20th Feb 2020

Rebel authorities, tycoons exploit aid effort in east Ukraine

  • People redeem their vouchers at a supermarket in east Ukraine (Photo: WFP/EU/Pete Kiehart)

With winter approaching, EU and UN efforts to bring relief to elderly people and children in east Ukraine are being complicated by rebel politics and forced to rely on the services of a Russia-friendly oligarch.

Food, rent, and utility prices keep climbing in the conflict zone, wrecked by 18 months of war.

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  • Koepeikina breaks out in tears in Svetlodarsk (Photo: WFP/EU/Pete Kiehart)

Food prices in rebel-held zones, for instance, are 70 percent higher than the national average.

But the United Nations is having to navigate a bureaucratic minefield to deliver food to rebel-held regions without compromising its neutrality.

The authorities in the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic (LNR) and Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) are trying to use aid access as leverage to force the UN to recognise their legitimacy.

The relief effort is further complicated by new Kiev regulations, which block commercial flows of medicine and food into the two entities.

The international donations are also, in part, ending up in the pockets of Rinat Akhmetov, a pro-Russia sympathiser and Ukraine’s richest man.

The Oligarch

It is nearly impossible to escape Akhmetov’s reach.

The elusive character, whose business empire stretches across the east, is worth close to $6 billion, according to Forbes magazine.

A former ally of Ukraine’s ousted president Yanukovych, he is, according to some reports, now backing the Kremlin line in the occupied territories of the Donbas region.

He also owns the Brusnichka, a supermarket chain with around 150 outlets.

The shops are dotted round in areas where 1.4 million people, displaced by the conflict, purchase food with cash vouchers co-financed by the United States, the European Commission, and others agencies.

The EU and its member states have jointly contributed over €242 million in aid since the start of the crisis.

An assistant at one NGO, which works with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) on distributing the vouchers, told this website that Brusnichka is used because it has the digital infrastructure needed to accurately track voucher purchases.

Selpo, another chain, is also used for the vouchers.

Earlier this summer, the WFP handed out 39,000 vouchers. All but 8,000 went to the government-controlled areas of Donetsk.

The plan is to extend the voucher and food distribution programme well into next year in the hope of reaching some 575,000 people.

Life line

Thirty-one-year old Natalia fled Pervomansk, a city in rebel-held Luhansk, in December.

Before the war, she earned around €100 per month as a secretary. But she had to leave behind her flat and her job.

She now lives in an unheated room at a student hostel in Severondentsk with her two-year old child and her mother.

The hostel is also home to 16 other displaced families. Together, they share a kitchen which has only two small refrigerators.

Prokopchuk gets around €50 a month from the government, but after paying her rent, she has just under €20 left.

“The vouchers are crucial. They are critical. Thanks to the vouchers I can purchase diapers and cleaning powder and meat and fish,” she says.

“I am depressed because I am always thinking about what has happened. I want a good education for my daughter, if possible.”

Similar stories can be heard in Svetlodarsk, a drab Soviet-era industrial town near the frontline with the DNR, reached by a road peppered with military checkpoints.

Fifty-year old Vera Koepeikina is in tears.

She, along with more than dozen other people, is standing under drizzling rain and grey skies outside the front entrance of the Palace of Culture, a large, concrete building turned into a food voucher distribution centre.

She tells reporters and aid workers that “everything is broken and nobody is helping”.

Less than 50 metres away, is a well-stocked Brusnichka store.

While Koepeikina stands outside, around a dozen people queue inside the Palace lobby with People in Need (PIN), a Czech NGO working with WFP, which is registering them for the voucher programme.

Only those called ahead of time from a list provided to PIN by the local government administrators are entitled to the voucher, which resembles a credit card. On this day, around 150 will be registered.

Each voucher has around $20 worth of credits on it, reserved for people displaced by the conflict and the most impoverished locals.

PIN exclusivity

People stuck in LNR and DNR do not get vouchers. Instead, they receive food parcels.

The UN agencies rely on NGOs to distribute the boxes in both areas, with the WFP hoping to deliver around 11,500 to people in the LNR by mid-November.

But the separtists booted out the UN and other charity organisations after they introduced new registration rules which require UN signatures. Signing documents is seen as tacit recognition of their authority.

“They’ve been very tricky with this”, said a WFP spokesperson.

PIN, for its part, was able to regain access. A PIN head office official in Ukraine said it was down to “pure luck”.

The NGO receives a big chunk of its annual finances from the Czech state budget with the country’s president, Milos Zeman, an outspoken supporter of Russia’s president.

WFP has no access

Access restrictions to the UN agency for refugees (UNCHR) and the UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs (OCHA) have since been lifted.

But the World Food Programme remains locked out and is unable to distribute food in LNR after the Kiev-appointed governor of the Luhansk region shut down all access points over the summer.

A lot of Russian humanitarian aid also ends up for sale in supermarkets, according to one aid worker from the US-based Adventist Development and Relief Agency International.

The WFP, for its part, now wants to broker a deal to transit the food through an access point in the DNR but must first get their approval without signing any “official documentation.”

The process is long and cumbersome, leaving WFP aid workers frustrated.

There is some hope.

Last week, authorities in the Luhansk region opened an access point to the rebel zone near the Russian border. It is a move welcomed by locals on both sides of the divide, but the crossing is restricted to pedestrians only.

"There was huge social tension because actually lots of families were separated. Relatives couldn’t communicate and this was really a burden for us,” said Luhansk deputy governor Jury Klimenko.

Klimenko announced two other crossing points would be opened before the end of the year, one in Zolote and another in Novotoshevka.

Both he said, would allow vehicles and humanitarian aid to pass.

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