NOVOSHAKHTINSK, Russia – It has been over a week since Russia started issuing passports to inhabitants of the occupied Donbas using the simplified system. Russia claims there are lots of applicants, but the procedure is still in the testing phase. Russian President Vladimir Putin promises to change the rules and make the procedure even more convenient for those Ukrainians who want to become Russian citizens. At the same time, Ukrainian and European diplomats condemn Russia's actions on a daily basis calling them a violation of the Minsk treaties.
There are currently two points of issue of Russian passport – both in the Rostov region: Novoshakhtinsk and Pokrovskoe. The towns are 20 kilometers from the Russian-Ukrainian border, uncontrolled by Ukraine. There are daily buses on weekdays from Luhansk and Donetsk labeled “Special Transportation” sporting “LPR” and “DPR” number plates.
Hromadske went to Rostov region to witness the process and ask the people why they need Russian citizenship.
Way to Russia via the FSB
In order to get to Novoshakhtinsk in the Rostov region, which is a stone’s throw from Luhansk, Ukrainian journalists have to make a big detour. We had to talk to the FSB – the Russian Security Service – at the airport, tell them who finances our media, and where our parents live and work.
Former miner town of Novoshakhtinsk is reminiscent of Donbas: the same steppes and mounds, the same local dialect of the Russian language. However, after the economic reform of 2003, when Russia prioritized oil and gas, the town closed down all its coal mines. Work is available in the neighboring town of Shakhty (“Mines”) – second largest in the region – and in Rostov-on-Don.
Between the two towns stands a Katyusha adorned with tricolor and motivational billboards branding it a “town of Olympic athletes” and “town of happy people”. Thus, residents are encouraged to take pride in their small homeland.
Entrance to the town of Novoshakhtinsk, Rostov region, Russia, June 18, 2019. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan / Hromadske
The outskirts of Novoshakhtinsk resemble post-war Donbas by destroyed homes. Although not by shells, but through neglect. The point of issue of Russian passports for occupied Donbas residents was opened in the local culture house. The director says that they were forced to move in the spring. She refuses to speak on camera. During the conversation, she calls someone – lest she speaks too freely to the journalists – “What’s our stance on the issue of passports? Ok, gotcha.”
Russian passports for residents of the occupied Donbas are issued in the local culture house, Novoshakhtinsk, Rostov region, Russia, June 18, 2019. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan / Hromadske
"We took oaths, I still have tears"
Around 9:30 a.m., the bus stops by the building covered with plastic, which is guarded by the National Guard of Russia (Rosgvardia). The inscription on the bus reads “Moscow”, but it came from the occupied Luhansk. The number plate has letters LPR (Luhansk People’s Republic). Later, we were asked not to film it because it sometimes enters Ukrainian territory, albeit with a different number plate.
There are around 50 people inside. We are allowed to speak with them, but only around the bus. We are not allowed inside the passport issuing center which is encircled with iron bars. Passengers tell us they all received the “dream call” the previous evening stating their passport was ready.
The bus with the number plate of the so-called "LPR" brings Ukrainians who want a Russian citizenship, Novoshakhtinsk, June 18, 2019. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan / Hromadske
Darya was the first one not to avoid the microphone. She was born and lives in Luhansk. She works as a masseuse in a local beauty salon. Thus she dispels the myth that the military and the so-called administration were prioritized.
"For me, [Russian citizenship] opens more doors in terms of employment, more opportunities to move and earn, to get some extra training," Darya says in response to the question of why she needs the Russian citizenship.
Asked whether she will stay in Luhansk or move to Russia after receiving the passport, the woman pauses before saying that she hasn't explained yet.
Her group is accompanied by two men in civilian attire. They came from the so-called “LPR” and are giving instructions as to whom we can film, and whom we cannot.
“And please do refrain from filming people too much… Some of them are our employees,” the men say.
We are not allowed to speak to the security forces and the so-called "top authorities." Heavily perfumed man and his companion donning a short polka dot dress hide behind the bus.
People of retirement age are reluctant to talk on camera, but sisters Anzhelika and Veronika – teachers at the Luhansk school – inform us they had time to submit applications not only for the internal passport of the Russian Federation, but also for the foreign one:
"I’d quite like to go abroad. Before the war, we went to the EU a lot. But in the past five years we haven’t gone anywhere," Anzhelika tells Hromadske.
An employee of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs comes out of the building and asks people to line up.
“Any sharp objects, explosives? Mind you, girls will be double checked," the man says while laughing at his own joke.
He proceeds to lead them into the building where they will be handed passports. Russian anthem will be played and an oath-taking ceremony will take place. Journalists are not allowed inside.
The point of issuance of passports is guarded by the Russian police, Novoshakhtinsk, Rostov region, Russia, June 18, 2019. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan / Hromadske
Half an hour later, the first “new” citizens start to come out.
“We read the oath, as it should be, we heard the anthem. It was great, they treated us so well. You see: I even shed a few tears. I still have tears in my eyes,” two pensioners boast.
The two sisters, Veronika and Anzhelika, egress the building and swiftly put the passports in their backpacks. They admit being nervous before, but now they are in a festive mood. It was a serious procedure – they even had their fingerprints taken. But questions remain, particularly with registration. Currently, the registration page is left blank in the new passports – it is the new citizens’ bother:
“Once we find a place where we can register, we can come and get a stamp. As far as I know, according to the legislation, seven days are given – but since we are citizens of the Luhansk “people's republic” – we’ll get more leeway. But I don’t know how exactly, and how much,” Anzhelika says.
New citizens are uncertain about getting social payments and pensions from Russia, but assume they won’t be eligible. Now everyone has three passports: Russian, Ukrainian, and an unrecognized Luhansk “people’s republic” one. But people claim to be proud of the newly acquired citizenship.
Masseuse Darya also comes out with a passport. We ask her what she would do with the passport if Donbas returns to Ukraine, even if as an autonomy:
"It is a difficult question: I am now far removed from politics. People are the same, they've suffered both here and there. There are mothers [losing children], on both sides. But now Luhansk is closer to Russia... I do not know, there are authorities, and we obey them. If there is someone in charge, we must respect and accept their decisions," she says.
After three or four hours everyone returns to the “LPR” bus and heads home. Tomorrow, fifty other people will take the same journey.