Ukraine is struggling to explain its policies to eastern Ukrainians.
The sooner politicians and society understand that it is not possible to restore the pre-war situation in the Donbass—and that extensive autonomy would be a relatively good option for the region—the better for Ukraine. The subject was discussed in Diplomaatia’s interview with Enrique Menendez, businessman and popular blogger covering social subjects.
Menendez, who managed an internet marketing company before the conflict, co-founded Responsible Citizens, an organisation that distributed international humanitarian aid in Donetsk after the war started. This winter, however, the authorities of the separatist “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) forced him to leave his hometown and he moved to Kyiv. Menendez’s grandfather was Spanish, fought for the Republican faction in the Spanish Civil War and ended up living in the Donbass after World War II.
Q: Why were you forced to leave Donetsk, even though you had lived and worked there throughout the “hot phase” of the war without having problems, although you were quite critical of the separatists?
Menendez: I was not exactly forced to leave. I was deported. It all began when Marina Cherenkova [former deputy governor of Donetsk—JP], one of the founders of our group (Responsible Citizens), was detained on 29 January. She managed to post a note about it on Facebook. Four days later she called us (from prison) and asked us to come to the MGB [DNR national security ministry—JP] and make a statement. Four of us went and we were questioned for seven hours about our organisation’s activities. After that, we were handed pieces of paper and ordered to write, from dictation, that we were aware of Georgi Sepashvili’s [acting head of MGB—JP] order to expel us from DNR without the right to return, and we consented. Signature, date, and goodbye! We were led to separate cars, then they took us home and gave us 15 minutes to collect things, after which we were taken to checkpoint zero [no-man’s-land between the checkpoints of the separatists and the Ukrainian army—JP] in an empty field. Night had already fallen and we were afraid that they would shoot us in the back. But fortunately they did not, and they even left us one of our organisation’s cars, which we used to drive carefully towards the nearest Ukrainian post. Naturally, it was closed for the night and we were greeted with a volley of automatic and machine-gun fire, but luckily they aimed in the air. We called our acquaintances in Kyiv and they alerted the necessary people. The mine barrage was removed from the area in front of the checkpoint and we were allowed to pass through. [Marina Cherenkova was also released, but only on 22 February, and also expelled from DNR.—JP]
Your aid organisation was closed, of course?
Eighteen of our colleagues are still in Donetsk but the authorities promised not to touch them. They have kept their promise thus far. However, all our cars, storage and humanitarian aid have been seized. They prohibited our organisation’s activity. No official reason has been given for this; it was only said in a press release that Marina collected intelligence for “Western, including American, non-governmental organisations”. I think the real reasons are that we did not cooperate with the local authorities and were not controlled by them, and, secondly, some of the residents started to view us as alternative candidates for the local elections. [Local elections were supposed to take place in DNR in late April but were postponed to 2017.—JP]
Were you planning to participate?
Of course we had no such a plan, but that did not stop them from viewing us as competition. We could not have participated even if we wanted to, since there is a moratorium on registering parties and public organisations in DNR.
What did you mean by the authorities in DNR wanting to control you?
Power is being centralised very actively right now in DNR. It is easy to explain the absence of any democracy by referring to the war. There is no freedom of opinion. All publications, news sites, television and radio channels answer directly to the ministry of information. Last year DNR refused to accredit many foreign journalists who had been there several times before and who had published very balanced material. [The authorities in Donetsk have refused to accredit me twice, most recently last autumn. Even many familiar Russian journalists did not receive accreditation, as they did not write “as they were supposed to”.—JP] Then there were attempts to try to control the delivery and distribution of humanitarian aid. All organisations involved in this, even the international ones, were forced to undergo accreditation. Many of those already operating did not receive accreditation. It is obvious that the authorities want to control absolutely everything. As we did not register the organisation in DNR and still visited Kyiv at will, we were an incomprehensible exception for them. Moreover, we agreed from the start that we would not get involved with either of the warring parties or pick sides. Our purpose was to help people. We cooperated with international aid organisations. They needed an official partner that would operate within the legal framework, of which there could be only one in this case, that of Ukraine. We were registered in Kramatorsk [the current “capital” of the part of Donetsk oblast controlled by Ukraine—JP] due to the need to get humanitarian aid for distribution from international organisations. They brought the aid to Donetsk and we helped to distribute it. Altogether, we helped 2,500 people every month for two years. Our cooperation partners were UNCHR, UNDP and People in Need [a Czech aid organisation—JP].
How would you describe the atmosphere in DNR over the last couple of months?
It is difficult for me to say whether there have been crackdowns. If life were normal, then, yes, these would be crackdowns but if we take into account the fact that the area is a military conflict zone, then I am hesitant about it … You and I probably have very different scales for evaluating things. But, naturally, rigorous control was exercised over various fields of life.
Why is that?
The first big reason is that the authorities want to control everything, all aspects. Everything that seems dangerous to the authorities needs to be destroyed, i.e. expelled, or controlled. Secondly, there was a purge before the elections. [Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the leader of DNR, initially wanted to organise local elections in April, but then postponed them for a year.—JP) Sometime in mid-February, FSB’s (Russian Federal Security Service) new administrator and his new team entered the area. Siloviki still play an important role in DNR and LNR (the separatist “Luhansk People’s Republic”) and they are used for settling scores. We must understand that the armed conflict has been frozen for the moment—there are only occasional engagements and no other military activity—which is why the force that kept them all occupied has gone, and internal conflicts are starting to emerge. This not only involves the wave of repressions, as they are called, but also many internal scandals. Internal conflicts are increasing.
Why are relations growing tenser? Have the divisible resources diminished or are there other reasons?
The main reason is that (active) warfare has ceased. Everyone is involved in warfare when there is combat activity, but right now there is more time and more opportunities. Naturally, the battles to gain access to resources are also very important. Some people get rich; some are involved in redistributing assets. Journalists have not covered this extensively but many assets have changed hands lately. It seems logical in a way. Activities have their own logic in military conflict zones.
And the longer this non-war lasts, the more they will be at each other’s throats?
I think so, yes. As time goes by, Moscow and the local authorities are going to have many more disputes. The same process is, by the way, happening in Ukraine: after the victory of Euromaidan, people agreed with the US and Europe in everything, but disagreements started to emerge after some time had passed.
How can the separatists have material disagreements with Russia if Moscow controls them almost completely?
What do you mean by controlling? How can one control a region with a population of four million? One cannot post a guard on every street corner. All officials are local; the leaders of all pseudo-ministries are local. Naturally, there are administrator somewhere at the top, but not everyone is being followed.
Does Moscow have complete control of the DNR army, at least?
The high command (of the army) may be Russian but nearly 80% of the soldiers are local. Locals, however, have their own interests. Keep in mind that their interests and those of Moscow sometimes overlap, but sometimes they do not. People say, for example, that the political stage in DNR is being cleared for Zakharchenko. I do not think so because people support him strongly anyway. I think many observers are ignoring the fact that he is actually supported by very many common people. I had many acquaintances in Donetsk, as many as a thousand people I guess, and I draw conclusions about what common people think on the basis of that. I am absolutely convinced that Zakharchenko is popular among the supporters of DNR. It must be also taken into account, however, that not all people on the territory of DNR support the DNR authorities. The authorities in DNR are trying their best to show the world that DNR is the choice of the majority, but it is not. Yes, there are many people who support DNR idealistically, but the proportion of supporters is not even near 80%. In this context, I am not talking about the people who left the region and who have the right to return there someday—they definitely have a very different view on the matter. Society has fragmented quite badly there.
What do you mean by that?
There is no common view about what is happening. There are people who truly support separating the Donbass from Ukraine, i.e. they represent separatism. They might support both acceding to Russia and independence. There are those who support staying with Ukraine. Nevertheless, this group has members who think that Ukraine should look towards Europe and those who think it should have a pro-Russian stance, as well as those who consider that it should implement a balanced policy. The third large group do not think about these matters at all and just want to lead peaceful lives. They are the majority. What bothers me the most is that there is no serious dialogue about the future, either here (in Kyiv) or there (Donetsk). Everyone thinks that there are only two possible options: LNR-DNR will either form a separate notional entity or stay within Ukraine according to the terms set by Ukraine. Clearly, this is not so.
What other options are there?
Forming a state within a state, like with Hong Kong and China. A federation or confederation. There are a lot of options.
All right, but who do you think should negotiate about these future options? With whom should Kyiv hold negotiations about Ukrainian territory?
It seems to me that the dialogue should be initiated by experts and pundits.
You mean that civil society should try to create a dialogue?
Which option do you prefer as a third-generation resident of the Donbass?
I think the best option would be to grant extensive autonomy for the Donbass within the territory of Ukraine. It is a good option, but unfortunately some people in Ukraine immediately react aggressively to the word “autonomy”. Everyone says that the Donbass is not capable of coping as an independent state in economic terms. It isn’t, but for the simple reason that no one would recognise it as an independent state. But why doesn’t anyone see that the Donbass would probably be self-sufficient as an autonomous state? In 2015, Donetsk oblast had the second-largest volume of exports of the 25 regions of Ukraine. All the larger companies on the territory of DNR are still registered in Ukraine because they could not export anything if they weren’t. Those companies still pay taxes to the Ukrainian state. [Donetsk’s current] governor has said that 52% of the budget of Donetsk oblast was contributed by the occupied territories.
How many of the large factories on DNR territory are still working?
Most of the large companies are still operating. They have simply had to change their logistics chains to continue production. About 80% of the factories have been re-registered to comply with Ukrainian laws. Some of the mines are still very successful and earn big profits for their owners. Some are not, because the facilities were shot to pieces or flooded. The state’s mines have been nationalised. The situation in private mines varies—some are owned by the same people if an agreement was reached, while some have been taken from previous owners and belong to new people.
How about the assets of Rinat Akhmetov? [Akhmetov is the richest person in Ukraine and supported Yanukovych’s presidential campaign in 2010. Yanukovych was ousted in the winter of 2014 as a result of the Maidan revolution. The bulk of Akhmetov’s assets was located in Donetsk oblast.—JP]
Everything is fine with him.
Describe the economic situation in DNR briefly.
Although no one is preparing statistics, I estimate that the economy of DNR has shrunk by 70%. The banking system functions only within DNR. Broadly speaking, only public authorities receive good salaries. The average salary of a state official is about 12,000 Russian roubles [about 160 euros, which is slightly more than the average salary in Ukraine—JP]. The average salary in the region is approximately 5,000 roubles (70 euros), almost a pittance. The tax board functions but no statistics are published about tax collection. Income tax, for example, is 5%, the uniform social tax is 31%. There is no value-added tax. So the tax system is advantageous there [laughs]. But still, 80% of the DNR budget is composed of support from Russia. Large factories, especially those that export, still pay all their taxes to Ukraine.
Earlier, you said that Ukrainian society first needed to understand that, even if the war came to an end thanks to some miracle, the oblasts of Lugansk and Donetsk could no longer exist as before, as if nothing had happened.
Of course. But society will not come to such a conclusion by itself—the experts and pundits need to do it. It won’t happen yet. I recently participated in an ICTV programme [the third most-viewed television channel in Ukraine—JP] where the future of the Donbass was discussed. About 50 experts had to answer the question: “How do you see the Donbass in five years’ time?” and they were given three options: as LNR-DNR; as oblasts of Donetsk and Lugansk, just as before; or as an autonomous state. All the experts from Kyiv picked the second option: oblasts of Donetsk and Lugansk, just as before. They do not understand that one cannot simply return to the situation as it was in 2013. In all the assessments I have read by international experts dealing with conflict, there is not a single case of a conflict claiming more than 1,000 lives in which the pre-conflict situation has been restored. This would be something new. However, Ukraine only wants that option. The most important thing for Kyiv to understand is that they need to sit down to negotiate and communicate with the other party.
Let us imagine that Kyiv somehow agreed to this, due to pressure from the West—but would the other party even want to talk?
I am certain that it does. It seems to me that the other party is even more willing to compromise. This raises the question of what we mean by the “other party”. As I said, society there is very fragmented.
I meant the current de facto leaders of DNR and LNR.
I am certain that they would want to talk. Let us recall who was the first to use the expression “extensive autonomy”—Denis Pushilin [DNR’s main negotiator during the Minsk Agreements process, and chairman of the so-called DNR parliament—JP] in May 2015. He said that the Donbass would agree to extensive autonomy within Ukraine. It was a step towards meeting Kyiv in the middle. I understood that it was an order from Moscow. Kyiv’s reaction to this was very aggressive—this subject was non-negotiable; no autonomy would be allowed. But they could have tried to discuss what was meant by “extensive autonomy”. These kinds of negotiations could be conducted very discreetly. In conflict regulation, all negotiations have a public side and a confidential side, where all kinds of options can be discussed.
Why has the Minsk-II agreement, signed a year ago, been a failure? It specifies a “special status” for the Donbass.
The Minsk Agreements are too indefinite. True, the ways in which the conflict could move on from the military stage to political action are not badly described in the documents. The war is essentially over, but no political developments have followed. Even the Ukrainian law about granting a special status to the Donbass is actually empty, about nothing, if one reads it closely. It is intended to mislead Western partners. Throughout 2015, Ukrainian politicians convinced the nation that the agreements would never work instead of trying to figure out how to make them work. There are billboards in Kyiv that invite people to oppose special status for the Donbass. How can they encourage such a thing if it is in breach of the obligations that Ukraine undertook through international mediation, and which were endorsed by the leaders of Germany and France? When the West started to pressure Kyiv into implementing the agreements, it turned out that no one knew how to do it.
But is the other party not doing anything to implement the agreements either?
What other party? What can we demand from them? They are not legitimate; we cannot demand the same things from them that we expect from the Ukrainian state. Yes, they act similarly. Bandits and legitimate power act almost the same. I understand why bandits are not acting constructively but I do not understand why the state isn’t.
How could any state hold constructive negotiations with bandits?
They could. The British government was constructive with the IRA—admittedly, after a conflict that lasted 30 years. There was a similar situation with the Indonesian government and Aceh province. There are really many examples.
Well, yes, but these examples are about long-term conflicts in which governments saw no other choice than to negotiate with the “bandits” as equals.
That is true. I would not want to live in a state where such a conflict lasted for 14 years. Besides, Ukraine could not handle 14 years of war.
At the same time, it is hard to believe that the war in the Donbass will end after a few years.
Unfortunately, this is true; the conflict will probably drag on for many years. What we need here is very smart politics. Alas, Ukrainian politicians do not know what compromises in politics mean. They cannot compromise. Another thing is that many people in Ukraine want to monopolise patriotism—“I know what a real Ukrainian patriot looks like, but you don’t and therefore you’re not a real patriot!” This is a serious issue. The main point is not whether one is for or against Ukraine but what Ukraine should be like. Try saying that you’re for Ukraine but want it to maintain friendly relations with Russia. You are instantly a traitor and spy!
What do you as a resident of Donetsk think—what is Russia betting on?
I think that Russia is trying to change the internal politics of Ukraine. They are hoping for extraordinary elections that change the relationships between the political powers in Ukraine.
In February I spent nearly two weeks driving along the front line. I asked people in the part of the Donbass controlled by Ukraine what they thought of the Ukrainian authorities and what Kyiv was trying to do to capture the hearts and minds of the locals. Naturally, no one said to my face that they were against Kyiv and for the separatists. What do you think about the information politics implemented in the Donbass by the Ukrainian state?
I think no particular loyalty is felt in the region. The information politics implemented by the Ukrainian state, both in areas controlled by Kyiv and not controlled by it, are a complete failure. It is practically non-existent. I recently came across a brochure distributed in Kyiv at a centre for migrants from the Donbass. It was an example of hideous propaganda. People who read it will not begin to love Ukraine more, but they will think the writer was an idiot. Even the US ambassador to Ukraine recently said that there was no point in competing with Russia over who can tell the most lies.
What was in the brochure?
For example, it said that the Donbass had never belonged to Russia and had always been a region of Ukraine since ancient times. There were also some claims about the region’s economy that would make people who have lived in the Donbass laugh out loud.
What is state propaganda like in DNR?
It is naïve, like in the Soviet Union. One gets the impression that the new editors of most television channels and publications are people who arrived from the 1970s. The entire media talk and sing the same—just like the Soviet Union in this sense!
Are the media patriotic and do they support the idea of Novorossiya?
Very patriotic, although Novorossiya is no longer really mentioned that much. But the young republic is mentioned, with a touch of hysteria. Psychologists should research the case because this is the behaviour of people who understand in their heart of hearts that they are not right but try to prove they are with all this pathos and loud noise. All schools have compulsory lessons of patriotic education every week. [These are officially called lessons in civil education.—JP]
Has ideologically correct inspiration also taken hold of writers, composers and artists?
Of course, a lot of passionate, ideologically correct poetry has been published. Many books have already been written about the war in the Donbass, including fiction. There are many creative people who adopted the “correct approach”. But this exaltation is not prevalent only in certain strata of society—it extends everywhere.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.