In pre-Soviet times, Donetsk region was popularly known as the Wild Land: sparsely inhabited, lacking infrastructure and without the rich history of neighbouring Kievan Rus’. The Soviet experience transformed the region completely, turning it into a frontrunner in every way: industrial output, population numbers and members of the Communist Party. The area was a godsend for Soviet propaganda – a place with no history, owing its very existence to the Communists who covered the land in factories and housing developments for the workers who arrived to staff them.
The sense of debt to the Soviet regime remains strong in the area to this day. According to a survey carried out by a Donetsk polling company, 53% of the district’s inhabitants would not oppose the re-establishment of the Soviet Union (link in Russian). A majority of the local population hankers after strict censorship of television and the press, and government regulation of food prices.
Donetsk has also stayed true to the principles of socialist competition, albeit in a somewhat mutant form. In search of a quick buck, former party functionaries first privatised the main industrial enterprises of the region, and then founded a movement that would allow them to participate in political life and defend their own interests: the Party of Regions. The old Soviet principle still applies: to succeed you have to join the Party. If that used to mean the Communist Party, today it is the party of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, which was founded and developed in Donetsk.
Local politics are run on a Machiavellian basis. Those who have studied at educational establishments in Europe and America prefer the term ‘realpolitik’, and have no scruples about deception and manipulation, about squirrelling away profits and concealing capital. Their audacity is hardly surprising – in the region there is still no such thing as a civil society, most journalists are at the mercy of the party machine and the law enforcement system and courts are an extension of government. But even when information about official abuse of power comes to the notice of the local population, it has little effect.
Herein lies the nub of the problem. Local people are neither surprised nor particularly bothered by corruption and the contravention of laws, promises and elementary moral principles. In Donetsk that’s the norm – winner takes all, and the possession of power is regarded as a kind of lottery. How else could you look at members of the elite who can barely string two words together, “have never been to university”, “know nothing about manners”, and whose past is often reflected in the criminal chronicles of the turbulent 1990s? Today, these successful wheeler dealers, former members of the Communist Party and the ‘gilded youth’ groomed by them, run the district – as they do the whole country – while blaming anything that goes wrong, however ridiculous, on the previous regime.
In the region there is still no such thing as a civil society, most journalists are at the mercy of the party machine and the law enforcement system and courts are an extension of government. But even when information about official abuse of power comes to the notice of the local population, it has little effect.
Apart from public apathy, there is also the problem that the Party of Regions controls the opposition. Radical and marginal voices are squeezed into the ‘opposition’ niche, while those who pose any real threat soon find themselves working for bodies affiliated to the government. This is what has happened to the majority of community-based organisations, who have now found themselves part of a new body, the Public Council of Donetsk Region. This category includes protest movements who consist mainly of powerless businessmen, and parties whose leadership is appointed by the Party of Regions district office. As such, the authorities always have a ‘puppet’ opposition to show to visiting inspectors, to demonstrate their democratic credentials. When there are no outsiders in sight democracy is spoken about in the same breath as anarchy, as a system alien to the local population, who are inclined to submissiveness and the presence of a ‘strong arm’ in government.
Any regional opposition that is neither controlled by, nor in the pocket of, the administration is split and disorganised and lacks access to the media. For many politicians in the district, being in opposition is not a question of promoting human rights or changing the system, but the starting line for building one’s own career.
At the most recent local elections the Party of Regions took 166 seats on the Donetsk District Council. Of its political rivals, “Strong Ukraine” took four seats, the Communists two and the Agrarian Party one. It should be said, however, that these political bodies are the Party of Regions’ rivals only in name. In reality they all vote the same way in the District Council on most questions and any occasional disagreements among them are stage-managed in order to create the illusion of a democratic process.
The people of Donetsk vote for the Party of Regions because they see it as representing their interests at a national level. This is as much a myth as the stories about Socialist achievements and the invincibility of the Soviet people that circulated for decades and still live on in the hearts and minds of many inhabitants of the Don region. Of course, there are also many who believe the Party of Regions wins so many votes because elections are rigged. Regardless of the validity or otherwise of this, the truth is that the Party of Regions has monopolised the political process in the area. Its blue and white colours cover the region’s public space like asphalt, trying to smother every shoot of alternative thought.
Exploiting the absence of opposition checks and balances, the party has installed an administrative machine that operates according to its interests alone. This has occasionally resulted in outrageous abuses of the democratic process. For example: the remarkable practice of deputies passing on their voting cards to unelected third parties (in direct contravention of Ukrainian law). On 8th June, I even managed to film Tatyana Zhukova, a member of a lower Council, voting in place of an elected deputy in the Donetsk District Council (see video).
Instead of investigating, and referring this particular incident to law enforcement authorities, the local authority is refusing to admit any breach of the law and is trying to hush the affair up. The local media have also been united in ignoring Zhukova’s illegal action, despite the existence of a recording of the vote. If you mention the incident to local officials, they immediately try to change the subject. Ranks are closed and backs are covered, because they all know that if one person talks, they’ll all be in trouble. You could end up with a mudslinging match that no one could win. It’s far better for everyone to keep quiet or to agree on a cover story. Indeed, this is exactly what happened here, with the authorities sending pre-packaged news stories round the local television stations in the middle of June.
Yevgeny Shibalov, a reporter for the authoritative Ukrainian magazine “Weekly Mirror” has written in detail about this return to Soviet-style “packaging” of TV news on the local state-owned television company (link in Russian). “Packaging” of news stories began at the end of May on all the company’s outlets (the 27th TV channel, cable radio and the ‘Tsentr’ radio channel). The “packages” consist of a detailed schedule of the main topics for news bulletins. Headline items are inevitably official events involving the local governor Anatoly Bliznyuk and his deputies. Editors are directed to named officials as chief subjects for interview on all topics.
The regional media have remained silent when it comes to abuses of power by the political elite. Not a word was uttered when unidentified men in sportswear attacked locals who protested against a building development belonging to Viktor Yanukovych’s son (see video). They were similarly obedient when it came to reporting the unexplained closure of schools in the district.
At the same time, the population is being fed a doctrine of non-protest, and anyone who does protest is immediately labelled as a troublemaker. Within this unspoken ideological frame the authorities and their economic sponsors offer the people weekly programmes of entertainment at the ‘Donbass Arena’ and free fairground attractions (see reference to letter from ‘Metinvest’ in Russian here). Most refuse to face the fact that they are paying for these ‘free’ shows out of their own pockets through taxation. And that elected officials are supposed to be hired managers, employed by citizens, and not the other way around.