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Even in just a few days, any visitor will realise that obvious facts on the ground in the so-called separatist areas blatantly contradict several basic assumptions:
At least in the capital cities of Donets and Lugansk, normal everyday life prevails, there is no war or emergency situation evident. You have to look closely and ask locals to find signs of a war. At the moment, Paris is definitely more militarised. On the other hand the economic difficulties, the social consequences of the uncertain situation and the lack of investment are quite obvious.
Concerning politics and culture, there is a kind of re-sovietisation, even though the social foundations and causes are completely different from the Soviet past. Two elements seem to be central for the identity in the People’s Republics:
One is the central role of the coal and steel workers, which leads to an for Westerners unimaginable “prolet-kult”, even at ceremonies involving state leaders that we witnessed. There has never been a bourgeois elite in that area, and the oligarchs who emerged in recent decades absconded when the civil war started. These proto-states emerged from a popular revolt and had to produce a new leadership. Especially in Lugansk, where the coal and steel industry is even more dominant, the union is de facto the government in power. You could call Lugansk a trade-union republic. Donetsk had more mechanical engineering and is more metropolitan.
The other element is the victory over German fascism. This region in particular sacrificed many lives in that struggle. And since present-day Ukrainian nationalism holds up Nazi traditions, Bandera etc., it met violent opposition in this region. It is not a coincidence that the numerous Soviet monuments here are untouched and are still honoured. Statues of Lenin are everywhere.
May 9th certainly is very important in the Russian Federation as well, but in the Donbass region it is the occasion for a great mobilisation from the grassroots, even greater than May 1st or the founding days of the People’s Republics. Three times within less than two weeks, the masses take to the streets. The authorities are organising events and help mobilising people, and yet the voluntary spirit of the participants is very obvious. In this respect, we can still speak of a popular revolt, even concerning the military conflict of 2014 and the years since then. Russia may have supported the resistance, but it was the people who resisted.
Western mainstream media stress Russian nationalism, but that element is in no way conspicuous. The Russian Orthodox Church has no special role – unlike in Russia itself. Also the Cossacks, who could provide a potentially conservative element for cultural engineering on the part of the government in this region, merely appear as folklore, and in an anti-fascist sense. It is not a coincidence, that for example the monument to Shevchenko – the Ukrainian national poet, claimed by the nationalists – has not been removed. This is a conscious signal that this is a democratic and anti-fascist rebellion, not a national or nationalist revolt. Let’s not forget that the Donbass region was a Soviet melting pot, unlike Crimea during the Russian Empire.
In just a few days, it is impossible to fathom the economic situation and the development prospects in just a few days. What is clear, however, is the overwhelming role of the state. The oligarchs are gone. Even though their ownership titles have been formally retained, in most companies the state had to step in to organise, considering that there is no regular banking system and therefore no commercial credit is available.
Formally it seems all economic ties with the parts of Ukraine that are ruled from Kiev have been severed. Nevertheless we hear in many places that there is still an exchange. Coal from the Donbass is still making its way to is former markets. Another indicator for that is that Ukrainian nationalists and right-wing radicals are denouncing their own oligarchs for continuing economic relations despite the embargo and blockade against the Donbass region.
Putin’s announcement to issue Russian passports to people in the Donbass region was enthusiastically welcomed, because they would be the only useful international travel documents, since Ukrainian passports cannot be renewed in the People’s Republics.
Even though Moscow sticks to the Minsk agreement and therefore the leaders of the People’s Republics also hold back on that issue, many here want to join Russia, also for very pragmatic regions, whether it is the enormous social gap – a miner in the Donbass earns 25,000 roubles (approx. € 350), a third of the wages in the Russian Kuzbass region –, or the normalisation of the economic situation and the integration of the heavy and metal industry which is essential for the survival of the region.
The Minsk II Agreement of 2015 and its promise of autonomy for the region have lost any credibility; the regime in Kiev has shown itself to be too belligerent and extremist, and the fratricidal war imposed on the region by the right-wing radicals and waged by the Maidan regime is too pointless and brutal. As a political hypothesis, that could change quickly if a democratic revolution were to succeed in Kiev.
It should be noted that there are clear differences between Donetsk and Lugansk: big and small, urban and rural, rich and poor. Donetsk is trying its hand and being moderate and leaning towards Russia, while Lugansk relies on Soviet symbolism, including for example its state emblem with a red star surrounded by ears of wheat wrapped in red ribbons. Our visit to Donetsk was organised by a ministry, our visit to Lugansk was organised by the unions.
Concerning the handful of right-wing politicians from Western Europe, who also show up on such occasions, we cannot blame the isolated People’s Republics for willingly accepting any symbolic support. Apart from that, leftist are welcomed with open arms, if not more than those rightists. You only have to accept the invitation. When Werner Murgg, a communist member of the regional parliament of Styria (one of Austria’s nine states) introduced the large Austrian delegation that included four Styrian communists at a reception hosted by the Foreign Ministry of Donetsk, the officials were very pleased, and several invitations were issued in Lugansk as well.
We agreed on another Austrian peace delegation hosted by the trade unions of Lugansk, and several items have already been agreed: factory visits to better understand the social and economic situation, the anti-fascist struggle then and now, the situation at the demarcation line, culture and education, and contacts with the population.
Everyone is invited to gather their own first-hand impressions.