Donbas Locals are Victims of New Frozen Conflict

The images of the election on November 2 in pro-Russian controlled regions of the Donbas are as shocking as they should be unsurprising to anyone who has been following the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Long lines of locals weaved in and out of polling stations in Donetsk and other rebel-controlled cities and towns. Separatists handed out discounted potatoes and other staples outside the polling stations. A closer look at the participants revealed that most of them were the old and enfeebled; in other words, those who lacked the means or money to leave. Men with machine guns strapped around their chests staffed the ballot boxes. There were no voter lists. Election observers were limited to the representatives of extremist European political parties such as Hungary’s far-right Jobbik and the Stalinist Communist Party of Greece.

Ukraine and its Western supporters have acted indignantly, as if Moscow’s actions were unexpected. In reality, there was never any indication that Moscow intended to allow the Donbas to devolve into anything other than a frozen conflict. Neither separatist leaders nor their patrons in Moscow have ever inspired any hope that they would suddenly commit a political 180, complying with Ukrainian election law, or any other internationally-accepted standard. The Minsk Protocol, which was signed in the Belarusian capital in September, was designed to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine and provide a vague roadmap to an uneasy peace. Ostensibly, the agreement in Minsk called for both parties to the conflict to withdraw heavy weaponry from a loosely defined cease fire zone and provide autonomy in the rebel-controlled territory in compliance with Ukrainian law.

Both parties to the conflict have largely failed to withdraw heavy weapons and fighters from the cease fire zone. Indiscriminate shelling continues to hit civilian areas, killing civilians. According to the United Nations, approximately 400 people have died since the cease fire declaration.  Both Ukraine and Russian-backed militants point fingers at one another for civilian deaths and largely unabated fighting along many areas of the front line.

Ukraine’s loss of sovereignty in the face of Russian aggression and the inability of the West and international community to respond appropriately to this threat are important. As the anniversary of the start of Maidan movement in Ukraine draws near, few could have even imagined the tragic turn of events that have occurred at this time last year. The farcical elections in the Donbas should certainly have been met with consequences and international condemnation for Russia.  It goes without saying that such a blatantly de-stabilizing step as giving their proxies a go-ahead to hold elections, and then publicly endorse them, is a purposeful escalation of the conflict.

But as the photos of the old and underprivileged flanked by armed men show, the true victims of the conflict in eastern Ukraine are the current and former inhabitants of the Donbas, caught in the vice of great power interests and politics. Most of the young, educated, and able have left the Donbas, travelling to other regions of Ukraine or to neighboring Russia. Ukrainian refugees in Russia were often reported to have been given inadequate temporary housing, or sent to the remote corners of the Russian Federation. Internally displaced persons within Ukraine struggle to find housing, government support, or exercise their legal rights. Locals often view them with suspicion, believing that Donbas’ human suffering is largely self-inflicted.

Those remaining in the region suffer under the whim and erratic rule of pro-Russian militant units, many of them largely staffed by foreigners who care little for locals’ livelihood. Shelling, general lawlessness, and irregular access to basic utilities make living dangerous. What were once relatively competitive elections in Ukraine with a wide range of political choices has been replaced by farcical competition between self-endorsing rebel leaders. The days of any semblance of democracy in the Donbas are over. Instead, the Donbas is becoming a wasteland. Caught between forces much greater than itself, Donbas is devolving into another Abkhazia or Transnistria, a forgotten de-industrialized mark on the map of the world, devoid of a future. The elections of November 2 are merely the next tragic step in the devolution of the region to a dying frozen conflict zone.

Chris Dunnett, Ukraine Crisis Media Center