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