Stumbling Blocks in Rebuilding a City in Eastern Ukraine
12 July, 2018

In April 2014, armed men seized administrative buildings in eastern Ukrainian cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, triggering a new phase of conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

The occupation lasted some three months.

Four years since the cities have been liberated, most of the infrastructure has been rebuilt but little has changed within the cities’ governance.

Andrii Romanenko, head of the Center for Public Control DIY-Kramatorsk, said Donbas residents “are facing a real recoil.”

“This is because that for the past four years, not a single separatist mayor who had raised the Russian flag in the Donetsk region has been sentenced,” he said.

“Many of them continue to be mayors, without a single criminal charge levied against them, while people who in 2014 had seized cities and helped separatist activities calmly walk free.”

Romanenko said with the lack of visible progress in this field it was starting to “feel like the good old days of Viktor Yanukovych.”

Hromadske spoke to Andrii Romanenko about life in Sloviansk and Kramatorsk four years after liberation and the political situation in Donbas leading up to the parliamentary elections next year.

Andrii, it’s been four years since the liberation of the cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. Each year, we draw conclusions. We know that some things have been rebuilt, but nonetheless, we still remember, what happened, what didn’t happen, what people are looking for the most, and what’s been done about it. 

This issue can be divided into two parts. There’s the physical part where much has been rebuilt, restored, constructed anew. It probably isn’t enough, because to this day there aren’t good roads between Mariupol and Kramatorsk, since all the main roads previously went through Donetsk, which is now occupied. Here, things are more or less good in terms of everyday life. If we talk about ideology, mentality, then, unfortunately, the inhabitants of Donbas are facing a real recoil. This is because that for the past four years, not a single separatist mayor who had raised the Russian flag in the Donetsk region has been sentenced. Many of them continue to be mayors, without a single criminal charge levied against them, while people who in 2014 had seized cities and helped separatist activities calmly walk free. Once more it’s starting to feel like the good old days of Viktor Yankovych. In this sense, unfortunately, there hasn’t been much in terms of visible progress in the course of four years after the liberation. 

What specific actions are awaited from the government?

We saw how Avdiivka suffered for 1.5 years from lack of water and electricity. We couldn’t build gas pipelines, let them get through, etc. When they say that there isn’t any money, in reality, that’s not true, because we need to remember that approximately 3 billion hryvnia was redistributed in the occupied territories, and this money was in the budget.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE 

So in reality, instead of dealing with water access, roads, transport, energy, and some other basic things that people deal with every day, we’re building parks which cost hundreds of millions, amusement parks, pools, building up schools which we don’t really need.

This is the skew that we’re calling “infrastructural projects,” which are not really so, hence why residents are very displeased and cynical about the situations, considering they have to see this all the time.

Talking about war threats, given that politicians in Kyiv are often reluctant to speak about this, and yet there is still an understanding that there’s a risk of an active military campaign. It’s possible that there could be a new offensive, since we know that Kramatorsk, even in 2015 after its liberation, had been targeted several times. There is constant information about it being shelled.

If we’re not talking about the contact line – for example, the city of Toretsk, which is on the contact line – then all the other cities have gotten used to it, they’re tired of living in fear. Besides everything else, people have realized that there is nowhere in Ukraine that is completely safe. Meaning, of course, Kostiantynivka can be hit by Grad rockets, Kramatorsk could be hit by Smerch rockets, as for Kyiv and Lviv, there are weapons that can reach them, especially those located on the territory of Russia.

For that reason, in the past four years, Kramatorsk has gotten used to life in a peaceful rhythm. It seems to me that there isn’t even talk of aerial bombardments, some sort of explosions in Bakhmut.

The country is entering an election period and the political autumn is starting to be active. The war has been an issue in all recent elections, and there is an understanding that each politician will in some way or another state their thoughts on it, and what should be done. What do you think we should be looking out for now, what should we be paying attention to?

Firstly, the main threat is the war itself. I’ll remind you that at the time of the elections, a large portion of the Donetsk region was occupied and did not participate in the presidential elections. There were some separate areas in the western part of the region and in Mariupol where someone managed to vote.

As for the political situation, I think that replacing the head of the region should already be begun by the president of Ukraine, because the previous governor, Pavel Zhebyrskii, in terms of his personal qualities, was a very controversial figure, and in reality, he hasn’t united the elites around him. He hasn’t spoken to the mayors of the cities, he was confrontational with them and under these conditions, carrying out a decent electoral campaign would be very difficult for the incumbent president. Naturally, this vacuum would be quickly filled by former Party of Regions members, who currently participate in various parties and have good connections in these cities.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE 

The “Nash Krai” party is becoming very influential on the territory of the Donetsk region. This is a party constituted by former members of the Party of Regions, and it is apparently very close to the presidential administration. It’s essentially a pro-presidential force with a less radical-patriotic bent than the Petro Poroshenko Bloc. It includes all the well-known functionaries. That is, in our city, there is a faction of Nash Krai, and these are, for all intents and purposes, former deputies of the Party of Regions.

Metinvest is an enterprise owned by [Donetsk-born oligarch] Rinat Akhmetov.

Yes, yes, yes. There is an overused phrase: “city-forming enterprises for Mariupol.” We don’t understood yet whether this game is just for the next parliamentary and municipal elections, or it is to get Mariupol to support Oleh Lyashko instead of incumbent president.

Are you talking about young activists, new political leaders or politicians who simply haven’t had a chance to gain ground in the area? Because in Kyiv and other regions there are young MPs already. And you’re talking about old political elites who just changed their political views and party association.

In Mariupol, people do have power through the city council, which try to shake the city up. Sloviansk also has young strong deputies. The question lies in how much this resonates with the opinions of the society, to the extent that society accepts them because the last municipal elections were riding a wave of patriotism and belief in change.

Unfortunately, we aren’t seeing any global changes and that might play in the hand of populist forces because there is a pullback. Many people could say: “we believed the intelligent people and nothing came of it, but here’s a serious man who is talking about how tomorrow everything is going to be perfect, so I’ll vote for him.” And this is very dangerous.

Unfortunately, very often young politicians conflict with local self-government and they aren’t supported by executive powers. Unfortunately, the regional state administration for the past three years hasn’t done anything to empower these people. There wasn’t any kind of public dialogue. The governor could have said unambiguously that there are young politicians in the city and they are supported by the president and his subordinates. And I’m not only talking about younger politicians but those with pro-European, contemporary views. But unfortunately, this never happened and many of them gave up and changed sides – because no one can fight forever – or just got disappointed and gave up.

/By Nataliya Gumenyuk