of the protest movement in Donbass (and other regions of historical Novorossiya) which resulted in the proclamation of the People’s Republics, was a reaction to the coup d’etat in Kiev and aggressive Russophobic policies. It is no accident that the first legislative step of the new Ukrainian authorities was abolishing the language law, ratified in 2003 by the Verkhovna Rada in line with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which effectively pushed the Russian language out of the educational and cultural-information space of Ukraine. However, the popular movement in Donbass at the end of winter and spring 2014 also had deeper motives. The proclamation of the people’s republics of Donbass was a logical reaction to the dismantling of Ukrainian statehood as it had been formed in the framework of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The new Ukrainian authorities violated the tacit social contract of loyalty to the existing state in exchange for a guaranteed minimum of cultural-linguistic rights for the regions of the “South-East” (historical Novorossiya). 

Immediately after the coup d’etat in Kiev in February 2014, citizens associations began to emerge which were disturbed by the actions of the armed forces of the Euromaidan. Yet in post-Soviet Donbass, unlike Crimea, there were no strong traditions of Russian or autonomist movements. One of the reasons for this was the centralized operations of the Party of Regions, which aimed to subordinate all parties and movements oriented towards representing the interests of the Russian-cultured half of Ukraine and restoring economic and humanitarian ties with Russia. In Donbass, the Party of Region’s most fully asserted itself as a force monopolizing the interests of Ukraine’s Russian regions (the “South-East”).

This played a decisive role in the future state construction of the republics of Donbass. The Party of Regions “trampled” independent social movements, in particular the sprouts of Russian and Donbass autonomist movements. The Donetsk Republic social movement and the regional branches of the Russian Bloc Party did not play a significant role in the political life of Donbass, and there were no significant political projects under Russian slogans. Only the Communist Party of Ukraine posed some kind of competition to the Party of Regions in the regions of Donbass.

The movement in support of independence for Donbass arose as a spur of the moment, a knee-jerk reaction to the neo-Nazi/oligarchic coup in Kiev and to a considerable extent on the basis of grassroots (local) cells of the Party of Regions and left opposition forces, such as the Communist Party of Ukraine and Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine.

It was by predominantly these forces that the referendum on independence was organized and prepared. In addition to them, social associations also played an active part in the independence movement’s inception. In particular, an enormous role was played, especially at the first stage, by the the organizations of “Afghans” (veterans of the fighting in Afghanistan in 1979-1988), who came to make up the core of militia units. In the Lugansk region, an important and at times decisive role was played by Cossack communities who possessed rich experience of self-organization and developed ties with the Don Cossacks in the neighboring Rostov region of the Russian Federation.

By the end of February and beginning of March 2014, Donbass’ social organizations were fighting over control of the municipalities, their opponents being the regional authorities. After the unsuccessful Kharkov Congress on February 22nd, 2014, at which the Party of Regions leaders of Kharkov and the Kharkov region, G. Kernes and M. Dobkin, essentially refused to oppose the Kiev putschists, the bureaucracies of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions were faced with the difficult choice of either submitting to the new, illegitimate Kiev government, or exposing themselves to the risk of repression alongside the regions’ population. They rather quickly made their choice and rushed to declare loyalty to the Kiev putschists. A convenient formula justifying this was found in the notion of preserving the unity of Ukraine under the condition that Kiev would expand the authority of the regions. At a forum on the development of local self-administration which was held in Lvov on March 27th, 2014, the Chairman of the Donetsk Regional Council, A. Shishatsky, outlined his idea of decentralizing government, according to which redistributing authority in favor of the regions was supposed to exclude Kiev’s economic and political diktat. On March 31st, 2014, the Donetsk Regional Council appealed to the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine with the request to take measures to stabilize the situation in the country by amending the Constitution to empower local self-government.[1] 

On April 17th, 2014, the Party of Regions held an extraordinary congress participated in by deputies of the Donetsk region’s local councils as well as 29 deputies from the Verkhovna Rada, which after the February 21st coup had lost its legitimacy. (Nevertheless, the Verkhovna Rada continued to operate until parliamentary elections were held on October 26th, 2014 literally at gunpoint). The Party of Regions’ leaders, B. Kolesnikov and N. Levchenko, announced that they alone represented the “South-East” in the capital. A resolution proposed at the congress contained demands for Kiev to grant fiscal autonomy to the eastern regions, provide state status for the Russian language, and grant full amnesty to all protesters. At the same time, the resolution called for all protesters occupying buildings in the eastern regions to lay down their arms. The latter demand was in fact the main one, yet the Party of Regions’ leaders admitted that they could not guarantee that Kiev would fulfill the points laid out on autonomy and the Russian language’s status.

Protesters saw in these actions of the Party of Regions an attempt to deceive the protest movement against the coup.[2] Characteristically enough, similar proposals for searching for compromise with the social movement of Donbass had been voiced by representatives of the new Kiev authorities. The governor of the Donetsk region appointed by Kiev, Sergey Taruta, also declared the need to hold a nationwide referendum on the status of the Russian language and decentralizing authority. As subsequent events showed, the Party of Regions’ statements and actions turned out to be a smokescreen, as amendments expanding regions’ rights were not entered into Ukraine’s Constitution or legal practice. And the Russian language was gradually pushed out of the socio-political and cultural-educational life of Ukraine. 

The declarations and actions of the regional authorities of the Donetsk and Lugansk Regional Councils essentially legitimized the Kiev putschist government. The Party of Regions, having emerged as a political instrument of the Donetsk region’s financial-industrial elite, transformed into a party claiming to represent the entire South-East’s interests. The Party of Regions’ participation in the Verkhovna Rada after the coup d’etat, its representatives (M. Dobkin and O. Tsarev) running in the illegitimate presidential elections in spring 2014, and the activities of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions’ regional councils that legitimized the new authorities, demonstrated that the Party of Regions had mutated into one of the parties of the Ukrainian Euromaidan. Its main function thus became providing a veneer of legitimacy to the illegal government of the Kiev putschists for the South-East.  

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Donbass thus entered the first stage of its state-political development deprived of its own political class. In the first phase, the state apparatus of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions (the regional administrations and leading personnel of the Party of Regions’ regional organizations) declared loyalty to the forces that had launched the coup d’etat in Kiev. The vast majority of the old economic, political, and administrative elites of the Donbass region (the Donetsk and Lugansk regions) thus supported the new regime in Kiev and left the territory of the soon-to-be republics. The “Russian Spring” in Donbass can thus be sociologically characterized by the phrase “people without an elite.” Alternatively, in the figurative expression of a veteran of the events in Lugansk, this was a slave revolt. The split between supporters of the new government in Kiev and the Russian movement fell along socio-proprietary lines. 

Continued in Part 2



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