Donbas Blockade Exposes Political Fault Lines in Ukraine
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 24
It has been one month since a group of demobilized Ukrainian soldiers and veterans of the volunteer battalions took it upon themselves (starting on January 25) to enforce a trade embargo with the occupied territories of Donbas (region of eastern Ukraine encompassing the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces) (Euromaidanpress.com, February 6). Increasingly, this blockade of several rail and road routes leading into occupied Donbas is spilling over into political protests in Kyiv. The government is accused of profiting from the trade with the Moscow-backed separatist authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk, which simultaneously provides an economic lifeline to the separatists, thus prolonging the war (Realist, accessed February 22; Euromaidanpress.com, February 9). Some of the blockade’s organizers, Verkhovna Rada (national parliament) members Volodymyr Parasiuk and Semen Semenchenko, joined by the OUN and some other radical nationalist organizations, clashed with police in the capital, on February 19, as they attempted to set up a protest camp in front of President Petro Poroshenko’s administration building (Ukrainian News, February 20). But the police and National Guard forces swiftly broke up the crowd.
Meanwhile, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) has exposed a series of subversive operations it says are being masterminded by Russia, which attempt to spark political chaos and potentially give rise to an insurgency in government-controlled areas of Ukraine. Subversive activities and legislative initiatives to promote a pro-Kremlin agenda were explicitly targeted at provincial groups, some of which have expressed clear separatist sympathies. Several of these groups were expected to smuggle firearms into the national capital. One recording published by the SBU quoted a Russian handler requesting that a known Ukrainian separatist use the campaign slogan “The Revolution of Dignity Continues” during public rallies in Kyiv, on February 20–23, commemorating the victims of the EuroMaidan revolution of 2013–2014 (LB.ua, February 21). Whereas, Ukrainian Military Prosecutor Anatoliy Matios posted photos of seized AK and SVD rifles that the so-called “Odesa People’s Republic” group was allegedly attempting to bring onto Kyiv’s central square (Anatolii Matios February 21).
For now, the blockade-related riot attempts of local politicians as well as Moscow’s efforts to spur violence during the February 19–22 commemorations of the EuroMaidan victims have not led to any major spasms of bloodshed or political destabilization. Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroysman met with the blockade leaders, and the two sides agreed there would be no revolutionary new Maidan demonstrations. No major Ukrainian political party today advocates any sort of violent scenario either. Radical nationalist groups like the OUN, Bilyi Molot, C14 and some others, which clashed with police and National Guard forces in central Kyiv on February 19 (see above), enjoy strictly marginal support among the general population. Their members were most likely only “showing off” in a limited hooligan street action. Commenting on why Ukraine has not been overcome with fresh political instability or street violence, sociologist Iryna Bekeshkina cited two reasons: the low level of support for all politicians (in contrast, during the 2014 EuroMaidan, opposition leaders enjoyed 40–50 percent support) as well as the absence of a trigger that would ignite the emotions of a substantial number of people (Novoye Vremya, February 22).
Still, the Donbas blockade has exposed Ukraine’s political fault lines, which, if unaddressed, could eventually risk a political crisis. The underlying reason may be, in fact, a class one: that is, wealthy government functionaries and political elites do not represent the interests of the general population of an impoverished country at war. The most controversial goods being shipped from occupied Donbas to government-controlled Ukraine include coal and iron ore. Sizeable assets in both industries are owned by controversial Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov; and suspicions that he benefits from this trade across the line of contact are probably sound. Meanwhile, the government has done little to alleviate the problem of the rest of the country’s critical dependence on coal shipments from uncontrolled Donbas territories. Kyiv has failed to communicate a clear vision regarding proper economic relations with the occupied territories and with Russia during this conflict. As a result, according to Volodymyr Sidenko, an economic expert at the Razumkov Centre think tank, instead of competitive trade, or an embargo, the government holds a politico-military monopoly on the exports and imports coming across the line of contact (Author’s interview, February 21).
The Ukrainian government demands that the occupied territories should be reintegrated based on diplomatic efforts. But it has not yet elaborated a sound and credible reintegration strategy. Nor has the government demonstrated successful post-conflict stabilization efforts, sufficient assistance to displaced persons, or adequate security-sector and economic-reform efforts. Meanwhile, the activists and volunteers currently blockading roads and railways into Donbas represent private individuals exercising too much of a state function. As such, their actions risk deepening perceptions of the central government’s weakness. In this context, political scientist Oleksiy Haran has pointed to “tendencies toward so-called makhnovism [anarchy] and ochlocracy [mob rule]” in Ukraine (Novoye Vremya, February 22). Adding to this social backdrop, the Ukrainian political process is gradually becoming more violent and increasingly includes more and more displays of paramilitary symbols and images in the national media (Liga, February 26). At the same time, the large crowds that consistently came out into the streets for three working days in Kyiv to commemorate the EuroMaidan victims may signal underemployment and economic stagnation in the country.
The government used the opportunity of the EuroMaidan remembrance celebrations to issue a message of political stability and assure the electorate of the healthy strength of the ruling coalition. Notably, Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc, the People’s Front and the Radical Party signed a declaration of “Unity for Victory.” According to Razumkov Centre’s Yurii Yakymenko, “It is important that the message was issued in the moment, when there is a certain radicalization of the political process and protests actions” (Razumkov Centre, February 22). Nonetheless, there is a risk that the combination of subversive operations and mass street protests may further exacerbate the level of political polarization in the country: even in case of the blockade, there are both proponents and opponents of trading with occupied Donbas. Such polarization, coupled with Ukrainians’ eroding trust in their political elites as well as the people’s defensive self-focus could, might, according to Volodymyr Sidenko, eventually reduce people’s resistance to radicalism, which is critical for Ukraine’s resilience (Author’s interview, February 21).