Modernisation or burnt ground, what awaits Donetsk Oblast

Donetsk oblast, until recently, has been a region that developed rapidly – a good investment climate, a sport capital, socially responsible business and resonant cultural events – this is what the land was associated with in the thoughts of Ukrainians. Numerous state and nongovernment programs were planned for the following years (infrastructure projects, development of civil society, scheduled sporting competitions on a continental scale). However life has added its correctives. Already the region has decided against a number of projects. At the moment they are not talking about the development of Donetsk oblast, but simply the retention of its livelihood and at least some economical attractiveness. 

The arson the ice palace, the closure of “Donbas Arsena,” the stagnation of social projects, the attack on the cultural fund “Isolation,” the scaring of miners, the outflow of business from the region are all realities that the citizens of Donetsk were forced to face in the recent months.

The current President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko was very precise in noting the following in his first speech as President: “Many of you have already felt the “virtues” of the terrorist government. Besides lotting and humiliating peaceful civilians, they led the already crisis economy to the brink of total catastrophe. Today we need a legitimate dialogue partner. We will not speak to bandits. And the acting local council members do not represent anyone anymore. And we are ready to announce early local elections in Donbas.”

The local elite is scared of lustration

The primary reason for the current problems in the region lies in its governor, and therefore this government “reboot” is the primary step to change the region itself. The government in the oblast belongs to a certain number of people, and this situation has been going on for many decades, therefore the characteristic reaction of the local elites to the events in Kyiv is understandable. For them, lustration will not bring about anything positive.

The head of the Donetsk Voter Committee of Ukraine Sergiy Tkachenko told Radio Svoboda that the local elections announced by Poroshenko will not make the regional government happy, but overall, if the figures do change, the main influence triggers might remain in the previous hands.

According to the VCU experts, in order to build civil society, the cooperation of the people with the government and business, as well as their social activity, is necessary. As to the first two factors, in the recent years this connection has deepened thanks to the efforts of civil activists in the region. The dynamics of the recent years in the region has shown that both the government and socially responsible business in the region need a civil society with its own initiatives. Such a “breakthrough” in the Ukrainian’s consciousness is promising, at least, it was before the beginning of “the Russian Spring.”

The head of the Donetsk Voter Committee of Ukraine Sergiy Tkachenko shared his thoughts as to how the recent events would influence the speed and quality of the development of civil society with Radio Svoboda. “Donetsk will never be the same as it was, or as it could have been if not for the crisis in the East of Ukraine,” says he. “As to the factors that make the process of the development of civil society in Donbas unique: a huge social layer has emerged that may be potentially be actively engaged in the process. In some measure the speed-up of emergence of civil activists happened. While before we spent a lot of time on this, now, in extreme conditions, a huge number of people has begun to show their civil position, participate in meetings, donate, organise processes with their own efforts etc.”

The activists are gone

According to Sergiy Tkachenko, such potential has never been shown before and the wide masses usually remained passive in political or social issues. Meanwhile, according to the expert, there is another, negative, side to what is happening in the region now.

“The bad thing is that the majority of the people, of this layer which would be able to move the further development of civil society, has left, fearing for the lives of their nearest and dearest and, on principle, it is not without grounds. Again, the upside is that the people that are mistaken or are simply taking a different stance can be talked to, and dialogue can be sought. But it is practically impossible to hold a dialogue with those who have taken up arms and who have blood on their hands, and this makes their future in Donbas impossible,” emphasises the VCU representative.

At the moment a significant problem remains in the establishment of constructive dialogue inside the region itself for the sake of further development plans. As currently, because of the crisis, the economy is suffering in Donbas as well.

According to the head of the Donetsk Oblast State Administration Sergiy Taruta, at least half of industrial facilities in the oblast are suspending their production, and in case the crisis deepens and the region turns into a “grey area,” the industry of the land will die. First and foremost, this regards the coal industry. Meanwhile it has interesting perspectives in ideal conditions.

Head of the Independent Miner Trade Union of Donbas Mykola Volynko told Radio Svoboda what is necessary for the rehabilitation of the coal industry. “We need a good program and a good leadership for the coal industry, or maybe the entire Ministry. The modernisation of mines is one thing, but we need a program like in China, for example, which began transforming coal into gas, into fuel. We still have gas-methane. We only need political will for the program.”

Grey Area

Mykola Volynenko claims that Ukraine has a scientific base and economical developments in order to begin such reform in the industry. According to him, this will lead to a number of perspectives for the industry.

“When this program is realised, the depressive cities will flourish, as not only coal will be extracted there. It is the development of mines, new thermal stations, new jobs. If we start transforming coal into gas, into fuel, the energy dependence on Russia will fall away. With such a program, we have to face the people, so that they understand that the ‘PRD’ is a ‘grey area,’ and Ukraine has this to offer,” emphasises Volynko.

Meanwhile, according to the leader of the trade union, up until now nothing akin to this worked in Donbas because of corruption schemes built on the purchase of foreign gas. Therefore with the latest changes in society, the hope for changes in the leadership has also emerged. As in the current situation, they cannot speak of the efficiency of the coal mining industry.

Cultural Hunger

The same two opposite ways for development remain in the cultural sphere as well, meanwhile it is considered that no social or economical changes can happen without changes in the citizens’ spiritual world. This is a process of land-bound influence, as any cultural breakthrough changes the lives of people around. In the recent years, the citizens of the region gained access to world opera premieres (they staged “The Flying Dutchman” in Donetsk), ballet stars (the annual festival “Stars of World Ballet”), musical and cinema festivals and even modern art. With the opening of the Platform for cultural initiatives “Isolation,” Donetsk had changed, as the main goal of this fund is to provoke changes in the world and the people all around.

Fund worker Olesia Bolot spoke about the possible and real perspectives of “new” cultural life to Radio Svoboda. “If the ‘People’s Republic of Donetsk’ is here, I doubt that we will be able to work and do here as we have before,” she notes. “On the other hand, if we live in united Ukraine, we will have to spend a long time undergoing this rehabilitation period in Donetsk and the region, as many people have left and it is not certain they will want to return. The people that did something, that improved and developed the region, have left. The mission of our fund is the overall transformation through art, through culture. If we look at examples from history, then we frequently see some stagnation, then a great upheaval, but everything depends on the people. Unfortunately, many people we have done what we have done for have left.”

The fund “Isolation” itself is a nonprofit organisation, therefore they will probably be unable to continue their activities in the “grey area.” However they do not exclude that after putting order in Donetsk there might be a rise in grant-based projects. “Interesting cultural initiatives will be born, attention will increase instead. Possibly even the number of grants which are given to organisations working in the region in order to, as quickly as possible, in great strides, catch up with what we have once lost,” notes Olesia Bolot.

Within almost four years of the fund’s existence it change the quality of the culture of the region, within a short period of time the citizens of Donetsk received access to a large-scale cultural platform created on the basis of charity. Such initiatives have already been started in smaller towns of the oblast, therefore quality changes in cultural life could be expected not only in Donetsk itself. However in the current conditions, with any ending to the current conflict, Donetsk oblast will be thrown several years into the past, but at the moment there is a choice presented to the citizens and local politicians – which of the possible scenarios of regional development is more acceptable to them.

Source: Radio Svoboda

Translated by Mariya Shcherbinina

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