Tuesday

22nd May 2018

Feature

Ukraine far from normal, despite EU-brokered ceasefire

  • Captured Russian tank on show in Kiev (Photo: Christopher Bobyn)

Kramatorsk; Myronivsky; Semenivka; Svitlodars: Few in Europe have heard of the minor towns on the Kiev-controlled side of the contact line in east Ukraine.

But events and feelings here bear import for the future of a conflict which is reshaping Europe’s post-Cold War security landscape.

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  • Tsvitarnaya hasn't left her apartment in five years (Photo: WFP/EU/Pete Kiehart)

Heavy fighting mostly stopped in September, following a new ceasefire deal, in Paris, between France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine.

The accord included decentralisation of power from Kiev to regional authorities in local elections, which took place last Sunday (25 October).

The developments, including Russia’s new front in Syria, have prompted hope in EU capitals the Ukraine war will be, at least, frozen, and, at best, resolved, allowing Kiev to focus on pro-EU reforms instead.

Different story

But the convoy of Ukrainian grad rocket launcher systems heading from Kramatorsk to the front line on Tuesday tells a different story.

Kramatorsk, an industrial town not far from rebel-held areas, has also landed a government contract to start making mortars in its machine-building factory next year.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian military checkpoints dot the main road to Debaltseve, a stronghold of the Russia-controlled rebel forces.

The Ukrainian army is digging in amid uncertainty on what comes next.

The road to Debaltseve is a snapshot of a conflict briefly suspended in time: trenches; armoured vehicles; idle artillery pieces; and soldiers, with machine guns, standing around.

The medical clinic in Semenivka, which was hit by Ukrainian shells during fighting last year, is still in ruins.

A favourite spot for visiting journalists and international observers, it has also become a symbol of the ongoing problems.

Closer to the contact line, locals report recent shelling despite the Paris deal.

Vera Gregorevna, who lives in Svitlodarsk, an industrial town in the region, told this website on Tuesday "there was shelling four to five days ago". Another resident said shells hit the town on Monday.

From Svitlodarsk, the road continues until the final Ukrainian checkpoint before enemy positions.

Here, it turns towards Myronivsky, a town less than 3,000 metres from trenches manned by pro-Russia fighters.

Ghost zone

For her part, Natalia Tsvitarnaya, a 58-year old who lives in her second-floor apartment in what is now a ghost town, longs to go back to a life free of violence and poverty.

Before the conflict, Myronivsky had a population of some 8,000 people. But most have fled due to near-constant shelling over the past year.

Tsvitarnaya called it "a dying city of pensioners”, with just four families now living in her entire apartment block.

She hasn't left her flat in five years, after losing her leg to diabetes.

But she recalls a past when she had a job at the local concrete factory and, later on, as an accountant.

Despite her self-imposed isolation, she also found companionship in Anatolia Usholik, a 60-year old former miner, whom she met through an ad in a local newspaper.

Myronivsky is, technically, under Kiev's administration, but its proximity to fighting puts it in a grey zone.

People like Tsvitarnaya spend most of their time watching Russian state TV.

The Kiev government pays meagre pensions, with NGOs and the UN forced to step in with food vouchers. Tsvitarnaya gets €42 a month from Kiev. All of it, she says, will go on winter heating.

The local elections, held almost everywhere else in Kiev-controlled Ukraine on Sunday, skipped Myronivsky.

Government officials say it’s because of security concerns and because almost no one lives there any more.

But if the vote had been held, Kiev and its pro-EU agenda might have gotten short shrift.

Hearts and minds

Tsvitarnaya, for one, speaks fondly of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, describing him as “charming”, “a strong president”, and as someone “who can manage a huge country”.

“I’m in favour of Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev, and the USSR”, she told EUobserver, listing former Soviet heads.

"I would prefer that this city be in the DNR”, she added, referring to the self-proclaimed, Russia-controlled Donetsk People’s Republic, just next door.

For his part, Victor Andrusiv, the deputy chairman of the Donetsk Regional State Administration, a Kiev-controlled local authority, told this website the EU-brokered vote was premature because the conflict has distorted political opinion.

“If you ask me, it was not a good time to have elections [anywhere]”, he said.

He blamed the steady diet of Russian TV propaganda for pro-Russia feeling in the region.

He also defended Kiev’s efforts to restore normality.

He admitted that the government is struggling to repair war damage.

But he said everyone has electricity and running water and that the most needy qualify for heating subsidies: “Nobody dies from hunger or cold”.

The man from Lviv

Andrusiv is a young and well-educated civil servant from Lviv, a town near Poland, and a bastion of nationalist, pro-Western sentiment.

He was posted to Kramatorsk, the seat of the Donetsk Regional State Administration, in July.

He says its main task is to reduce unemployment. But another task is to remove traces of the old Soviet regime which Tsvitarnaya remembers so fondly.

Before Russia invaded last March, there were some 25,000 statues of Lenin in Ukraine.

The Donetsk administration has torn down 46 of them this year alone. Just two are left in the area under its control. But they’ll be taken down next week.

“You could easily make Soviet films here. You don't even need decorations”, Andrusiv said of the Kramatorsk cityscape.

He said he would have been conscripted into the Ukrainian army. But his administrative skills saw Kiev send him to east Ukraine to establish its authority by civilian means.

Andrusiv and Tsvitarnaya are both nationals of post-revolutionary Ukraine.

But their diametrically opposed politics show how the conflict has aggravated divisions in Ukrainian society.

When EUobserver asked Andrusiv if he ever wants to visit Russia, he joked: “Yes. But in a tank”.

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