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Mining Protest Crackdown in Occupied Donbas, Explained
26 June, 2020
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Komsomolskaya mine in 2008. Photo courtesy of Wikimapia.

The miner uprising started with a small strike at a local mine. On June 5, pitmen at ‘Komsomolskaya’ in Antratsyt city, in the Russian-occupied Luhansk region, refused to rise to the surface. They were demanding to get paid. The word spread across the region. Two days later, several employees of the Belorechenskaya mine decided to join the Komsomolskaya strike. But they were arrested by the so-called state security service. According to the co-founder of the Independent Trade Union of Donbas Miners, Alexander Vaskovsky, they were tortured to reveal the names of others planning to join the protest. After that, there was another wave of arrests. 

“A total of 22 people disappeared. Among the detainees are miners and three women - the spouses of the miners,” Vaskovsky said. 

The so-called authorities of the occupied Luhansk region have been trying to silence the protests under the pretext of fighting the coronavirus epidemic. Our partner outlet Novaya Gazeta reports from the uprising’s epicenter.

Backstory

After Russian forces stirred up conflict and divided the coal-rich Donbas region in 2014, Ukraine lost control of the majority of its mines. Since then, human rights groups say many mines have been shut down, and those remaining in the industry face ongoing violations. 

According to a report from a group of NGOs, including the East-Ukrainian Center for Civic Initiatives, violations of labor and social rights occur on both sides. But workers on the occupied territories receive half the pay (around $150) of those working for government-controlled mines. And the situation for miners has only been deteriorating over the years. Coal sales help fund the occupied territories. But without subsidies from Ukraine’s budget, state mines in the occupied parts of the country are struggling, which is further impacting salaries, the report states. 

Rights groups say that it’s typical for protests to be silenced in the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions, with some even charged for organizing such movements. 

Komsomolskaya and Belorechenskaya mines were "nationalized" after Russia's occupation of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The only buyer of their coal is Vneshtorgservis (VTS), a company controlled by businessman Sergey Kurchenko, who runs in the circles of Ukraine's fugitive former President Viktor Yanukovych. According to Russian media group RBC, after Yanukovych was ousted and fled the country in 2014, Kurchenko left for Russia with him. In 2017 the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk People's Republics took over his businesses.

Last year, the company admitted that it owes employed miners about $115 million. 

Miners at Komsomoslskaya began showing their discontent in April. They refused to surface. After that, they were paid out a portion of what they were owed. Mine leadership promised to settle their accounts by May 15, but it appears that it didn't happen. 

Then the situation escalated.

At first, the occupying authorities tried to silence the protest by disrupting mobile networks and blocking social media access. Then they announced a curfew and restrictions in Antratsyt. Certain buses were canceled while entry and exit points were blocked. The authorities justified this as part of the fight against Covid-19 — only the city has no officially registered cases. 

Local miner union leader Alexander Vaskovsky is sure that this was the authorities' way of trying to conceal the protests. He believes the money owed to the miners is simply stolen along their complicated way from Russia. To limit the damage from international sanctions, the Kremlin reportedly uses financial backchanneling for money transfers to occupied Eastern Ukraine. As reported by our partner outlet Spektr last year, the scheme utilizes banks in another disputed and Russian-controlled territory of South Ossetia.  

"There is a feeling that Kurchenko is fake. Our sources say that money comes to the self-proclaimed republics from special accounts of Russia's Ministry of Economic Development through the banks of South Ossetia," Vaskovsky said. 

The mines' financial situation is so dire that miners are forced to purchase all professional gear at their own expense. 

Several Antratsyt residents told Novaya Gazeta that they were aware of the situation at the Komsomolskaya mine but were unwilling to discuss it, citing the threat of criminal prosecution for disclosing information. Locals also confirm that the city is blockaded, and the military is stationed on the streets. 

Vaskovsky says the striking miners have switched to bread and water in solidarity with arrested colleagues.

The occupying authorities, meanwhile, claim the strike is the provocation of Ukraine's security services. "LPR" head Leonid Pasechnik said that he would be able to guarantee immunity only if the miners promised to no longer take part in the "provocations of Ukrainian intelligence services." 

Head of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic, Leonid Pasechnik. Photo from the Luhansk regional registration.

The international outcry about severe rights violations of the miners in occupied Eastern Ukraine is lacking. Russians and their representatives usually pretend that they don't know anything about this lawlessness, says Denis Kazansky, a Ukrainian member of the Donbas peace-negotiation group between separatists, Kyiv and Moscow and a representative of internally displaced folks from the Luhansk region.

"But when such issues are raised with European mediators, we at least inform the international community and bring them facts about the abuse of people in the (temporarily occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions)," he wrote on social media. 

Pavlo Lisyansky, Head of the Eastern Human Rights Group, stated earlier that the miners had surfaced after agreement on wage arrears was reached. 

However, the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group reports that as many as 14 striking miners could still be held in the basements of the "Luhansk security services."

/Translated and abridged by Natalie Vikhrov, with materials from Novaya Gazeta correspondent Elena Romanova. Courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange.