Half of Ukrainians in the occupied territories think that they should be integrated with Russia. Most of them blame the Ukrainian government for the continued conflict and say that Russia was right to invade and annex Crimea.
In today’s Ukraine, these sorts of answers seem absurd, almost comical, but among the beliefs stated by 1,606 residents of the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk during a now-controversial survey, conducted by marketing agency New Image Marketing Group for newspaper Dzerkalo Tyzhnia and think tank Institute for the Future. The survey, conducted via in-person interviews in cities and villages across the Donbas, may give Ukrainians living in the rest of the country a shock. And whether they’re believable, or accurate, is another matter entirely.
Some of the responses received by the New Image Marketing Group may surprise an observer, though some can be predicted from demographic data. For example, of the respondents, only some 8.3% are under the age of 25, and nearly half, 45%, are unemployed, despite that same percentage with technical educations, which corresponds with the 1.42 million estimated IDPs, with a good proportion of under-25s, that fled the area after the Russian invasion. And despite continuous propaganda and occupation, a little over half of the respondents consider themselves to be both Ukrainians by nationality and Ukrainian citizens.
But that means that there are approximately 40% who have renounced Ukrainian citizenship. 34.8% have taken up the passports of the so-called Donetsk or Luhansk "people's republics" (which aren’t recognized by any state other than the Russian-occupied Georgian territory of South Ossetia), while another 6.8% have taken Russian citizenship. A rough extrapolation of the combined occupied territories population of 3.76 million people results in about 1.25 million people who have renounced Ukrainian citizenship.
And even those who have held on to their Ukrainian identity disagree with the majority held position in unoccupied Ukraine that the occupation – in this case, not their own, but of Crimea – is fully Russia’s fault. In fact, over 80% of respondents chose "probably agree" or "definitely agree" to the statement that "Russia’s actions in Crimea are a lawful defense of Russian-speakers estranged from Ukraine". This is the story that Russian propaganda spinning for the last five years, with their myths of "defending Russian-speakers around the world" – but for residents of the occupied territories in Donbas, it seems to have worked.
Another 76% have bought into another Russian lie – that the conflict is not driven by barely-and-not-at-all disguised Russian soldiers and mercenaries, but that it is an "internal Ukrainian" conflict. Of course, Ukraine is not and has never been in a civil war, and the forces opposing Ukrainians arms on the contact line aren’t rag-tag rebels, but the heavily armed and advanced military of the Russian Federation. Only 9.5% of respondents "definitely" or "probably agree" that the war was sparked by Russia and local Russian-funded third columns. And nearly all respondents, over 90%, blame the conflict on Ukraine’s post-Euromaidan government.
Honest Answers Under Watchful Eyes
Surveys are rarely truly scientific. And the polarizing nature of some of the responses may lead to skepticism that the answers were gotten truthfully, instead of under duress. After all, the occupied territories are occupied, by men with guns that, in many cases, were gangsters or criminals prior to the war, or revealed to be Russian intelligence operatives after.
That’s the same argument used in the case of the so-called "referendum" on joining Russia held in Crimea during the annexation – but it is hard to estimate a person’s true feelings when they’re being watched over by soldiers. But unlike this referendum, the group holding the survey was more than happy to come clean about their motives.
Armed men walk near a shelled bus at the Olenivka checkpoint in the occupied part of Ukraine's Donetsk region on January 21, 2018. Photo: EPA
Oleh Sinayuk, director and founder of New Image Marketing Group, says that the survey was ordered by the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, a Kyiv-based think tank. They wanted to know more about the population living in the occupied territories, their loyalty to Ukraine, and various other facts.
Sinayuk says that they tried to formulate the questions to be as broad as possible, taking into account possible points of failure, such as unrepresentative samples. The group derived a rough estimate by taking official population numbers prior to the war, and subtracting the official number of IDPs. Sinayuk admits that the method they used to narrow down their sample wasn’t ideal – but it was “all that we had.”
Unlike many surveys, the group conducted interviews face-to-face, with a standard set of questions. New Image Marketing Group employees would take trips across the contact line, to various cities and towns of the occupied regions and spoke to people in their own apartments. But he was unwilling to elaborate more on the methods used, and under what identities his employees traveled, citing concerns that his answers could be used to identify survey respondents.
Sinayuk dismissed concerns that, if the interviewers did not properly identify themselves and instead traveled on some "legend" – such as them being Russian sociologists – that the responses given may be tainted. “If we were to use this logic, then we wouldn’t be able to do any research in Ukraine either, because people could also be scared to answer truthfully.” And he adds that people, especially in the villages, were more or less trusting of the interviewer’s motives, classifying the work of his agency as “espionage.”
Resident of the occupied part of the Donetsk region receives a Russian passport in Donetsk, Ukraine on May 3, 2019. Photo: EPA
He also sheds light on one of the more surprising survey results – that 50.8% of respondents think that the occupied territories should be integrated with Russia, saying that most of the answers came from those respondents living in occupied Luhansk and the surrounding area. “This is probably due to the fact that there’s a larger border with Russia than Donetsk, and only one checkpoint into [unoccupied] Ukraine, which only sort of works,” stated Sinayuk.
As for how Ukrainian society will take the controversial results remains to be seen. For his part, Sinayuk claims that no government body has been in contact with his organization. But at least one thing is clear – the path to reintegration of the Donbas could possibly be even thornier than previously expected.
/By Romeo Kokriatski