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Life behind the blockade in the Donetsk People’s Republic

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The closure of the border between Ukraine and the Donetsk People’s Republic has divided communities, leaving people short of food and medicines.

 

Anna Yalovkina
7 April 2015

In January, after spending months trying to secure Donetsk’s airport, the Ukrainian authorities closed off all roads into the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). Now residents of the towns and villages along the front line are totally cut off from one another. You can visit ‘the other side’, but you need a special permit, which takes both time and money to acquire.

Ukrainian law now forbids the entry of any goods into the DPR, but small consignments are getting through, thanks to the unofficial ‘duty’ paid to the Ukrainian troops.

The bureaucratic nightmare

Ukrainians wanting to visit the DPR need to go to the small village of Novosilka, which, in the two months since the beginning of the blockade, has become something of a boomtown. Novosilka is located some distance from all the large towns and cities of the region (90km from Donetsk), and getting a permit takes a whole day. The Ukrainian army checkpoint closes at 6pm, so if you get your pass at 5pm and then have to wait in a queue for half an hour, you risk being turned back and having to find somewhere in the village to spend the night.

Most of the people in the queue cross the border to collect their Ukrainian pensions and benefits.

There are two queues outside the permit office at Novosilka’s police station. The short one is for journalists (our group still had to wait four hours for our permits to be processed), and the longer one is for ordinary members of the public, who have to wait even longer. Most of the people in this queue live in separatist-held areas, and cross the border to collect their Ukrainian pensions and benefits or hole up with relatives when fighting breaks out. And even if they manage to get their permits on the day they arrive, they might still have an unpleasant surprise at the Ukrainian checkpoint.

I certainly did – the troops, invoking some emergency situation, turned our car back, saying that they were letting no one through that day. We were forced to make a detour to another border crossing, got stuck in a long tailback, and were the last people to get through that day. The people behind us had to find beds in Novosilka or sleep in their cars.

... and how to avoid it

Bureaucracy traditionally generates corruption. The local people resort to various means to speed up the permit process, as do the truckers trying to transport food and medicines into the DPR. People told us in confidence that a bribe of 1,000 Hryvnia (£29) would get you your permit immediately. Getting back is also a problem – you have to exit from the DPR at the same checkpoint as where you entered.

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Prices for pharmaceutical products have shot up and pharmacy shelves are bare. Photo (c) Anna Yalovkina

A bribe of 1000 Hryvnia (£29) will get you your permit immediately.

In fact Ukrainians have little need to visit the DPR, apart from students studying there. Sasha, from Svitlodarsk, near Debaltseve, complained to us that his sister couldn’t return after the New Year vacation: ‘She is at university in Donetsk and hasn’t been able to go back since January, so she’s having to give up her course’.

Most of the people affected by the border closure are residents of Novorossiya (the name preferred by the separatists for the ‘Peoples’ Republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk) who need to collect their pensions and benefits from Ukraine. To get a travel permit, they have to travel to Donetsk and pay a lawyer to take their personal papers across the border, for which they pay 170 Hryvnia in advance and 180 afterwards. This is the equivalent of just £10. But for someone living on a pension (usually 70% of one's previous salary) at a time when the value of the Hryvnia has been falling, this is real money.

‘There are terrible queues for these lawyers’, Lyudmila, who lives in the border town of Dokuchayevsk, told me. ‘And the price they charge is too high. But we don’t have any choice – it’s the only way to get our pensions’.

Lyudmila’s neighbour Alyona has encountered a new problem: ‘I went to the lawyers’ office yesterday and they wouldn’t even accept my papers. They said they weren’t issuing permits anymore because the Ukrainians were introducing an electronic permit system and you have to go to Mariupol to get one. I’ve no idea how that works.’

Shortages

The permit system has also hit business. The blockade of the DPR and LPR has officially stopped all deliveries of food products, consumer goods, fuel and medical supplies into the area. Prices for pharmaceutical products have shot up and pharmacy shelves are bare. A customer in one Donetsk chemists was looking for hydrogen peroxide and iodine, two popular products, but couldn’t find either. ‘Supplies dried up at the start of March. Everything you see on the shelves is old stock’, Irina, the pharmacist, told us.

Some things are still coming through, however. The Parallel service station chain still receives gas and petrol from Ukraine, but at a price. Parallel's head office in Ukraine has been unable to come to any agreement with the authorities, but fuel and goods for sale at its forecourt shops get through the border 50% of the time – in small consignments and for a large ‘fee’. Sergei, the manager of one service station, told us that in the ‘good times’ when goods were passing freely across the border, there would be 30 tonnes of fuel delivered every three days, with sales of 10-14 tonnes a day. Now they can expect a consignment of 2-3 tonnes once every ten days. But demand has also dropped: many people have left the self-proclaimed republics, and they are only selling somewhere between 700 litres and four tonnes a day.

‘Deliveries are pretty infrequent now’, says Sergei. ‘Most of the tankers get turned back at the border. Some stuff gets through with the help of bribes, but only in small quantities. We have about 80 stations in the DPR and LPR, and they are all making a loss. I don’t know if we’ll start buying fuel from Russia rather than Ukraine – I don’t take these decisions. Our head office is on the other side, so that’s where they need to sort it out.’

The situation with food and consumer goods is more difficult. According to Yelena Samokhina, the DPR’s Minister for Economic Affairs, the availability of food imports from Ukraine has fallen to a catastrophic low: since the beginning of the blockade she has had only 1.5m tonnes of food for distribution.

But things are looking up: the DPR is increasingly sourcing supplies in Russia. ‘In the first half of March we imported 736 tonnes of food products from Russia, whereas the previous month it was 471 tonnes and in January even less – just 127 tonnes. So in the space of three months we have completely turned our import strategy around, and now we get the majority of our goods from Russia.’

The DPR is increasingly sourcing supplies in Russia – but prices are high.

However, both Samokhina and her Transport counterpart Semyon Kuzmenko admit that this change of direction will mean a steady rise in prices (Russian goods are 40% more expensive than those from Ukraine). ‘At the moment we are in talks with Russia, trying to reach an agreement about sourcing foodstuffs in Russia more cheaply’, Samokhina added.

Samokhina also assured us that when local factories and businesses, currently working at only 40% capacity, were up and running at 100%, the area would be totally self-sufficient. But for now they still need to buy certain essentials from Ukraine, especially salt and sugar.

Truck drivers have become smugglers

Truck drivers were happy to tell us how large a bribe they had to pay to bring goods through a checkpoint. According to one of them, Sergei, border troops take an average of 1000 Hryvnia (£29) per tonne carried. So if your truck has 20 tonnes of freight, it will cost you 20,000 Hryvnia (£578).

‘Take vodka’, added Aleksandr, another driver. ‘It costs six Hryvnia a litre. So a truckful will cost a minimum of 100,000 Hryvnia to cross. And that’s if you’re lucky. Otherwise you’ll be left parked beside the checkpoint for a couple of days and then sent back where you came from’.

At the moment, Donetsk is awaiting the arrival of two trucks with medical supplies from Mariupol, which have been stuck at a checkpoint for several days.

Two trucks with medical supplies from Mariupol have been stuck at a checkpoint for several days.

Small shopkeepers told us that the Ukrainian goods on their half-empty shelves are old stock – they have usually had nothing from the other side since the start of March, when Ukraine’s Security Services began to keep a closer watch on illegal traffic and crack down on the smugglers.

‘You just have to look in the shops – there are hardly any Ukrainian products on sale and those that are, are old stock’, said the shop manager we spoke to at the Parallel service station; and it was the same story everywhere, especially outside Donetsk city.

Security police are increasingly to be found reinforcing the border troops at checkpoints, charged with foiling attempts to bring contraband goods across, and this situation can frequently lead to clashes between the two forces. On 21 March, for example, a member of the Security Service was killed in the town of Volnovakha – his supposed assailant a soldier from the Dnipro-1 battalion. The Ukrainian police have established a connection between the murder and the smuggling of contraband goods into the DPR.

Coal supplies are still moving

The one commodity that is still crossing the border freely, despite the blockade, is coal. Most of Ukraine’s power stations run on anthracite and T grade coal, which is only mined in the Donbas, so mine owners and oligarchs have come to an agreement with Kyiv about continued supplies from the DPR; and Donetsk oligarch Rinat Akhmetov’s company DTEK is still buying coal and even exporting it to other parts to Europe through Ukraine.

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Most of the people affected by the border closure are residents of Novorossiya who need to collect their pensions.

The DPR authorities are happy to cooperate with Ukraine when big money and oligarchs are involved.

The Komsomolets Donbassa (‘Donbas Young Communist’) mine in the small town of Kirovske has been sending coal supplies daily to the village of Trypillia, 40km from Kyiv, since 14 March, along one of the few still functioning stretches of railway. Until then, Komsomolet's coal was going to Starobesheve, in the DPR.

‘After the Ukrainian army left, we got back to work on 1 November’, the mine’s traffic manager Dmitry Stavrunov told us. ‘But we couldn’t start getting coal out again until 16 January – the troops had flooded the quarry, destroyed the buildings and taken all the plant with them when they left. And it took us all that time to get the mine working again. Another problem was sourcing timber for supports underground, but we’ve been able to buy some from Ukraine.’

When we spoke to Stavrunov, the mine was only working at half capacity, but was due to move to full capacity on 23 March. ‘I don’t know what the agreement was between the bosses ... they’re planning an output of 4000 tonnes – which was what we were producing in the old days. There’s no problem with the transportation; they send us the payment in the morning and the coal goes off in the evening. Our miners have even begun to get paid again, though admittedly we’ve only just paid them for November’.

Still, not long ago all the railway lines were torn up and, at the same time, anthracite exports from the LPR stopped: all the coal from its mines now goes to local power stations. The main functioning railway line is the one carrying coal to Ukraine – without any bribes or informal ‘customs duties’, because of the government agreement.

In other words, the DPR authorities are happy to cooperate with Ukraine when big money and oligarchs are involved. The question remains whether the self-proclaimed republic can reach an agreement with Kyiv about the supply of essentials for ordinary people. Otherwise, the residents of separatist held areas will have to go on forking out for expensive Russian food or equally pricey goods smuggled from other parts of Ukraine.

Image 2: (c) Anna Yalovkina

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