Feeding democracy in Slovyansk


Life in Slovyansk is no picnic. Now election candidates think votes can be bought with food parcels. На русском языке


Aleksey Matsuka
8 September 2014

Slovyansk became a household name when several dozen armed men barged into the central police station and seized power in the spring of 2014. They were accompanied by Russian TV journalists who kept the lens covers firmly on their cameras until the scene had been set: some of the men tied ropes to the iron bars covering the police station windows, attached them to their cars and started trying to rip them out. This scene was shown on all Russian TV channels as 'the local population doing battle for its rights.' These 'rights' included, first and foremost, free access to weapons and the opportunity to kill anyone who thinks differently to you. The graves of these people were, incidentally, found recently in Slovyansk, after the city was liberated: 14 bodies buried by the monument to heroes of the Civil War. There was some information to the effect that four of the corpses were priests of the Protestant Church of the Transfiguration. Three have already been identified; the other eleven were sent for DNA testing.

The Age of Anxiety

Unnamed graves are still being uncovered in Slovyansk. Locals remember with real anxiety the months when the city was full of armed separatists. But this anxiety takes different forms. Some remember being 'bombed by the Ukrainian army,' others being persecuted by the Donetsk People's Republic (DNR in Russian). Now, most importantly, both groups can simply go to the central square on a Sunday to join demonstrations in support of Ukrainian unity – and they can talk about anything that worries them. Everyone kept quiet while the armed separatist leaders Igor Girkin (better known as Igor Strelkov) and Vyacheslav Ponomaryov were in town; the only people talking were the Communists and some Party of Regions (PoR) members who supported the rule of the insurgents.

Slovyansk's infamous SBU building where prisoners were held by DNR militia.

Slovyansk's infamous SBU building where prisoners were held by DNR militia. (c) Aleksey Matsuka

The topic of conversation in Slovyansk is more likely to be infrastructure problems than politics.

The topic of conversation in Slovyansk is more likely to be infrastructure problems than politics. At first sight it looks like any other town. You get off the train and start looking round for signs of war: the first thing you see is a burnt-out shop called 'Bravo' in the station itself. Its owners talk of losing millions, and are currently trying to agree compensation with their insurance company, but the Donetsk Chamber of Commerce, which has to issue a certificate of force majeure in such cases, is in Donetsk; and this considerably complicates the process of acquiring all the necessary documentation, not only for 'Bravo,' but for the other entrepreneurs whose shops and kiosks (all insured) were destroyed during the fighting. 

Local businessmen have written to the Ukrainian prime minister to draw central government attention to the need to assist with the rebuilding of business in the town. One of them, Yelena Repa, says that, 'the people should get help, but it's absolutely essential for businesses because without them there'll be no employment, no development and the regional budget will suffer.' She's right – many people are in no hurry to return home because there is no work in Slovyansk, nor any of the infrastructure they have come to expect.


The village of Semyonovka has been virtually destroyed. This was where the psychiatric hospital and the kindergarten were, but it was also the main battleground. Both institutions have been razed to the ground. The school opposite, however, has already been restored, and will now include the kindergarten. The work was finished by the beginning of the school year on 1 September, thanks to the efforts of sponsors, volunteers, and local residents – people were drawn together in the aftermath of the fighting.

Destroyed building in the nearby village Semyonovka. (c) Aleksey Matsuka

In the first days after the liberation of Slovyansk, people just came out into the street and sat on benches in silence; many were crying. When the electricity and water came on, people simply didn't believe it, and the feeling was of a holiday, like New Year.

Locals had been convinced the war would kill them. The local librarian told me she had spent her annual leave in the cellar: two weeks underground while Slovyansk was under fire. No part of the town was safe. It all started in the centre, but the biggest depredations were in the Artyom neighbourhood and the village of Semyonovka, both on the edge of the town. The separatists occupied the centre, but the town hall and the security services buildings did not suffer. The SBU (Ukrainian Security Service) one-storey building burnt down after the Ukrainian soldiers entered Slovyansk, because the separatists had left explosives in the Strelkov residence' (the name the town gave to the SBU building). 

The local librarian told me she had spent her annual leave in the cellar.

On the take

The town hall was five minutes' walk away from the SBU building, but during the rule of the Donetsk People's Republic, districts were strictly divided: Strelkov was in the SBU, and Ponomaryov, who called himself the 'people's mayor,' had his office in the town hall. He held the real mayor, Nelya Shtepa, captive for two months. She was allocated a special office at the end of a corridor on the second floor, but the window was blocked by a cupboard to prevent her having any communication with the people that came regularly to check on her. 

Pro-Ukrainian unity rally in the centre of Slovyansk. (c) Aleksey Matsuka

Shtepa had been popular in Slovyansk. With the help of ex-Prime Minister Azarov's son, Aleksei, a member of the Kyiv parliament, the town had received a grant of many millions in 2013 for infrastructure development. The locals were well aware that Shtepa was on the take, but felt that at least something was being done. However, Fridon Vekua, civil activist and opponent of Azarov during the 2012 parliamentary elections, does not agree: 'She didn't just steal – her people were always helping themselves to local residents' money. They would use a couple of hryvnas [Ukrainian currency] for something, but the rest would simply disappear, and we were given to understand that we were being given a present.' 

The local residents I managed to speak to in the street were, nevertheless, on the whole, in favour of Shtepa. The mayor herself is now in a remand prison in Kharkiv, suspected of links with the separatists, for which she could be sentenced to life imprisonment. While she was in the town hall, as Ponomaryov's captive, she gave an interview describing the armed extremists as, 'lads who have come here to defend an idea, rather than for money. Some of them may be paid, but I can see that they are prepared to defend us. As the only woman mayor, I ask Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] to come into this town and protect us.' She also said that in Putin she sees, 'a real man, a leader and a temple of calm.'

Mayor Shtepa described the armed extremists as 'lads who have come here to defend an idea, rather than for money.'

Her lawyer, Yelena Stativa, maintains that her client was forced to say this: 'If you look at Nelya Igorevna's face on this video you can see that she had been made up to cover the bruises. This is confirmed by her hairdresser, who attended her at the town hall that day.' Stativa repudiates all the suspicions and says that Shtepa is in a cell with five prisoners, so has no special privileges. Another Slovyansk campaigner, Vladimir Panibratchenko, is sure that her best option would be to flee the country: 'We are astonished that she's still here.'

A member of the town council (who wished to remain anonymous) said, 'Shtepa would have been arrested in any case – if not for separatism, then for economic crimes. The Party of Regions management and town council officials had seen to it that there was inbuilt corruption in every single programme for the town.' It has to be said, though, that the council member was not able to offer any proof, giving as his reason the absence of any primary documentation, which would have shown up the goings-on in the council. He quoted a programme called Svet (Light): according to his data, electric bulbs for street lighting were bought at a price significantly below the going market rate, but, again, journalists have seen no documentation.

Emergency distribution of food to civilians in Slovyansk.

Emergency distribution of food to civilians in Slovyansk. (c) Demotix/Inna Sokolovska

Now, Shtepa's daughter-in-law, the chief clerk of the town council, Yelena Ogarkova, has joined forces with Stativa to launch a campaign in defence of her mother-in-law. Stickers with 'Free Nelya' have started appearing in the town, in Ukrainian, and a 'Save Nelya' campaign office has been opened.

Feeding democracy

Despite all this, there has so far not been a single rally in support of Shtepa in the central square of Slovyansk. People who turn out here on Sundays criticise her as a separatist and a member of the PoR. On the whole, locals try to remain neutral by not going to Sunday rallies or visiting the campaign office; they are taken up with everyday life – home and work. None of them gives a thought to the root cause of how things are now, yet it was this very unwillingness to become involved, which made possible everything that happened here in the spring and summer of 2014. 

Neither local nor central government appears to be in any hurry to assist the people of Slovyansk; what little that is being done, is carried out by political parties and individual politicians involved in the town's election campaign. For example, the recently created 'Party for the Development of Ukraine,' made up of former Party of Regions members, has generously informed local residents that it would be handing out ‘humanitarian aid.’ 

Natalya Korolevskaya, formerly a minister in Yanukovych's government, is handing out parcels of buckwheat and sunflower, though no one quite understands why this should be necessary in Slovyansk, where all the shops are open and anyone in need can get food from volunteer services. The answer, of course, is very simple – political parties are using ‘humanitarian aid’ to bribe voters; previously, Azarov's headquarters handed out sweets and food as festive packs for some holiday or other; now it is buckwheat and sunflower.

Political parties are using 'humanitarian aid' to bribe voters.

In the autumn of 2014, Slovyansk will once more become a flashpoint on the map of Ukraine. At the same time as the parliamentary election, there will be local and mayoral elections here, and party officials are already looking for campaign headquarters, while constituency candidates prepare to take Aleksey Azarov's place in parliament. He himself has not been seen in the town for over two months. His whole election campaign was based on handing out food parcels to the voters. Now his rivals have chosen the same tactic. But it remains to be seen if the residents of this small town understand that their votes are being sold for bags of buckwheat. October will show what, if anything, the survivors of the rule of the Donetsk People’s Republic, have learnt.

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