Bringing Hope Back to the Donbas: Invest in Ukraine and Unity in Mariupol
4 November, 2019
From left to right: Chairman of UkraineInvest Daniel Bilak, Ukraine Programme Lead at the Centre for Sustainable Peace and Democratic Development Oksana Lemishka, hromadske journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk, Horizon Capital CEO Lenna Koszarny, and NV journalist Ivan Verstyuk. Hromadske

The Zelenskyy government has set some ambitious plans for foreign investment – they’re looking to boost investment up to the tune of $50 billion. To that end, the government has launched wide-spanning reform initiatives, but it’s also working to court investors directly, especially in the Donbas, which has seen its economy and industry devastated by war.

Two forums, organized by the government, were held in the strategic Azov port city of Mariupol, approximately 30 kilometers from the demarcation line. The first was focused on attracting investment in Ukraine, and the next on building unity in the country. And by most accounts, the forums were a resounding success.

READ MORE: Zelenskyy Shares Vision of Reintegration of Donbas and Crimea

“The fact that we had this conference, this forum...the fact that [President Zelenskyy] held it in Mariupol, is really big. Because you can organize something like this in Kyiv, we go all the time to these conferences, but to organize a conference like this with 700 guests, 200 journalists, at that caliber, 30 kilometers from the front line, in Mariupol, I think it was outstanding,” commented Horizon Capital CEO Lenna Koszarny on a recent broadcast of The Sunday Show.

But investing in Ukraine, especially in an area not far from active armed conflict, carries its own risks. Daniel Bilak, Chairman of UkraineInvest, a government-established investment promotion office, says that he encounters this position quite frequently from potential investors, and his view is that Ukraine offers unparalleled investment opportunities in Europe.

“We’re the largest emerging market in Europe, of any pitch is always that – brains and grains. People are always the resource that everyone is looking at and looking for, everywhere in the world. And we have some of the most talented, smartest and brightest people in the world,” claimed the Chairman.

Ivan Verstyuk, a journalist at NV who also attended the conference, agrees, stating that the conference was not just a step forward for Ukrainian investment, but for the Donbas itself. 

“It brought a substantial amount of hope for Mariupol and the Donbas...once you graduated from university, your only two career options were either to go work at some coal mine or a steel plant…what investors were saying was that the Donbas economy needs to be could have a modern, digital economy, that will bring new jobs, and new educational opportunities for Donbas residents,” Verstyuk said.

Investment was only the focus of the first day’s conference – the second, no less important, focused on tackling tough questions on reintegration and building unity in a Ukrainian populace that has been separated by physical and informational war. Donbas residents are themselves split on the best way to move the region forward, with a recent poll showing that an around equal percentage of respondents support joining Russia, rejoining Ukraine with a special autonomous status, and becoming a separate state entirely. 

Though Oksana Lemishka, Ukraine Programme Lead at the Centre for Sustainable Peace and Democratic Development, notes that due to the difficulty of obtaining information from non-government controlled territory, the numbers should be taken a fair degree of skepticism.

Still, she says, “The fact that becoming part of the Russian Federation is one of the most popular scenarios, gives an idea of why we should not forget about this topic...our data shows that every scenario is dictated by insecurities suffered in personal life. Economic security is very important, which is why the investment forum is such a big deal in the area.”

Economic factors aren’t the only ones that influence opinions on both sides of the contact line – as Lemishka noted, Ukrainians often put “...mental blockades on each other,” and that these misunderstandings and stereotypes remain a stumbling block towards full reintegration. However, Lemishka was very happy that the Unity Forum put such a big focus on reintegration scenarios – something she says is often ignored in conversations about ending the war.

There has to be context, however, says Bilak. “[This conflict] has all been done artificially,” he states, acknowledging that there does need to be a dialogue, but that the country is also suffering from the trauma of war. He believes that these problems can be solved by empowering local businesses and creating local markets. 

“How are we going to support people in Stanytsia Luhanska, how are we going to support people in Mariupol? ...It’s about getting very granular and producing SME sectors that can be financed. The biggest problem of SMEs across the country is not the lack of people willing to start businesses, it’s about having the working capital, the financing...and that problem will go away,” said Bilak.

For now, Ukraine remains embroiled in conflict and its territories remain under Russian occupation. But the attendance numbers and optimism at these conferences showed that war does not need to be the legacy of the Donbas, and that hope, one day, may truly have a chance of being restored.

READ MORE: “Revolution of Dignity Turned into Counter-Revolution of Hatred” - Oleg Sentsov