Donbas “people’s republics”

In the aftermath of the 2013–14 Euromaidan protests, when a new, super nationalist government came to power in Ukraine, the government of Russia encouraged and supported separatist conflict in Ukraine’s far eastern oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk (and also invaded and annexed Crimea – see 2014 Ukraine conflict). With heavy Russian backing the separatists were able to seize control of sizeable portions of Donetsk and Luhansk (which collectively are called the Donbas region), and named their controlled territories the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk – despite the fact that ordinary residents of these areas have pretty much no political power there.

Of the pre-war population of 6.6 million people in the affected area, only 3.3 million are living there now. About 1.8 million fled westward into other parts of Ukraine, while 1.5 million fled to Russia or Belarus. 14,000 people had also been killed in fighting between 2014–2021, about 4,000 of those civilians.

The economy of the Donbas region was devastated by the conflict. By 2017, it was estimated that the Donbas economy had fallen by 61%, mainly due to rapid deindustrialisation. The region’s economy had previously been highly dependent on coal mining, steelmaking and chemicals production – a lot of this activity ground to a halt once the conflict began. What remaining trade occurs is pretty much entirely with Russia (and indeed, the ruble is the currency in use in the separatist regions). Wages have plummeted. In the Donetsk “people’s republic”, average wages are 38% of their pre-war level; in Luhansk, the figure is 56%. On top of this, though, non-payment of wages is endemic.

Despite the awful conditions, there has been little industrial action. Most trade union activists and the like have fled the region. The most well-known action was a sit-in by 119 mine workers over months’ worth of unpaid wages. The leading organisers were arrested, and the action ended when they were released and part of the withheld wages were paid out.

The political system of the “people’s republics” has been described as a “military bureaucracy”. In Donetsk there are two “social movements” represented in its parliament, both of which are highly militarised. The only political party allowed representation is the “Communist Party of the Donetsk People’s Republic”, which does not allow members of the actual Communist Party to join.

The regimes of the statelets are highly repressive. “Repeated breach of established order, organization or conduct of assemblies, meetings, demonstrations, marches or pickets” can be punished with up to five years in prison (similar to Russia itself). Prisoners are used as forced labour, and policies of humiliation and torture (including with electric shocks) has been exposed. Again, this is not too dissimilar from the treatment of dissidents in Russia.

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