In 2014, Russia invaded eastern Ukraine in support of separatist fighters who seized control in parts of the Donbas region. Three years later, this region’s future remains unclear.
Government policy towards the occupied territories further exacerbates the lack of clarity. A new survey suggests that Ukrainian citizens do not know what to expect as the government does not have a plan for these regions.
Jointly carried out by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation and the Razumkov Centre, the survey asked 2,018 residents of the government-controlled territories on their opinion of state policy towards the occupied regions.The results suggest that most Ukrainians view the international pressure on Russia as the most effective means of stopping the armed conflict in the east.
Hromadske spoke with Mariya Zolkina of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation to find out more.
Do people understand the government’s policy towards the occupied territories?
“At least for now, the government policies are not well understood,” says Zolkina. Despite of the National Security Council’s recent decrees imposing an economic blockade on the self-proclaimed [separatist] republics, as well as the bill on the “De-occupation of Donbas,” residents of government-controlled territories still do not understand the government’s strategy. The survey suggests that this is the result of the government’s inconsistent communication.
“The most optimistic answer that we received was that there might be a government policy, but it is badly communicated. That there is some understanding of further actions, but they are not explained well,” says Zolkina. She adds that the majority of respondents think that no such government policy exists, that it has no clear goals, or that it has no coherent means of achieving its goals and articulates no further actions to be taken.
According to Zolkina, the survey shows that the public generally wants the conflict to be resolved peacefully. However, roughly one-fifth of respondents (18%) think that the conflict should end in military victory. An equal proportion opined that they want peace “by any means”. However, a majority — 52% — think that “for the sake of peace the government needs to make compromises, but within limits.”
The survey also asked about concrete methods of ending the war. Most (38%) opined that the conflict can end as result of international pressure on Russia to cease its involvement. A further 28% said that a successful reconstruction of the government-controlled eastern territories would help end the conflict.
Compared to the previous year, the proportion of people who believe the government must stop financing the occupied territories has nearly fallen by half. There has also been a two-fold decrease in people who believe that making Russian an official state language on par with Ukrainian would help with the conflict. Likewise, the survey reveals that, compared to the last year, there are fewer people who would like to see Ukraine federalized.
There are, however, significant regional differences across the country. Respondents in southern regions exhibit more “pro-Russian” views, Zolkina says.
“When we speak about whether to organize political elections in the occupied territories, amend the constitution, or renounce closer ties with NATO, people take it emotionally, especially in the frontline areas...They see this as a concession to those who started the armed conflict that has split the Donbas. In contrast, citizens of the Southern regions have seen no war. As a result, they are more loyal [to Russia].”
Do Ukrainian citizens support the government blockade of the separatist “republics?”
Citizens of government-controlled regions mostly support the Nationals Security Council’s decision to impose a trade blockade on the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) and the “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LPR). The blockade enjoys the highest support in western Ukraine (66%), and somewhat lower support in central Ukraine (47%). Interestingly, 38% of citizens of Ukraine’s eastern regions support such a blockade, as opposed to 30% in the south.
“It is bewildering that even after the government's decision to sever trade relations with the occupied territories, this policy was not communicated to the public,” Zolkina said. “The government lacks connection with its citizenry, which results in a certain frustration among the population and a dissonance in which policy options they support.”
Should the uncontrolled territories of the Donbas region be legally recognised as occupied?
More than half of Ukrainians — 55% — support legislative recognition of the occupation, as opposed to 22% who are against it. A quarter of the public remains undecided. A similar pattern of regional differences prevails.
“As a matter of fact, half of the population in the government-controlled eastern regions supports the blockade, but doesn’t support the decision to legally recognise these areas as ‘temporarily occupied,’” Zolkina says. “This is incoherent. Recognising these territories as occupied would automatically imply that the government’s relations with them — first of all, economic and trade relations — will be minimized. On the one hand, the survey shows that there are very stable patterns of public opinion. On the other, people ultimately do not understand the consequences of certain policy decisions.”
Such results should come as a warning, says Zolkina. If citizens don’t understand the reasons for the government’s policy decisions, including the legal recognition of the occupation, it could be easy for the authorities to manipulate public opinion.
What is the political future of the self-proclaimed republics?
A clear majority of respondents — 55% — support recognizing the territories not under government control as occupied, while leaving them administratively within Ukraine. At the same time, one in five Ukrainians is inclined to grant these territories more political autonomy. Only 9% support the “republics’” independence or their merger with Russia. Overall, in 2017, fewer people support broader autonomy for these territories than in the previous year. Less than 30% of eastern Ukrainians support it.
While there is only limited popular support for a continued relationship with the occupied territories, Ukrainians are nevertheless ready to support concrete policy steps such as aid packages to people potentially willing to move to the government-controlled territories, Zolkina says.
Should the government support citizens living in the non-government-controlled territories of the Donbas?
Public opinion is almost equally split on this issue: 23% support the complete isolation of the occupied territories; while 22% support a partial blockade concerning only trade relations. A similar proportion supports continuing supplies of vital commodities to the occupied territories. And 42% of Ukrainians oppose the government’s payment of pensions and other welfare transfers to the region’s residents.
Summarizing the survey results, Zolkina noted that most Ukrainians support measures that would make it easier for the residents of the occupied territories to access administrative services in the government-controlled territories.
There is still no registry of internally displaced persons. “It has not become easier to be an IDP,” she said.
/ Reporting by Anna Tokhmakhchi
/ Translated by Taras Fedirko