The origins of Donetsk separatism

Donetsk separatism only truly became a noticeable problem in 2014. Until then, almost no one believed that it existed.

Crimea was long considered the only potentially dangerous region in this regard. A certain degree of Donbas isolation was acknowledged, but this was initially written off as the result of machinations by oligarchic clans who sought to turn the local population against other regions of Ukraine and reaffirm the myth of the Donbas as the nation’s leading breadwinner.

This was partly true; these clans are still able to divide and to rule. They skilfully directed the wrath of the Donbas’ depressed mining communities against similarly disenfranchised workers from western Ukraine. While average people squabbled with each other on the Internet, the clans were quietly appropriating the Donetsk region’s industries. However, the very same Party of Regions officials from Donetsk and Luhansk who convinced their electorates that the Donbas is a “special region” with the right to occupy a dominant position in Ukraine were more often themselves the captives of stereotypes.

Donetsk separatism existed long before it was popularized by the Party of Regions. It is not about “Donetsk–Kryviy Rih Soviet Republic,” whose existence was noted only by the Bolsheviks who invented it and Donetsk native Volodymyr Kornilov, who wrote a book on it. In the USSR, the Donbas showed no discernible desire for independence. The first signs of separatism appeared in the mining regions at the end of the 1980s before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, this phenomenon was primarily economic and not national in origin.

Solidarity became the foundation of the Donetsk miners’ separatism. The popular assertion that “Donbas feeds the entire country” originated among them. The profession had been heroized in the 1920s-30s, with the mine worker portrayed by official propaganda as a true Atlas on whose shoulders rested the economic power of the whole country. And as the Donbas was a major coal mining region of the Soviet Union, its residents, of course, overflowed with a sense of self-worth. It was here that the saying “miners are the guardians of labour”was coined; it was here that the legendary Soviet miner Alexey Stakhanov set his world record; it was the Donbas that a famous Soviet poster named “the heart of Russia”.

Miners strike, Donetsk 1998
Miners strike, Donetsk 1998

Inspirational newspaper editorials about Donbas miners were common until the late 1970s when the region achieved its peak for coal production. Coal output has been decreasing ever since. After the discovery of huge oil fields in Siberia, the Soviet fuel and energy industry began switching from coal to oil and gas. Priorities and investments changed. For the next two decades, the holdings of Donbas coal mining companies remained practically unchanged, with mines continuing to operate without renovation. In the 1980s the coal industry of the Ukrainian SSR inevitably deteriorated, hitting a crisis at the end of the decade that resulted in massive strikes.

Agitators for Narodniy Rukh successfully exploited the miners’ discontent to convince the population of the Ukrainian SSR that Ukraine was the economic engine of the Soviet Union and it was dragging backward regions along. These words resonated with the miners, who were also convinced that “our backs bend while Moscow rests”. Rather than demanding regional autonomy for the Donbas, they wanted greater economic independence for the Ukrainian SSR so that money would remain in Ukraine, and pushed the Parliament to adopt a law to that effect. Thus, for these economic reasons, they voted for Ukraine’s independence in the referendum of 1991. Until recently, many patriotic Ukrainians regarded the Donbas workers’ support for independence as a sign of their increased national consciousness.However, the workers were not in fact moved by patriotism, but rather a desire to keep mining revenues closer to home.

Just two years later, the mood in the Donbas changed dramatically. Prosperity did not follow the collapse of the USSR, and the economic crisis of the late 1980s gave way to the horrors of the early 1990s. In 1993, strikes broke out once more in the region, and again the miners demanded regional autonomy—only this time from Kyiv. As in 1989, they were convinced that their hard work was simply feeding parasites, only now the subjects of their discontent were not the peoples of Central Asia and Moscow, but the residents of Kyiv and Western Ukraine. One of the organizers of the strike was Yukhym Zviahilskyi, a long-time MP, member of the Party of Regions more recently, and a red director, who skilfully manipulated the coal miners’ discontent while simultaneously convincing the authorities that he was helping to resolve the conflict. In the wake of the protests, he moved to Kyiv and was appointed the first Vice Prime Minister. As a result, the fire was gradually extinguished with his help, yet the political demands for Donbas’ regional autonomy remained unsatisfied.

However, the Donetsk elite did not abandon the idea of separatism, and continued to agitate the situation. In 1994, together with the parliamentary elections in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, an event occurred that some called a “local referendum” and others a “deliberative poll”. By law, it was not possible to conduct a referendum, so another term was officially used. The survey consisted of four items, the first of which concerned the government of Ukraine. Donbas residents were asked if they would support federation as well as granting official status to the Russian language.

This event was organized in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions by “regional advisory commissions for the deliberative polling of citizens”, which were at the command of regional deputies. The “referendum” was a pre-election move. Ukraine held both parliamentary and presidential elections in 1994, and local elections were held in the Donbas region. After the elections, the results of the “referendum” were no longer mentioned. It is difficult to say how accurate they were, but 80% voted for the federalization of the Donbas at the time.

Protesters in Luhansk against government Berkut forces, 1998
Protesters in Luhansk against government Berkut forces, 1998

Separatist slogans were once again commonplace during the many miners’ strikes in 1996-1998, but the movement never seriously took shape. Once Viktor Yanukovych had taken office as Prime Minister for the first time in 2002, the Donetsk clan ceased to play the separatism card, expecting that all of Ukraine would soon be in their hands and there was no longer any sense in blackmailing Kyiv. After Yanukovych’s career had taken off, separatist agitation declined significantly, even giving way to patriotic rhetoric. Regional elites were quite willing to love Ukraine if the country lived by Donetsk’s rules. But after the failure of the 2004 elections, Yanukovych’s regional separatism again received a major boost.

Unfortunately, all this time the central government in Kyiv failed to take measures to combat the virus of separatism in Donbas. The result of this failure became visible in the tragic events of 2014.

By: Denys Kazanskyi

Who committed treason in Ukraine?

The publication of the minutes of the National Security and Defence Council meeting on 28 February 2014 is interesting for what it confirms and what it points to as to who committed treason. Several things are quite striking.

The first is recognition of mass support for Russia among Crimean residents which is not surprising as pro-Russian sentiment was always high in this region. Secondly, recognition of mass defections and fears of mass betrayals among local siloviky. This is in fact what happened. The defection of the majority of Ministry of Interior, SBU, military and prosecutor’s office personnel constitutes one of the biggest single acts of treason in modern history.  Third, a sense of disorientation on the part of the US. This is not news to anybody who knows President Obama who I compared to Yushchenko in terms of his indecisiveness. Fourthly, recognition that armed resistance is futile because Ukraine had no large and well equipped security forces. Finally, weak political will to react in any way possible by nearly all Euromaidan leaders, including Tyahnybok, Yatseniuk and Tymoshenko.

But, the minutes of the meeting tell us much more as they point to the heart of the treason of the Yanukovych presidency and why they should be accountable for their actions. The following 4 treasonous steps were permitted by Yanukovych to be undertaken by Russia:

1. Under Russian citizen and Minister of Defence’s Dmitri Salamatin the database of conscripts was destroyed. Under Ministers of Defence Salamatin, Pavel Lebedev and Mykhaylo Yezhel, Ukraine’s military budget was severely reduced and military equipment was sold or transferred to Russia. Salamatin planned to reduce Ukraine’s armed forces to 75, 000 by 2017. Russian citizen Yuri Boriskin was appointed head of the General Staff at the Ministry of Defence. Yezhel’s daughter is married to an admiral of Russia’s Pacific Fleet.

2. The head of Yanukovych’s personal bodyguards, Viacheslav Zanevskiy, was a Russian citizen.

3. During Yushchenko’s presidency, Russia’s intelligence services operated covertly but under Yanukovych they were permitted to operate overtly in the Crimea, Donbas and elsewhere without hindrance. 90 percent of SBU activities were directed against the opposition in the form of illegal wiretapping, surveillance and organisation of vigilantes for election fraud and violence against opposition members and journalists. The FSB was given complete reign over the SBU and commandeered data on 22, 000 officials and informants. Hard drives and flash drives not taken to Russia were destroyed. Valentyn Nalyvaychenko said they took ‘everything that forms a basis for a professional intelligence service.’ SBU Chairman Aleksandr Yakymenko, Russian citizen Igor Kalinin and 4 top intelligence chiefs fled to Russia. 235 SBU agents were arrested of whom 25 were charged with high treason, including the counter-intelligence chief. After the Euromaidan all regional SBU directors were replaced. The FSB reportedly introduced surveillance technology on Ukraine’s mobile telephone network. The extent of Russian intelligence penetration came to light in spring-summer 2014 when Ukrainian missions in the ATO were compromised by intelligence leaks that provided the Russians and separatists with sufficient time to consolidate their positions in the crucial first months of the conflict. Obviously, not all the traitors have been removed from the SBU and over the last 8 months, 30 SBU officers have been arrested for corruption and treason.

4. During the Euromaidan, 30 FSB officers visited Ukraine on 3 occasions in 13-15 December 2013, 26-29 January and 20-22 February 2014 and used the SBU sanatorium at Koncha Zaspa, near Kyiv as their base of operations. Their main liaison was SBU Counter-Intelligence Chief Volodymyr Buk. Their goals were to increase protection of their Russian assets; ensure continued access to SBU files, special communications and headquarters; provide training for ‘antiterrorism’ exercises; and supply anti-terrorist and crowd control equipment for the SBU Alpha special forces and Ministry of Interior Berkut to destroy the Euromaidan.

Who is accountable for this mass treason?

Obviously at the top of those who committed treason are Yanukovych and key members of the Donetsk clan such as the Kluyev brothers, Borys Kolesnikov and Renat Akhmetov. Yanukovych and Andriy Kluyev have fled to Russia, Serhiy Kluyev was permitted to flee in summer 2015, and Kolesnikov and Akhmetov live peacefully in Ukraine and the latter has parliamentary immunity. Akhmetov and Yanukovych had a business and political relationship since the 1990s and to believe the oligarch had no knowledge of the treason taking place is not credible.

A second group who committed treason are the gas lobby who joined and aligned with the Party of Regions from 2006. Serhiy Lyovochkin was Chief of Staff for all of Yanukovych’s presidency except for 1 month (he resigned in late January 2014). Again, it is not credible to believe that Lyovochkin had no knowledge of the massive treason taking place or of the massive corruption. Nevertheless, he suffers from no consequences as he negotiated a backroom deal with Petro Poroshenko in mid March 2014 in Vienna. Today he is on no Ukrainian wanted list and has parliamentary immunity.

Dmytro Firtash and Yuriy Boyko, 2 other prominent gas lobby leaders, also gained massively from corruption under Yanukovych. Firtash is only wanted by the US, but not by Ukraine (according to Prosecutor-General Shokhin) for criminal charges while Boyko has parliamentary immunity. Firtash has always been Russia’s agent of influence in Ukraine, as a lengthy Reuters investigation pointed out.

Other members of the Azarov government either fled to Russia or continue to live in Ukraine. One cabinet member received the support of the gas lobby and was elected as Ukraine’s president. How much did the other members of the government know what was taking place under Yanukovych?

What was permitted to take place under Yanukovych was treason of a massive scale that nearly destroyed Ukraine. If Ukraine’s civil and military volunteers had not defended Ukraine in 2014, Putin’s NovoRossiya project would have won and crippled Ukraine as an independent state.

Has anybody been held accountable for this treason? Has anybody been criminally charged? Why is Lyovochkin still a free man when as Chief of Staff he had to know and participate in these criminal acts.