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Civilians cross the pedestrian bridge of Stanytsia Luganska in eastern Ukraine in 2016. Somewhat repaired in subsequent years, it remains the only crossing point between government and non-government-controlled areas in the Lugansk region. OSCE/Evgeniy Maloletka
Report 252 / Europe & Central Asia

“Nobody Wants Us”: The Alienated Civilians of Eastern Ukraine

With living conditions worsening, and crossfire still claiming casualties, people residing in eastern Ukraine’s conflict zone feel increasingly abandoned by the central government. Reintegrating the area requires Russian withdrawal, but in the meantime Kyiv can and should better protect civilians and meet humanitarian needs.

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What’s new? Ukrainians in Donbas, the country’s eastern conflict zone, are in their fifth year of a humanitarian crisis deepened by Russian intervention – and also by Ukrainian government policies. Many complain that their country has forgotten about their plight and that the state no longer wants them as citizens.

Why does it matter? Russia’s withdrawal is necessary for Kyiv’s reintegration of Donbas – but not sufficient. Only if the region’s war-weary civilians are convinced that their government values their safety and prosperity are they likely to play an active role in that reintegration.

What should be done? Moscow and Kyiv must do more to protect civilians, in keeping with international humanitarian law and their commitments under the Minsk agreements. Kyiv can improve its chances of peaceful reintegration by restoring access to subsidies, easing restrictions on freedom of movement and trade, and compensating Donbas residents for property losses.

Executive Summary

Four years after Kremlin-backed armed groups seized parts of Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas, the peace process has stalled and the conflict has largely faded from global headlines. Yet Ukrainians on both sides of the Donbas front lines face a humanitarian crisis and a growing sense of abandonment by both Kyiv and Moscow. Much if not most of the responsibility for the conflict lies with the Kremlin, over which Kyiv and its international partners have limited leverage. Yet Kyiv should nonetheless push to reverse conflict-affected citizens’ alienation from their own government: it needs a strategy to address their needs that distinguishes clearly between civilians and the violent, anti-democratic leadership of the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. Some argue that such calls upon Kyiv blame the victim; others say it is not feasible to help Donbas residents until Russia withdraws. But proactive outreach to conflict-affected citizens is in Ukraine’s interest. By showing these people that it prioritises their safety and prosperity, Kyiv can lay the groundwork for peacefully restoring its territorial integrity.

While hostilities have subsided since the high point in early 2015, living conditions on both sides of the contact line have stagnated or deteriorated. More than one million of the roughly six million people residing near this line are food-insecure; many face poverty, unemployment and the prospect of mistreatment at the hands of both Ukrainian security services and Kremlin-backed rebels. Roughly 600,000 people live in unsafe settlements on both sides of the front lines where they are exposed daily to shelling, landmines, and tight restrictions on freedom of movement and basic services. On the two sides, civilians lament that a divide with no pre-existing cultural or political basis has become a fact of life.

The most sustainable remedy for these conditions would be a political settlement, involving disarmament of the so-called people’s republics, withdrawal of Russian military equipment and personnel, and restoration of Kyiv’s sovereignty over all of eastern Ukraine without the use of force. Peacekeepers could facilitate such an outcome, but nearly a year of negotiations has yielded no clear progress. Ukrainian, Russian, U.S. and European officials are pessimistic about chances of a resolution to the conflict in the foreseeable future. The most likely alternative – prolongation of a situation in which the parties probe the no-man’s land between the two front lines – will exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.

Ukraine, Russia and the armed groups it backs should work to reduce the likelihood of an extended humanitarian crisis

Ukraine, Russia and the armed groups it backs should work to reduce the likelihood of an extended humanitarian crisis even while a political settlement and Donbas’s reintegration appear distant prospects. They should carry out the security provisions to which they committed in the 2014 and 2015 Minsk agreements, including a full ceasefire; withdrawal of large-calibre weapons; removal of obstacles to monitoring and verification; coordinated demining; safe delivery, storage and distribution of humanitarian assistance; and disengagement of forces and hardware from specified areas. Drawing on the reports of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM), they should work together to reduce the frequency and gravity of ceasefire violations. In the meantime, they should also schedule disengagement from and marking of critical civilian infrastructure close to the contact line, and minimise risks to and restrictions on civilians crossing the line. The UN Security Council, which has endorsed many of these measures, should recognise that the parties are unlikely to take these steps without consistent, concerted pressure to do so.

Yet Ukraine also needs to comprehensively overhaul its approach to conflict-affected citizens. Since 2014, Kyiv, in its rhetoric and actions – including restriction of freedom of movement and access to state subsidies and services, inconsistent regard for civilian protection and lack of credible arrangements for amnesty – has too often treated the security and prosperity of its citizens from Donbas as mutually exclusive with the interests of Ukraine as a whole. Some of Kyiv’s moves, such as establishing burdensome obstacles to obtaining pensions, have also contradicted Ukrainian law. As a result, many in Donbas, including those who describe themselves as Ukrainian patriots, feel abandoned by Kyiv. “Nobody wants us” has become a common refrain. Yet few high-level officials are willing to take responsibility for or respond to this chorus of despair, dismissing it as the product of hostile propaganda or pro-Russian views.

The past months have brought some tentative progress: in September, Ukraine’s Supreme Court declared the government’s 2016 limits on pension access for residents of the conflict zone illegal, obliging Kyiv to restore payments to thousands of citizens. Many officials say Kyiv is unlikely to make bold shifts, especially any carrying clear short-term costs, with 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections looming. But whatever the short-term costs of ensuring the rights of all Ukrainians, the longer-term costs of failing to do so, both financial and in terms of national cohesion, are likely to be greater.

Ukraine’s Western backers have soft-pedalled their criticism of Kyiv’s approach to the region, for fear of bolstering Kremlin and separatist claims that Kyiv is determined to trample the rights of eastern Ukraine’s heavily Russian-speaking population. Whatever the merits of these claims, Kyiv risks lending them credence, and its supporters should say so out loud. France and Germany, along with the U.S., remain vocally committed to hastening the implementation of the Minsk agreements, and must therefore insist on inclusive policies that will help lay the groundwork for this outcome.

In particular, Kyiv should honour its pension obligations, step up efforts to protect civilians, and acknowledge as well as respond to their legitimate grievances. While Kyiv will have to lead, the international community can and should encourage and support it. Large obstacles lie ahead on the road to Donbas’s reintegration, but the battle for the hearts and minds of conflict-affected citizens is one Kyiv cannot afford to lose, and one it can start winning today.

Brussels/Kyiv, 1 October 2018

I. Introduction

The front lines of the conflict in Ukraine have carved a wound more than 450km long across one of the most densely populated parts of the country. Cutting across the Donets River basin – or Donbas – it runs through Donetsk and Luhansk, two regions that were home to roughly 6.6 million people in 2013. About 6.3 million remain, some three million of them in areas outside government control.[fn]See Donetsk Region Statistics Department, “В 2013 году в области родились 41 тыс. человек, а умерли - 69.3 тыс” [“41,000 people were born in the region in 2013, 69,300 died”], 17 February 2014, http://www.donetskstat.gov.ua/pres/presreliz.php?dn=0214&number=0; Luhansk Region Statistics Department, population estimate as of end 2013, http://www.lg.ukrstat.gov.ua/sinf/demograf/demog0114_1.php.htm; population estimates as of end 2017 from the Luhansk and Donetsk Region Statistics Departments, http://www.lg.ukrstat.gov.ua/sinf/demograf/demog0117_1.php.htm and http://donetskstat.gov.ua/statinform1/demohrafichna-ta-sotsialna-statystyka/naselennia-ta-mihratsiia/chyselnist-naselennia-za-otsinkoiu/20170000/. According to the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk Peoples’ Republics, the combined population of the areas they control is nearly 3.8 million (see http://www.gkslnr.su/files/chisl_261217.pdf and http://glavstat.govdnr.ru/pdf/naselenie/chisl_naselenie_1217.pdf). Others argue that these figures may be inflated by up to 30 per cent. See, for example, Denis Kazansky, “Демография ДНР: как вымирает оккупированная территория” [“Demographics of the DPR: the occupied territory is dying out”], InfoResist, 17 July 2017.Hide Footnote The front lines pass through farms, villages, urban sprawl, backyard vegetable plots and outdoor recreation areas, many of which are mined. It divides families and separates people from the cities where their schools, hospitals and jobs used to be. This wound would already have healed had the sides implemented what was agreed to in the Minsk agreements: signatories of these documents prescribed treatment in the form of comprehensive political settlement by the end of 2015, along with a total ceasefire, withdrawal of large-calibre weapons, all foreign armed formations, military equipment and mercenaries, and rollout of the deal’s political provisions.[fn]“Protocol on the results of consultations of the Trilateral Contact Group, signed in Minsk”, 5 September 2014, https://www.osce.org/home/123257; “Memorandum of 19 September 2014 outlining the parameters for the implementation of commitments of the Minsk Protocol of 5 September 2014”, https://www.osce.org/home/123806; “Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements”, Minsk, 12 February 2015; “Addendum to the Package of Measures for the implementation of the Minsk agreements”, 29 September 2015; “Decision on Mine Action”, 3 March 2016; “Decision on Prohibition of Live-Fire Exercises”, 3 March 2016; “Framework Decision of the Trilateral Contact Group relating to disengagement of forces and hardware”, 21 September 2016, at https://www.osce.org/cio/266266. Political provisions call for the sides to launch dialogue on modalities for local elections in areas previously controlled by armed groups on the basis of Ukraine’s September 2014 law on temporary self-government for these areas, for Ukraine to adopt a law “prohibiting the prosecution and punishment of persons in connection with the events” taking place in said areas, and for the sides to exchange all hostages.Hide Footnote

Kyiv insists it has had no chance to begin reintegrating these areas for two related reasons. The first, which few dispute, is that Moscow retains unilateral control of about 400km of Russia’s international border with Ukraine, leaving Kyiv unable to prevent cross-border movement of fuel, weapons, materiel and personnel.[fn]See Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Ministerial Council, “Border Security and Management Concept”, MC.DOC/2/05, 6 December 2005, at https://www.osce.org/mc/17452?download=true.Hide Footnote The second reason is the failure of the ceasefire, which Kyiv blames almost entirely on Moscow’s resupply of separatist groups and its direct orders to keep shooting.[fn]“Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements”, Minsk, 12 February 2015.Hide Footnote Here, Kyiv’s argument is subject to greater debate, as each side accuses the other of being the main perpetrator of ceasefire violations, and international observers say forces on both sides are responsible.[fn]See the reports by the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, at https://www.osce.org/ukraine-smm/reports; and the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, at https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/ENACARegion/Pages/UAReports.aspx. Crisis Group interviews, international security expert, Bakhmut, May 2018; international security and humanitarian expert, Mariupol, May 2018; international security and humanitarian expert, Sievierodonetsk, May 2018.Hide Footnote

There are other reasons for Kyiv’s reluctance to put Minsk into practice. Ukraine has committed to resume administering areas currently outside its control in accordance with a law on “local self-government”, whose adoption has spurred right-wing rioting in Kyiv – due, among other things, to a provision for the formation of “people’s militia units” in the newly reintegrated territories.[fn]Закон України, “Про особливий порядок містцевого самоврядування в окремих районах Донецької та Луганської областей” Верховна Рада, 2014, No. 45, ст. 2043, Стаття 9 [Law of Ukraine, “On special procedures for local self-government in certain districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts”, Verkhovna Rada, 2014, No. 45/2043, Article 9]. The provision calls for municipal authorities to oversee creation of “people’s militia units” to “protect public order in population centers”. (Militsiia was the standard term for police in Ukraine prior to reforms initiated in July 2015, when militsiia became politsiia, a name change meant to signify a transition to an ostensibly Western-style police force with young service-oriented personnel.) Units are to be staffed by “citizens of Ukraine residing permanently in corresponding population centers”. Arsen Avakov, the minister of internal affairs, has said the provision is unconstitutional and amounts to creating units not subject to his ministry’s jurisdiction. “Создание неподконтрольной МВД Украины ‘народной милиции’ ОРДЛО незаконно – Аваков” [“Avakov: creation of a ‘people’s militia’ for the occupied territories independent from the MIA is unconstitutional”], Censor.net, 10 June 2016.Hide Footnote The 2015 Package of Measures, one of the many Minsk documents, also asks Kyiv to implement a law prohibiting the prosecution of persons in connection with the events that took place in the conflict zone – although parliament has yet to pass a corresponding law or achieve public consensus as to what amnesty would entail.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, opposition parliamentarians, October-April 2018; public comments by ruling-party delegate at Center for Donbas Social Projects Research presentation, 31 May 2018.Hide Footnote Many officials and opinion-makers in Ukraine feel that Moscow forced through these Minsk provisions, and locked Kyiv into passing the self-government legislation, in order to preserve the separatist entities and then reinsert them into Ukraine to tear the country apart from within.[fn]See, for example, “Тимошенко: Минские соглашения – это ловушка для Украины” [“Tymoshenko: the Minsk agreements are a trap for Ukraine”], Segodnya, 24 June 2016; “Минские договоренности мертвы и нужны новые соглшения, включающие вывод с Донбасса иностранных войск и контроль госграницы - Аваков” [“The Minsk agreements are dead and new agreements including withdrawal of foreign mercenaries from Donbas and border control are needed – Avakov”], Interfax Ukraine, 28 November 2017.Hide Footnote

As Kyiv officials debate whether Minsk can be carried out without undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty, fighting grinds on. Civilian casualties are low relative to 2014 and 2015, but high enough that any talk of a “frozen conflict” is cruelly inaccurate. As of May 2018, the civilian death toll stands at over 3,000, while between 7,000 and 9,000 civilians have been injured.[fn]According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, 15 February to 15 May 2018, p. 4. Statistics include the 298 victims in the July 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 by a Russian BUK missile.Hide Footnote There were 107 civilian injuries and deaths in the first five months of 2018; this total followed 569 civilian casualties in 2017 – a small increase over 2016. About two thirds of casualties occur in areas outside Kyiv’s control, due in part to the front lines’ geography: while the government-controlled front line has a population of about 200,000, areas on the other side include chunks of the cities of Donetsk and Horlivka and the Luhansk suburbs, and have a total population of about 400,000.[fn]UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan, p. 24.Hide Footnote This disparity means that the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ shelling is likely to kill or maim more civilians.[fn]According to analysis of reports from the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, the Ukrainian Armed Forces and separatist sources. See also UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, November 2017-February 2018, p. 4.Hide Footnote Artillery fire causes the majority of casualties. Landmines and unexploded ordnance cause most of the remainder; 1.9 million people live in areas littered with them.[fn]UN OCHA, “Six Things You Need to Know about the Crisis in Ukraine”, 7 May 2018.Hide Footnote

Those remaining in the conflict zone face a humanitarian crisis that grows deeper as fighting persists. Over one million struggle to meet their nutritional needs, including roughly one in five people aged 60 or older. These figures doubled in 2017, due to the 2017 trade blockade, reduced aid access, limited disbursement of pensions and the exhaustion of pre-conflict savings.[fn]UN OCHA, 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan, op. cit.Hide Footnote Fire from both Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed armed formations regularly hits the facilities and maintenance workers of the Donetsk Filtration Station, which provides water to up to 340,000 people on both sides of the line – limiting civilians’ access to clean water for days or weeks at a time.[fn]UN OHCA, “Ukraine Humanitarian Snapshot as of 29 May 2018”. See also the reports from the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission.Hide Footnote

Security risks, an exodus of medical professionals and the rebel-imposed limits on humanitarian activity have greatly reduced access to medical care.

Security risks, an exodus of medical professionals from the conflict zone and the above-mentioned rebel-imposed limits on humanitarian activity have greatly reduced access to medical care, particularly in areas outside government control. These factors, combined with sanitation problems, raise the risk of waterborne diseases and have contributed to the world’s second-highest incidence of extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis.[fn]UN OCHA, “Six Things”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Neither side shows any inclination to cease fire. A Kremlin proposal in late 2017 for deployment of a UN mission – whose mandate would be limited to guarding the civilian monitors already deployed by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and would not enable Ukraine to resume control of the border – only highlighted the depth of the stalemate. Soon afterward, Kyiv passed a “de-occupation” law, streamlining the military command and giving the president authority to make full use of the country’s military and police to restore territorial integrity. Crucially, the law designates areas outside Kyiv’s control as “Russian-occupied”. Moscow, unfazed even by video evidence gathered by the OSCE monitoring mission of convoys crossing the unsecured part of the Russian-Ukrainian border, denies that it is party to hostilities in Donbas, and accuses Kyiv of having “virtually annulled the Minsk agreements” with the law.[fn]Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, “Comment by the Information and Press Department on the Signing of the ‘Donbas reintegration’ law by the President of Ukraine”, 24 February 2018, at http://www.mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3090905?p_p_id=101_INSTANCE_cKNonkJE02Bw&_101_INSTANCE_cKNonkJE02Bw_languageId=en_GB. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine spotted convoys of trucks entering and exiting Ukraine in the Donetsk region. The video was published on YouTube on 10 August 2018. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ani2YWDLXl0.Hide Footnote

Regarding the conflict’s future trajectory, the sides seem determined to reinforce their positions on the ground and their physical separation from each other. They continue to move forward from their positions of September 2014, despite agreeing in Minsk not to do so, provoking reciprocal responses and breaking their own frequent pledges to renew the ceasefire. Meanwhile, Arsen Avakov, Kyiv’s internal affairs minister, has proposed the reintegration of territories in “small steps” – one settlement at a time. Police and Security Service of Ukraine personnel would lead the operation, Avakov said, preferably assisted by a small international contingent, restoring order and paving the way for the return of Ukrainian state institutions.[fn]“Арсен Аваков: У меня есть план. Условно, взять сначала отдельно Горловку” [“Arsen Avakov: I have a plan – we start by taking Horlivka separately, for example”], Ukrainska Pravda, 16 April 2018.Hide Footnote

This state of affairs promises neither improvement to civilian lives nor efforts by the parties to meet civilian needs. Some Ukrainian officials call for prolonging the stalemate – or deepening the isolation of areas outside government control – in some cases arguing that residents are less-than-loyal citizens and that excluding them from the life of the state is the price of national cohesion and successful reform.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, opposition parliamentarian, Kyiv, September 2017; opposition parliamentarian, Kyiv, March 2018.Hide Footnote Advocates of piecemeal de-occupation insist that public opinion in the rebel-held areas is simply not a factor: most residents, they venture, are exhausted from four years of violence and will accept whatever new arrangement comes their way.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, political commentator, Kyiv, October 2017; Security Service of Ukraine agent, Stanytsia Luhanska, December 2017 and Sievierodonetsk, May 2018.Hide Footnote The few who object will be “cleansed” by Ukrainian security services – or flee to Russia, where, as one security operative put it, “they’ll be shot like dogs”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, opposition parliamentarian, Kyiv, September 2017; civil-military personnel, Avdiivka, October 2017; state security personnel, Luhansk region, May 2018.Hide Footnote

In either scenario, Russia will likely sustain the rebels militarily and financially without substantially improving ordinary people’s economic well-being. Formal annexation by Russia – which would mean assuming formal responsibility for the area’s ageing population, destroyed infrastructure and defunct industry, seems highly unlikely. Rebel leaders claim they are strengthening ties with Russia, and one Kremlin adviser says Moscow is weighing recognition of their independence as a last resort, but extensive Crisis Group interviews with other Kremlin advisers as well as local rebel leaders suggest that neither annexation nor recognition is on the horizon.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, forthcoming.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, few ordinary residents see unification with Russia as a real possibility; while some may look upon Moscow as a guardian, field research suggests their numbers are decreasing.[fn]“Захарченко предупредил Россию, что ‘ДНР’ берет курс на сближение с ней. Вплоть до единого пространства” [“Zakharchenko warns Russia that the ‘DPR’ is opting for closer ties – even a single space”], OstroV, 8 May 2018; Crisis Group interviews, Kremlin adviser, Moscow, April 2018; Donetsk city residents, Kramatorsk, October 2018; Luhansk city resident, Starobilsk, December 2018; Horlivka native, Kramatorsk, May 2018; interviews with fifteen Donetsk city residents, April-June 2018.Hide Footnote

This report is based on formal and informal interviews conducted between September 2017 and July 2018 with about 170 interlocutors. Crisis Group carried out research mostly in government-controlled parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions on or near the contact line, speaking to residents of settlements up to 40km from either side of the line, regional and local officials, military and law enforcement personnel, military support volunteers, local and international humanitarian, security and human rights experts, and rebel units. Additional interviews with Ukrainian officials, and national and international humanitarian, human rights and security experts were conducted in Kyiv and Moscow. Senior members of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) provided limited opportunity to carry out field research there; Crisis Group was unable to conduct research in the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR).

Partly for reasons of access, this report’s analysis is heavily weighted toward the Ukrainian government’s actions – and so are the recommendations it contains. Crisis Group aims to make the most of Kyiv’s openness and encourage steps that will ease the eventual restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

II. Kyiv’s Policies Toward Conflict-affected Civilians

The division between areas controlled by Kyiv and by the Russian-backed armed formations began in earnest in late 2014, after nearly six months of fighting and some 4,000 deaths. In October 2014, after a ceasefire gave way to deadly battles at Donetsk Airport with alleged heavy Russian participation, Kyiv passed legislation granting citizens who had fled from areas outside its control – a group then numbering over 400,000 – the right to register as internally displaced persons (IDPs) and receive cost-of-living subsidies.[fn]For details on Russia’s role in the fighting, see Crisis Group Europe Briefing N°79, Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine, 5 February 2016. IDP policy information can be found at Кабінет Міністрів України, постанова від 1 жовтня 2014 р. No. 509, Київ, Порядок оформлення та видачі довідки про взяття на облік внутрішньо переміщеної особи [Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, Order, 1 October 2014, No. 509, “Procedure for processing and issuing certification of registration as an internally displaced person”], http://zakon5.rada.gov.ua/laws/show/509-2014-%D0%BF.Hide Footnote

In November, Kyiv announced the withdrawal of all government funding and services from areas outside its control by December, and the cessation of social payments, including pensions, to residents of those territories not registered as IDPs.[fn]Кабінет Міністрів України, постанова від 7 листопада 2014 р. No. 595, Київ [Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, Order, 7 November 2014, No. 595, Kyiv].Hide Footnote The government described the measure as a vital precaution: no state funds could be allowed to reach the nascent Kremlin-backed groups that had taken control of government institutions, including pension funds and banks.[fn]UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, 15 November 2014, p. 5.Hide Footnote By December, the number of registered IDPs had doubled, largely on account of older citizens hoping to retain their pensions.[fn]See “Ukraine Situation UNHCR Operational Update”, 31 December 2014, p. 2.Hide Footnote

Kyiv insists that it had no alternative to withdrawing its services from areas outside its control, and many international actors agree.[fn]In February 2018, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rejected a complaint from a group of Donetsk residents that Kyiv was discriminating against them by, among other things, blocking their access to Ukrainian courts in their place of residence. This ruling lends juridical weight to Kyiv’s position that withdrawing its institutions was an act of necessity, not prejudice. “ECHR finds no violation in case of Donetsk pensioners’ complaints about access to a court”, European Court of Human Rights, press release, 13 February 2018.Hide Footnote Yet the political context of the move seems to have coloured Donbas residents’ perceptions of it. It coincided with a vigilante blockade – abetted by prominent officials – that, among other things, prevented the transport of vital medicines across the contact line and was soon followed by tight official restrictions on individual travel.[fn]Shaun Walker, “Ukraine ‘punishes’ civilians in Donbas with travel permits and drugs blockade”, The Guardian, 26 January 2015.Hide Footnote Many residents of areas outside Kyiv’s control felt betrayed by these moves, even as some acknowledged their belief that the government’s continued provision of services would have been logistically unfeasible. A foreign analyst visiting Donetsk city in November 2014 recalled a young interlocutor’s reaction: “We’re not ‘our own’ to them anymore”, he said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international analyst, Kyiv, March 2018.Hide Footnote It did not help matters that public figures who supported these measures made ambiguous statements regarding their views of residents of areas outside Kyiv’s control. “Everyone has made their own choice”, Semen Semenchenko, head of the Donbas volunteer battalion and an MP from the Samopomich party, said in December. “Some consider themselves Ukrainian citizens and have joined the ranks of the Ukrainian army, while some think they should sit there and drink […] Still, we need to ensure that those who need milk, eggs, and food for children can receive these things.[fn]Семенченко: Те люди, которые не считают Украину своей Родиной, свой выбор сделали [“Semenchenko: Those who do not consider Ukraine their homeland have made their own choice”] video, YouTube, 17 December 2014 р., https://bit.ly/2OeDLIJHide Footnote

A. Gaps in IDP Policy

Despite tentative progress, Kyiv’s policies toward people who prior to the conflict lived in areas now outside government control have grown increasingly controversial, and potentially damaging to prospects for reintegration. Policymaking has been hampered by a lack of financial resources and an understandable failure to anticipate or, perhaps, even accept the protracted nature of the conflict. Still, Kyiv’s policy missteps are more than the product of difficult circumstances. Several among Ukraine’s political establishment and civil society, as well as international observers, say the Ukrainian government’s approach toward this population over the past nearly four years has been characterised by a worrying degree of neglect.

The ministry’s defenders and detractors alike say too many of its contributions have been rhetorical.

In theory, the driving force behind these policies should be the Ministry of Temporarily Occupied Territories and Displaced Persons. Since starting work in June 2016, its key figures have made strong, often fiery statements on the need to support IDPs and their host communities, continue pension payments to residents of areas outside government control, and offer incentives for these areas’ residents to remain part of Ukraine.

But the ministry’s defenders and detractors alike say too many of its contributions have been rhetorical. Some of the ministry’s leaders, as well as some sympathetic members of other official bodies, say its hands are tied by its limited budget and staff, and by the lack of resolute determination elsewhere in government to prioritise the needs of conflict-affected citizens.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international aid worker, Sievierodonetsk, May 2018; George Tuka, deputy minister for temporarily occupied territories; official in rival ministry; international aid worker, Kyiv, all September 2018.Hide Footnote On the other hand, some civil society and international aid workers, as well as members of the Donetsk and Luhansk regional administrations, and residents of areas close to the contact line, question whether the ministry is serious about its mission.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, member of Luhansk regional administration, Sievierodonetsk, September 2017; Olga Gvozdyova, Donbas SOS, Kyiv, September 2017; aide to ruling party deputy, Kramatorsk, September 2017; Kramatorsk residents, October 2017 and May 2018; town head, Luhansk region, December 2017; psychosocial worker, Lysychansk, December 2017; opposition parliamentarian, Kyiv, March 2018; community activist and aid worker, Kurakhove, May 2018; aid workers/local residents, Avdiivka, May 2018.Hide Footnote Critics cite, among other things, leaders’ infrequent visits to the conflict zone and the establishment in August 2018 of a civil society council from which prominent legal aid organisations were omitted. One international aid worker described the ministry as “a smoke screen” whose primary purpose was to show the international community that Kyiv was concerned about its conflict-affected citizens.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international legal support worker, Kyiv, September 2018.Hide Footnote In interviews with Crisis Group, some ministry staff downplayed the importance of the policies they promote and suggested that national security and military needs should take firm precedence over aid to civilians.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ministry staff, Kyiv, October 2017 and March 2018; Fiona Frazer, head of UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, Kyiv, September 2017; Olesya Tsybulko, former adviser to minister of temporarily occupied territories, Kyiv, October 2017; Yuriy Hrymchak, deputy minister of temporarily occupied territories, Kyiv, March 2018; international aid worker, Sievierodonetsk, May 2018.Hide Footnote

Ukraine now has 1.5 million registered IDPs, the vast majority listed as living in eastern regions near the conflict zone and in Kyiv.[fn]“Ukraine: UNHCR Operational Update, 01-30 April 2018”, Relief Web, https://reliefweb.int/report/ukraine/ukraine-unhcr-operational-update-01-30-april-2018.Hide Footnote In practice, about half are believed to live at their pre-conflict homes in areas outside government control.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sievierodonetsk city council, September 2017; Mariupol city council, May 2018. See also the Right to Protection reports, “Crossing the line of contact”, January-June 2018, at http://vpl.com.ua/en/materials/5396.Hide Footnote Many in this disproportionately elderly group insist that they are too old, or too attached to their homes, to start new lives elsewhere – or that their house and land are their only sources of livelihood and security.[fn]A HelpAge International survey of 100 elderly people affected by the conflict found that nearly half had stayed put when hostilities began because, in their words, they had nowhere else to go or felt they were too old to uproot themselves. In the words of one respondent: “You can’t transplant an old tree”. The survey was conducted in the fall of 2015. “Older people in humanitarian crises: calling for change”, HelpAge International, 11 May 2016.Hide Footnote Many have been driven back to their homes in part by their inability to afford housing on the government-controlled side of the divide.[fn]Crisis Group conversations, Kramatorsk and Sievierodonetsk residents, September-December 2017; Crisis Group conversation, OSCE Special Monitoring Mission staff, December 2017. In a February 2018 International Organization for Migration phone survey of IDPs who had returned to separatist-held Donetsk, 64 per cent said they had come back to avoid rental expenses. National Monitoring System on the Situation of Internally Displaced Persons, March 2018, p. 8.Hide Footnote Together, monthly pensions and IDP subsidies are often insufficient to cover rent and other necessities in government-controlled areas – particularly given that the influxes of IDPs, civil-military personnel and international aid workers have driven up rental prices in these parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.[fn]The figure of $52 represents the minimum monthly state pension as of early 2018. IDPs who have reached retirement age since the start of the conflict often have no access to the documentary proof of their work history needed to register for their pensions, and thus end up receiving the minimum monthly sum. See “Пенсионные новации-2018. Большинство останется без повышения пенсий, а многие потеряют право на ее получение”, Strana.ua, 11 January 2018; UN World Food Programme, Study on Social Protections and Safety Nets in Ukraine, 2017, p. 11.Hide Footnote There was no national affordable housing program until the fall of 2017, only municipal programs frequently marred by delays and embezzlement allegations.[fn]Crisis Group conversations, Kramatorsk and Sievierodonetsk residents, September-December 2017; Crisis Group interview, Yulia Naumenko, April 2018. See also UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “Durable Solutions and Social Housing for IDPs: International Policies and Ukrainian Experience”, 5 July 2017.Hide Footnote

In late 2017, the government introduced a program by which it subsidises 50 per cent of housing costs. Yet even the remaining half is unaffordable for most elderly and unemployed. A city official in Sievierodonetsk said he could hardly blame those – roughly half of the city’s registered IDPs – who lived elsewhere.[fn]Crisis Group interview, deputy mayor, Sievierodonetsk, August 2017.Hide Footnote Asked about the slow start on affordable housing, a member of the Ministry of Temporarily Occupied Territories said it had been unavoidable: when the war began, Ukraine’s financial problems had forced the government to choose between “housing people or restoring our tanks”. He said it had been right to choose the latter: the country got an army it could be proud of, while the IDPs who remained in government-controlled territory were those with the skills to support themselves and enrich the places where they were living.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ministry of Temporarily Occupied Territories official, Kyiv, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Freed from rental costs, registered IDPs residing in areas outside government control can gain a small but – in light of growing economic insecurity – often crucial financial boost from travelling to government-held areas to collect their state subsidies. Some combine Ukrainian government pensions with the Russian-subsidised pensions disbursed by the DPR and LPR: while they have a financial advantage over those without IDP status, who must rely on pensions from the Kremlin-backed armed groups, even recipients of double pensions often struggle. Studies by international aid workers in 2017 and 2018 have found the share of people 60 or older in areas outside government control who are food-insecure ranging from one in three to one in five, meaning that their incomes do not cover both a daily supply of quality food and other survival needs, including medicine.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, independent researcher based in Donetsk, Kyiv, April 2018; OSCE Special Monitoring Mission staff based in Donetsk, Maiorsk, July 2018. See also Ukraine Food Security and Livelihood Cluster, Joint Food Security Assessment, September 2017; Ukraine Food Security and Livelihood Cluster, Food Security and Socio-economic Trend Analysis - Eastern Ukraine, March 2018 Hide Footnote A late 2017 study found that a majority of food-insecure people in the conflict zone cited reduced income from pensions as a major contributor to these circumstances.[fn]Ukraine Food Security and Livelihoods Cluster, Joint Food Security Assessment, September 2017.Hide Footnote

The fact that half of IDPs hold this status for the sake of their pensions – while in fact living in uncontrolled areas – is the subject of bitter political and social controversy. Most IDPs who returned home did so in 2015 as levels of fighting in many areas declined and their financial resources dwindled. In June 2016, Kyiv responded to this shift with Order 365, a package of legislation that establishes mandatory checks on IDPs’ places of residence. It revokes the IDP status of people spending more than 60 days at a time in areas outside Kyiv’s control, and effectively strips those found to have violated procedures of their right to social payments for two to six months.[fn]“Деякі питання здійснення соціальних виплат внутрішньо переміщеним особам[Some issues concerning provision of social payments to internally displaced persons], Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, Order No. 365, 8 June 2016.Hide Footnote The then-minister of social policy, and his successor since August 2016 Andriy Reva, who later infamously suggested that Ukrainians had trouble making ends meet due to overeating, said the move was needed to prevent rebel fighters and other criminals from intercepting pension payments.[fn]“Пенсионеров незаконно лишают статуса и социальных выплат” [“Pensioners are being illegally deprived of their status and social payments”], OstroV, 24 February 2016; “Постановление 365: заявления общественных организации и ответ министра [Order 365: statements by civic organisations and the minister’s response]”, Mediaport, 26 August 2016; “‘Украинцы едят много, поэтому тратят на еду больше чем немцы'- Рева [“‘Ukrainians eat too much, which is why they spend more than Germans on food’ – Reva”], Censor.net, 11 August 2017.Hide Footnote

In 2016, this package of legislation saw the government revoke the IDP status and, by extension, the pensions of roughly 460,000 people; state expenditures on pensions for people from areas outside Kyiv’s control fell by over 50 per cent.[fn]“В ПФУ рассказали о выплатах пенсии переселенцам” [“Pension fund discusses pension payments for the displaced”], Donetskiye Novosti, 17 June 2018.Hide Footnote Rights groups say that along with the many IDPs residing at their pre-conflict homes in areas not controlled by Kyiv many were in fact resident in government-held areas and had fallen victim to surprise home visits, for which they were absent, or inaccurate official records on front-line crossings.[fn]While the order linking pensions to IDP status took effect in 2014, the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) did not begin issuing electronic travel permits to cross the line of separation until 2015. Rights groups argue that many had pensions cut as a result of SSU records showing they had not received permits since the new system took effect – and that this group of people included pensioners who were residing in government-controlled territory and had not crossed the line recently. See Anton Gorodetsky, “Казки від уряду: платити не можна кидати” [“Fairytales from the government: we can’t abandon you – or pay you”], Donbas SOS, 18 April 2018.Hide Footnote

Many say this situation could have been avoided had the government taken greater pains to adhere to international commitments and Ukrainian laws.

The number of IDPs receiving pensions declined further in 2017, and continued to fall in the first six months of 2018.[fn]Алла Котляр, “Невыплата пенсий как символ лицемерия государства” [Alla Kotlyar, “Non-payment of pensions as a symbol of government hypocrisy”], Zerkalo Tyzhnia, 7 July 2018.Hide Footnote Officially, as of May 2018 650,400 residents of uncontrolled territories were not receiving pensions because they had failed to register as IDPs, returned home after receiving IDP status, left Ukraine or died.[fn]See “В ПФУ рассказали о выплатах пенсии переселенцам” [“Pension fund discusses pension payments for the displaced”], Donetskiye Novosti, 17 June 2018.Hide Footnote This number is over half of the 1,278,200 pensioners who were, as of August 2014, registered in areas now outside government control. In an indication of how crucial many consider their pensions to be, roughly 1.2 million have appealed to authorities at some point during the conflict to get suspended pensions resumed; some of these have had payments restored through court proceedings.[fn]Kotlyar, “Non-payment of pensions”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Many say this situation could have been avoided had the government taken greater pains to adhere to international commitments and Ukrainian laws. In June 2016, following the order’s adoption, the Ministry for Social Policy set up a working group, consisting of representatives of the Ministry for Temporarily Occupied Territories, the Luhansk regional government, Kyiv city social services and domestic legal protection organisations, which held four meetings to discuss potential amendments to the order.

In August 2016, these legal support organisations published an open letter to Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroisman, stating that the ministry had heeded neither their concerns nor those of the regional government.[fn]“Звернення громадських организацій з приводу розробки змін до деяких постанов Кабінету Міністрів України, що стосуються реалізації прав внутрішньо переміщених осіб” [“Appeal by civic organisations regarding the development of amendments to some resolutions by the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine concerning the rights of internally-displaced persons”], available at http://www.donbasssos.org/wgminsoc_220816.Hide Footnote They argued further that both the order’s procedures and the practice of linking pensions to IDP status contradicted national law and international legal precedent.[fn]“Пропозиції до проекту постанови Кабінету Міністрів України ‘Деякі питання здійснення соціальних виплат внутрішньо переміщеним особам’”, available at http://www.donbasssos.org/wgminsoc_220816.Hide Footnote Ukrainian law specifies that citizens are entitled to their pensions regardless of their physical location. In 2013, the European Court of Human Rights found in favour of a Ukrainian citizen whose pension had been terminated after he took up residence abroad, declaring that the government had violated Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, on non-discrimination, as well as Article 1 of Protocol 1, on enjoyment of property rights.[fn]See European Court of Human Rights, Case of Pichkur v. Ukraine (Application no. 10441/06) Judgment, Strasbourg, 7 November 2013.Hide Footnote

International actors proceeded to echo this position in their dealings with the government, with mixed reactions. In early 2017, responding to numerous UN exhortations to renew pension payments for residents of uncontrolled areas, the social policy minister commented that he had “never seen such brazen interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs”. Many residents of uncontrolled areas, he went on to say, “receive two pensions – ours and ‘theirs’. This isn’t a secret to anyone but our friends at the UN”.[fn]“Хай Путіну виcтавляють претензії – міністр відповів на закиди про невиплату пенсій в ОРДЛО” [“Minister responds to accusations about non-payment of pensions in the occupied territories: let them address their complaints to Putin”], Radio Svoboda, 6 February 2017.Hide Footnote His position is that of the Cabinet of Ministers overall – that there is no way to de-link pensions from IDP status as long as Ukraine lacks control over financial transactions in uncontrolled territories, which it will until Russia fulfils its Minsk obligations.[fn]Crisis Group discussions, Donetsk Oblast Administration, Kramatorsk, July 2018; Ministry of Internal Affairs staff, Kyiv, September 2018.Hide Footnote Reva has promised that once Kyiv regains control of these areas, the pension fund’s debts to residents will be repaid in full, though an April 2018 government decree called for a separate, still unclear procedure for repaying debts to IDP pensioners.[fn]“Андрій Рева: Одразу після звільнення окупованих територій місцеве населення отримує пенсії за весь період з початку припинення виплат” [“Andriy Reva: Immediately after liberation of the occupied territories, the local population will receive their pensions for the entire period following cessation of payments”], Ministry of Social Policy, 2 March 2018;
Зміни, що вносяться до постанови Кабінету Міністрів України від 8 червня 2016 р. No. 365 [Amendments to Cabinet of Ministers Decree No. 365 of 8 April 2016], Cabinet of Ministers Decree N0. 335, 25 April 2018.Hide Footnote

Some independent observers share the government’s stance.[fn]Crisis Group discussion, International Renaissance Foundation, Kyiv, September 2018.Hide Footnote Yet a majority of leading domestic and international legal and humanitarian workers, as well as many officials, say pension renewal is not only a legal imperative but also an achievable – and increasingly unavoidable – task. In May 2018, Ukraine’s Supreme Court decided in favour of a plaintiff who had sued to reinstate her pension after she had moved back to her home in the uncontrolled areas, losing her IDP status. Echoing arguments by legal aid groups, the court determined that the residence checks foreseen by Order 365 contradicted the Ukrainian constitution, national legislation on pension provision, the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Social Charter and the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, as well as legal precedent from the European Court and Ukraine’s Constitutional Court.[fn]Supreme Court of Ukraine, Рішення іменем України У зразкові справі про припинення виплати пенсії внутрішньо переміщеній особи [Judgment of Ukraine in the model case on cessation of pension payments to internally displaced persons], 3 May 2018, Kyiv, case No. 805/42/18, proceeding No. Pz/9901/20/18, http://reyestr.court.gov.ua/Review/73869341.Hide Footnote The Supreme Court upheld the decision in September; that judgment will now provide a legal blueprint for the thousands of similar cases on file.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Right to Protection staff, Kyiv, September 2018.Hide Footnote

Legal experts say the verdict leaves Kyiv with no choice but to pass legislation de-linking pension eligibility from IDP status. Some are hopeful that the decision could revive a draft law that has been languishing in parliament since July 2017.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Daria Tolkach, Right to Protection, Kyiv, September 2018; International humanitarian worker, Kyiv, September 2018.Hide Footnote Draft 6692, submitted by a cross-party group of deputies, would guarantee conflict-affected citizens’ right to receive pensions on government-controlled territory regardless of IDP status or place of permanent residence, obligate the pension fund to locate citizens’ pension records electronically in cases where citizens have lost hard copies of necessary documents, and remove all limitations on the state’s obligation to reimburse people for pensions that have gone unpaid for any amount of time. For citizens who are too immobile to travel to government-controlled territory, the law foresees a procedure allowing them to designate a trustee to claim pensions on their behalf.[fn]“Проект Закону про внесення змін до деяких законів України щодо права на отримання пенсій окремим категоріям громадян” [Draft law on amendments to certain laws of Ukraine on the rights of individual categories of citizens to receive pensions], Draft 6692, registered 12 July 2017. A potential alternative or complement to the trustee system would be for the International Committee of the Red Cross to distribute pensions in areas outside government control. The Red Cross presented a proposal for such a procedure to the Trilateral Contact Group’s working group on economic issues in Minsk in April 2018, but it has yet to be endorsed.Hide Footnote

Still, large obstacles remain in the way of bringing legislation and practice into line with the court’s verdict. Faced with questions about prospects for renewing pensions for residents of uncontrolled areas, officials regularly respond that the pension fund faces a deficit – roughly $5 billion – and is financed through the state budget. Asked what was behind resistance to Draft 6692, one prominent official replied simply, “money”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, September 2018.Hide Footnote Yet advocates of the law insist that lack of money is hardly an argument against it, since the government takes pains to make budgetary funds available for other, arguably less socially vulnerable groups such as veterans of the Afghan war and their families.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Daria Tolkach, Right to Protection, Kyiv, September 2018.Hide Footnote A policymaker with intimate knowledge of pension policy characterised the gridlock on the issue as largely the product of financial woes, but also of a lack of political will to confront these difficulties. While she said she believed Kyiv had both a moral and legal duty to pay pensions to residents of the conflict zone, she expressed doubt that “any changes will be made under the current government”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, ministerial official, Kyiv, September 2018.Hide Footnote

The political inertia on the issue may come partly from polarisation and bias. On one hand, powerful sections of the political establishment are inclined to imply, usually behind closed doors, that Ukraine, with all its problems, should not prioritise a population whose economic productivity and patriotism they consider questionable.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, head of parliamentary faction, Kyiv, September 2017; deputy minister, Kyiv, March 2018.Hide Footnote This view is evident, to a greater or lesser extent, within sections of that establishment that bill themselves as patriotic and pro-Western, and arguably contains echoes of a line that has circulated in some Ukrainian media since 2014 – a twentieth-century Ukrainian poet’s assertion that without Donbas and its population of “sausage-eaters … there will be a few million less of us, but we’ll be a nation”.[fn]See “Отрежьте Донбасс, это раковая опухоль” [“Cut Donbas off, it’s a cancerous growth”], Publichnye Lyudi, 28 September 2017. The poet’s epithet for Donbas residents was kolbasny, a term without a precise English translation that literally means “salami-like”. It is pejorative, implying vulgar manners and taste. In English, those who espouse the view that Kyiv should disregard Donbas tend to describe its residents in less colourful language – often simply as “pro-Russian”. See, for example, Alexander Motyl, “Kiev should give up on the Donbass”, Foreign Policy, 2 February 2017.Hide Footnote

Inaction on pensions will only hurt Ukraine’s long-term interests.

A Kyiv official with a human rights mandate said many conflict-affected citizens suffer from what she called a “gimme, gimme” mentality.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, government ministry officials, Kyiv, September 2018.Hide Footnote A young member of the ruling coalition and advocate of EU integration, despite lamenting the lack of effective government outreach to residents of areas outside its control, said the conflict had “allowed the better part of our people to come together and move the country forward”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, national parliamentarian from ruling coalition, Kyiv, March 2018.Hide Footnote Another parliamentarian from the ruling coalition said many residents of areas outside government control embodied the value system from which Ukraine was trying to escape – “the values of the Russian world, where everybody owes them something – their pension or something else”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, national parliamentarian from ruling coalition, Kyiv, March 2018. The “Russian world” – russkiy mir – is a concept predicated on linguistic, cultural and historical identity. It found embodiment in the Kremlin’s establishment in 2007 of a foundation of the same name, the mission of which is, in part, to reconnect “the Russian community abroad with their homeland”. Public discourse in Ukraine often uses the term ironically.Hide Footnote

Some outspoken individuals, including certain military or security personnel and civic activists providing funds and supplies for front-line troops, venture that those in areas outside government control are being justly punished for being collaborators – a term they extend to anyone who, in their view, did not actively oppose Russian intervention in their region.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, youth activists, Kramatorsk, August 2017; military support volunteers, Kramatorsk, September 2017.Hide Footnote “They need to learn their lesson”, said one recipient of a presidential award for organising material aid for troops. “The memory of this suffering needs to become part of their bedtime stories, so that their descendants will grow up knowing that if they call out for Uncle Putin, things will be bad”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, military support volunteer and civic activist, Mariupol, May 2018.Hide Footnote

On the other side of the political spectrum, many of the most vocal supporters of pension renewal and more proactive outreach to conflict-affected citizens are broadly viewed as potential Kremlin colluders. Many are former allies of the former president, Viktor Yanukovych. Their support bases are mostly in south-eastern parts of the country adjacent to the conflict zone; this area saw unsuccessful insurgencies in 2014 that were backed in part by figures close to the Kremlin. These politicians have positioned themselves as guardians of people who they say have fallen victim to the state’s pursuit of elusive promises of European integration at the expense of peace, economic security and ties with Russia – a category in which they include Donbas pensioners. These officials are in many cases believed to have close links with Russian politicians and businessmen.[fn]For example, the Opposition Bloc’s Natalia Korolevska, who has said Kyiv’s pension policies toward Donbas constitute “a crime against its own people”, has been investigated by Ukraine’s Prosecutor General for allegedly providing funds to Ihor Plotnitskyi, the former leader of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic. She herself has ridiculed the prosecutor’s claims. See “Генпрокуратура подозревает Королевскую в финансировании терроризма” [“Prosecutor General suspects Korolevska of financing terrorism”], Khvylya, 5 January 2015; “Наталья Королевская: правительство продолжает незаконно лишать украинцев пенсий” [“Natalia Korolevska: the government is continuing to illegally deprive Ukrainians of their pensions”], Opposition Bloc, 14 June 2017. Several members of the Opposition Bloc and affiliated parties admit ties with Russian business and political figures, but deny that these links influence their political positions. The clearest example of this phenomenon is Minsk envoy Viktor Medvedchuk, whose daughter is Putin’s goddaughter. See Oliver Carrol, “The return of the godfather: how Putin’s best friend in Ukraine is staging an improbable comeback”, The Independent, 30 August 2018.Hide Footnote

These circumstances give some members of the political establishment grounds, or at least a pretext, to frame a wide range of public discourse on the rights of conflict-affected Ukrainian citizens as a challenge to Ukraine’s national interests, rather than an inherent aspect of them. Several officials dismissed Draft 6692 as an attempt at sabotage by pro-Russian agents, aimed at getting Kyiv to foot the bill for Russia’s occupation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former national defence adviser, Kyiv, March and July 2018; Donetsk civil-military administration, Kramatorsk, July 2018.Hide Footnote Some civil society advocates for conflict-affected citizens’ rights complain that people whose patriotism they question are hijacking their talking points.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, IDP rights activist, Sievierodonetsk, September 2017; civic activist, Lviv, May 2018; freelance journalist based in Donetsk, Kyiv, May 2018; freelance journalist covering conflict, Kyiv, September 2018.Hide Footnote

Yet inaction on pensions will only hurt Ukraine’s long-term interests. Kyiv’s limits on pension access have already prompted or exacerbated discontent with the state among many conflict-affected citizens. In an August 2016 report, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine stated that some IDPs considered the government’s recent measures “a form of collective punishment”.[fn]UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, 16 May to 15 August 2016, p. 30.Hide Footnote Pensioners often speak in bitter terms about interrupted payments: “We’ve worked for Ukraine our whole lives”, some say.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, pensioners, Sievierovdonetsk, December 2017.Hide Footnote Younger residents of uncontrolled territories, including some vehemently opposed to the Kremlin-backed armed groups, voice anger at what they see as their state’s betrayal of older community members.[fn]Crisis Group discussions, Olga Gvozdyova, Donbas SOS, Kyiv, September 2017; freelance journalist based in Donetsk, Kyiv, April 2018.Hide Footnote

Some civil society members also argue that pension policies have tainted Ukrainian society’s views of conflict-affected citizens, although public opinion data have shown a majority of Ukrainians are in favour of the state paying these pensions.[fn]See “Большинство украинцев поддерживают выплату пенсий жителям Донецка и Луганска” [“A majority of Ukrainians support paying pensions to residents of Donetsk and Luhansk”], Novosti Donbasa, 27 June 2018.Hide Footnote A psychosocial worker, after expressing anger at Russia’s intervention in Donbas, said Kyiv’s pension policies were “inciting hatred” toward residents of uncontrolled areas by painting them as potential criminals or collaborators.[fn]Crisis Group discussion, psychosocial worker, Lysychansk, December 2017.Hide Footnote An IDP rights activist has written that these policies have allowed Kyiv to “economise on the most socially vulnerable segments of society in the short term, and to leave Ukrainians with the long-term impression that people fleeing war have somehow been ‘tricking the state’”.[fn]Gorodetsky, “Fairytales from the government”, op. cit.Hide Footnote In more pragmatic terms, failure to ensure access to pensions now could risk a slew of lawsuits at the European Court of Human Rights, which legal experts say will almost certainly decide in most plaintiffs’ favour given legal precedent. This outcome would ultimately be costlier for Ukraine, as the European Court would likely award extra damages for mental or physical suffering.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Daria Tolkach, Right to Protection, Kyiv, September 2018; Thomas Hill, Norwegian Refugee Council, Kyiv, September 2018. See reference to non-pecuniary damage in Article 41 of the European Convention on Human Rights, “Just satisfaction”, at https://www.coe.int/en/web/execution/article-41.Hide Footnote

B. Crossing the Contact Line

The lack of durable solutions for IDPs, on one hand, and many Ukrainians’ eagerness to retain ties on both sides of the contact line due to social and financial needs, on the other, mean that an average of one million individual crossings occur each month. This number is a significant increase over 2016, when the average monthly rate was about 700,000 crossings, which was in turn a doubling of the 2015 rate.[fn]UN OCHA, 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan, op. cit.; “Twelve million people crossed the line of contact in 2017”, Foundation 101, 27 February 2018.Hide Footnote

The large number of crossings should be an opportunity for Ukrainian authorities to show residents of areas outside their control that their country is efficient and rights-oriented, a country fighting for, not against them. As things stand, conditions at Kyiv-controlled crossing points vary greatly – from smooth and even friendly, in the case of the lightly travelled Hnutove crossing, to degrading, in the case of the pedestrian-only crossing at Stanytsia Luhanska, the only one in Luhansk region, which consists of precarious wooden walkways over a river that the disproportionately elderly travellers typically have to wait hours to clamber across. At even the best-run crossing points, landmines, as well as shooting and shelling by forces on either side, kill or injure civilians. Long waiting times, often in extreme cold or heat, frequently lead to hospitalisation or death.[fn]In January 2018, a pensioner died when a shell hit his bus as he was preparing to enter Kyiv’s section of Donetsk region. In December 2016, a man died after being hit by gunfire at the Kyiv-controlled Maiorsk checkpoint in Donetsk. See OSCE, “Spot Report by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine: Shelling in Olenivka”, 28 April 2016. Ukrainian border police called the incident a separatist “provocation”; according to social media rumours a Ukrainian Army officer shot the man by accident. “Украина и сепаратисты обвиняют друг друга в расстреле мирных жителей на блок-посту ‘Майорск’” [“Ukraine and separatists accuse each other of shooting civilians at Maiorsk checkpoint”], Strana, 14 December 2016. This past April four civilians died and eight received injuries from 122mm mortar fire at the same crossing point, where they were sleeping in their cars waiting for it to open. A UN report attributed the shelling to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, although neither side has claimed responsibility. Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, 15 February-16 May 2018, p. 11. See the monthly “Crossing the line of contactreports from Right to Protection, available at http://vpl.com.ua/uk.Hide Footnote Aid agencies make most improvements to facilities. Stories abound of border personnel chiding pensioners for their choice to continue travelling back and forth across the line rather than “deciding which side they’re on already”.[fn]The quote is from a Crisis Group conversation with a border policeman at Novotroitske crossing, May 2018. Crisis Group interviews, psycho-social worker, Lysychansk, December 2017; pensioners, Stanytsia Luhanska, December 2017; independent researcher, Stanytsia Luhanska, April 2018; see also Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, 16 August-15 November 2017, pp. 23, 30.Hide Footnote

Authorities insist that they must strike a balance in outfitting the crossing points: they should be safe and comfortable, but devoid of the durable infrastructure that might signal to commuters that the line is any kind of border.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Donetsk Region Civil-Military Administration official, July 2018.Hide Footnote They also argue that long waiting times are largely the rebels’ fault – a claim that humanitarian workers as well as ordinary residents back up: they say facilities on the other side of the line are direly under-equipped and often badly run – while also noting that de facto authorities, unlike Kyiv, fail to advertise the role of humanitarian responders in providing services there.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Right to Protection staff, Novotroitske/Mariupol, May 2018; OSCE Special Monitoring Mission monitors, Maiorsk, July 2018.Hide Footnote Yet these issues should not stop Kyiv from improving citizens’ lives, and citizens’ perceptions of their government, where possible.

The political will to do so appears absent on both sides. Plans to open a new crossing in the fall of 2017 along the 150km stretch of front line in Luhansk region, which would reduce overcrowding at Stanytsia Luhanska, fell through when de facto authorities failed to construct their facility.[fn]Crisis Group interview, OSCE SMM member, December 2017.Hide Footnote Members of the Luhansk People’s Republic said they could not open their side of the crossing due to landmines as well as ceasefire violations by Kyiv; one Kyiv official said this failure showed that Moscow wanted people to be stuck with the pedestrian-only crossing “so that everybody can see how terrible Ukraine is”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Yuriy Hrymchak, deputy minister for temporarily occupied territories, Kyiv, 26 March 2018.Hide Footnote Yet humanitarian workers also argued that Kyiv’s attitude toward pensioners residing in uncontrolled territories could play a role in the continued challenges of crossing in Luhansk region.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international security expert, Bakhmut, May 2018; international aid worker, Sievierodonetsk, May 2018.Hide Footnote

The views of some officials about those crossing the line indeed indicate prejudice. A deputy minister, for example, said in July that pensioners she had met at Stanytsia Luhanska “unfortunately sort of like the conflict” as it allowed them to receive two pensions. She argued this demographic had thus become an obstacle to conflict resolution – demonstrating a degree of cynicism for which no one is able to offer any factual basis.[fn]Crisis Group interview, national official, Kyiv, July 2018.Hide Footnote In the words of a pensioner quoted in a recent UN report, if entering government-held territory were not a requirement for receiving pensions, “we would still go there … but to meet with relatives, to purchase food, not to be humiliated”.[fn]Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, November 2017-February 2018, p. 23.Hide Footnote Authorities would do better to view those crossing as potential allies in peacebuilding and to treat them accordingly: as one international security expert put it, “these are the people who do not accept the division of their communities”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security expert, Kyiv, July 2018.Hide Footnote

C. The 2017 Trade Blockade

The March 2017 cessation of trade across the line of contact has deepened the rift between areas outside Kyiv’s control and the rest of Ukraine – and, to a lesser degree, between Kyiv and government-controlled Donbas. Between 2014 and 2017, Kyiv facilitated movement of commodities on the grounds that coal from areas outside its control was vital to energy security, while the entities producing it – largely owned by Donetsk city oligarchs who had relocated to Kyiv – were registered in government-controlled areas and employed thousands on both sides. But in January 2017, a pro-Kyiv vigilante group blocked rail and road arteries to prevent movement of goods across the contact line or, as they called it, “trade in blood”. When police attempts to break up the blockade failed, DPR members seized Kyiv-registered businesses and required them to “re-register” under their jurisdiction.[fn]See “Главари ‘Л/ДНР’ угрожают отобрать украинские предприятия из-за блокады” [“‘People’s Republic’ warlords threaten to seize Ukrainian enterprises due to blockade”], Unian, 27 February 2017.Hide Footnote On 15 March, President Petro Poroshenko announced his reluctant legalisation of the blockade, humanitarian shipments excepted.

The number of food-insecure residents in the region doubled in 2017, rising to over a million.

While Poroshenko and government officials warned the move would ravage the economy, that has not transpired. Instead, the ill effects have been local, making the bad humanitarian situation in Donbas worse. The number of food-insecure residents in the region doubled in 2017, rising to over a million. Much of the increase occurred after the blockade, mostly in parts of Donetsk region outside government control, due partly to reduced aid distribution. Aid from local and international humanitarian actors decreased by nearly half between February and March, largely due to the expulsion of the charitable fund of Rinat Akhmetov, one of the Kyiv-allied oligarchs whose assets the DPR had seized.[fn]Food and Security Livelihoods Cluster Meeting Minutes, 1 March 2018, 10:00, Sievierodonetsk, p. 3; Crisis Group correspondence, cluster coordinator, April 2018.Hide Footnote It was also a result of higher unemployment and lower income due in part to the closure or insolvency of factories that had depended on trade with Kyiv-controlled areas.

Aid organisations report that households in areas outside Kyiv’s control increasingly have to cut food spending to cover other expenses due to falling income.[fn]A late 2017 survey of front-line households on both sides of the line of separation found that the average household in Kyiv-controlled areas had 0.9 employed residents, while households in separatist areas had an average of 0.7 employed members. Nearly 12 per cent of households in separatist-held areas and 5 per cent in Kyiv-controlled areas reported loss of employment within the past year; 25 and 13 per cent, respectively, reported reduced income, including due to salary arrears resulting from industrial enterprises becoming insolvent. Ukraine Food Security and Livelihoods Cluster, Joint Food Security Assessment, September 2017, p. 6.Hide Footnote Locals also cite reduced access to foodstuffs produced elsewhere in Ukraine, many of them cheaper and higher-quality than their Russian and Belarusian replacements.[fn]Crisis Group interview, OSCE Special Monitoring Mission officers, August 2017; Ukraine Food Security and Livelihoods Cluster, op. cit., p. 4; Crisis Group interviews, Donetsk city residents, October 2017; Donetsk city researcher, January 2018. Ukrainian food items are still available in some stores thanks to profitable smuggling businesses that the blockade has given birth to, but prices have risen considerably. See “Trade with Russian-occupied Donbas persists, despite blockade”, Kyiv Post, 29 November 2017.Hide Footnote

The deepening humanitarian crisis has disproven a key claim of blockade supporters – that Russia and international organisations would fill any gap in supply that the blockade caused. The World Food Programme (WFP) ceased operations in Ukraine in February 2018, citing limited financial resources, poor access to areas outside Kyiv’s control and Ukraine’s status as a food-exporting nation.[fn]Food from Russia, meanwhile, is widely alleged to be sold at marked-up rates by local rebel leaders and their associates, putting it out of reach for much of the population.[fn]Crisis Group interview, OSCE monitor, Sievierodonetsk, December 2017; Crisis Group discussions, Donetsk-based researcher, January-March 2018.Hide FootnoteIn April 2018, a Moscow-based analyst close to those involved in talks in Minsk rebuffed reports of food insecurity, saying such things were "impossible to measure".[fn]Crisis Group discussion, political expert, Moscow, April 2018.  Hide Footnote

Some of the blockade’s defenders argue that weakening the economies in areas outside Kyiv’s control will hasten the entities’ collapse and the territories’ return to Ukraine.[fn]See, for example, the comments by National Security and Defence Council head Oleksandr Turchynov, “Убийцы украинцев не спрячутся ни в Донецке, ни в РФ. Пусть дрожат и ждут” [“The killers of Ukrainians can’t hide in Donetsk or in the Russian Federation: Let them tremble and wait”], Liga.net, 17 February 2017.Hide Footnote On this front, evidence is mixed. Residents of parts of Donetsk region outside government control say mass unemployment, which the blockade exacerbates, provokes deep public dissatisfaction.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Donetsk and Luhansk city residents, October-December 2017.Hide Footnote A possible uptick in early 2018 of detention of private citizens who post about unemployment on social media suggests that these sentiments are widespread enough to worry the de facto authorities.[fn]Crisis Group discussions, Donetsk-based researcher, January-March 2018.Hide Footnote Yet accounts from factory workers laid off after the blockade took effect imply that economic hardship has strengthened a siege mentality in these areas. While not necessarily feeding support for de facto leaders, whose economic policy is broadly considered inadequate, this mentality may reinforce some people’s enthusiasm for separation from Ukraine.[fn]Crisis Group discussion, residents of Antratsyt (Luhansk region, outside government control), December 2017.Hide Footnote

In sum, Kyiv should take steps to lift the blockade and negotiate the return of Ukrainian-registered businesses to territories beyond its control: while Moscow shares responsibility for the misery of those living in these areas, Kyiv’s blockade only increases its own share of that – and feeds a myth that will become reality. One official argued that such negotiations will now be exceedingly difficult given the opaque inner workings of the entities that now control these assets.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Heorhiy Tuka, deputy minister for temporarily occupied territories and internally displaced persons, Kyiv, September 2018.Hide Footnote If true, this should serve as a cautionary tale: bridges, once burned, can be hard to repair.

D. Life on Kyiv’s Front Line

Up to 200,000 people live within 10km of Kyiv’s front line, governed by civil-military administrations, dependent on humanitarian aid and exposed to artillery and small-arms fire. Some remain out of fear of losing their houses to military use, for which there are no compensation procedures in place. Others lack the funds to relocate due to a dearth of affordable alternative housing and, in some cases, a lack of IDP subsidies.[fn]These are limited to settlements outside government control, the official list of which omits some insecure areas where government services do not function. See “Кабінет Міністрів України, Постанова від 1 жовтня”, 2014 р. N°509, Київ [Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, Order N°509 of 1 October 2014, Kyiv]”; “‘50 на 50’ – или есть ли шанс получить жилье?” [“‘50-50’ – or, do we have a chance of getting housing?’”], Donbass SOS, 12 December 2017; Crisis Group interviews, international aid worker, Sievierodonetsk; IDP rights advocate, Sievierodonetsk; human rights advocate, Kramatorsk, August 2017; Right to Protection staff, Kyiv, April 2018.Hide Footnote Still others consider it their duty to stay behind and help their older or more vulnerable neighbours, or continue teaching at half-empty schools, or otherwise try to keep some vestige of their communities alive.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, schoolteachers, Avdiivka, September 2017; community activist, town head, municipal education official, Shchastia, December 2017; pensioners, Stanytsia Luhanska, December 2017; pensioner, Nyzhnoteple, December 2017; Opytne resident and humanitarian worker, Avdiivka, May 2018. See also Crisis Group Europe Briefing N°81, Ukraine: The Line, 18 July 2016.Hide Footnote

Civilians’ relations with locally stationed troops and security officials have greatly improved since the low point of 2015, when there were widespread reports of pillage, sexual violence and other ill treatment by members of volunteer battalions, which they themselves deny. Some, like the infamous Tornado battalion, have been dissolved. In 2017, in a sign of Kyiv’s willingness to hold some battalion members accountable for abuses, twelve former Tornado members were convicted of offenses including beatings, torture and sexual assault, committed in 2015, and given sentences ranging from suspended five-year terms to eleven years.[fn]“In Ukraine, both sides to appeal verdicts in Tornado battalion case”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 10 April 2017. For discussion of evidence of the defendants’ alleged guilt, see UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, 16 February to May 2017, p. 20. The defence has appealed the April 2017 verdict, calling for charges to be dropped.Hide Footnote Other volunteer groups have been formally incorporated into the National Guard and other regular Ukrainian forces, but some still operate their own firing ranges and wear their own insignia.[fn]Crisis Group observations, September-December 2017.Hide Footnote Villagers often report friendly or at least civil relations with soldiers, including members of former volunteer units, who bring food, fuel and treats for children.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, rights advocate, Kramatorsk, August 2017; international organisation representative, Sievierodonetsk, August 2017; schoolteachers, Avdiivka, September-October 2017; pensioner, Ocheretyne, October 2017.Hide Footnote

The day-to-day interests of civilians and soldiers remain largely at odds due to in-adequate civilian protection practices.

Yet the day-to-day interests of civilians and soldiers remain largely at odds due to inadequate civilian protection practices. Anecdotes circulate of soldiers risking their lives to shield civilians from incoming fire or offering civilians free, safe accommodation elsewhere.[fn]Crisis Group interview, humanitarian worker and local resident, Avdiivka, May 2018.Hide Footnote Yet individual acts of kindness and heroism are a poor substitute for policy squarely aimed at ensuring the safety of inhabitants. Some international observers say the shift to a more streamlined command structure has brought a palpable new enthusiasm, at least rhetorical, for international humanitarian law, though it remains to be seen whether a deeper practical shift is afoot.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international security expert, Mariupol, May 2018.Hide Footnote

For a variety of reasons, Kyiv less frequently locates military objectives within or near densely populated areas than the Kremlin-backed armed groups, residents and researchers aver that it nonetheless does so. Military spokespersons and commanders insist that troops are stationed only outside population centres, but civilians often complain that military positions are hundreds of metres from homes and schools – close enough that an 122mm Grad rocket fired toward one of these positions from the other side could easily hit them instead.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Civil Military Cooperation of the Armed Forces of Ukraine representatives, Kramatorsk, July 2018; international organisation representatives, Sievierodonetsk, December 2017, Mariupol, May 2018, Sievierodonetsk, May 2018, Avdiivka, May 2018; independent researcher, Zaitseve, June 2018; schoolmaster, Novoluhanske, July 2018. See also the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine’s quarterly reports, 2016-2018.Hide Footnote

In some areas of intense fighting, including those where Ukrainian troops are making small territorial gains, there may be tens, not hundreds, of metres between soldiers and the remaining civilians. In February 2018, in the village of Travneve in Luhansk region, a front-line settlement controlled by Ukrainian forces since the preceding December, a researcher reported seeing members of the Donbas Battalion, which has been incorporated into the National Guard, positioned next door to inhabited houses on a residential street and hand-firing mortars.[fn]Observation by independent researcher, Travneve, February 2018. Researcher provided video footage of the event. Hide Footnote In May 2018, aid workers in Avdiivka said troops in nearby front-line villages were maintaining more distance from civilians than in previous years – largely because there were fewer civilian objects and residents left. Yet these increases are often a matter of metres – not enough to significantly reduce the risk of civilians suffering from incoming fire.[fn]Crisis Group interview, aid workers, Avdiivka, May 2018.Hide Footnote

The February 2018 addition of new settlements to the list of places whose residents are eligible for subsidies that could aid in relocation is a positive but inadequate step when it comes to civilian protection: international humanitarian law calls on parties to avoid placing military personnel and equipment in densely populated areas and, should this prove unfeasible, take all possible measures to evacuate civilians.[fn]See International Committee of the Red Cross, International Humanitarian Law Database, Customary IHL, Rule 23, “Each party to the conflict must, to the extent feasible, avoid locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas”, at https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_rul_rule23; and Rule 24, “Each party to the conflict must, to the extent feasible, remove civilian persons or objects under its control from the vicinity of military objectives”, at https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_rul_rule24.Hide Footnote It does not oblige civilians to volunteer to leave their homes.

Freedom of movement is another concern for front-line dwellers. While Ukrainian legislation provides for the right of those living within 5km of the front line to cross without obtaining official travel permits, troops may block crossings with or without warning. In some cases, these closures complicate access to schools, hospitals, workplaces and shops for residents whose closest population centres are on the other side of the line. Closures also impede access to services in government-controlled areas: ambulances, repair technicians and humanitarian workers have trouble reaching many front-line villages that are closed to non-military traffic.[fn]See Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, November 2017-February 2018, p. 19.Hide Footnote

The lack of a clear mechanism for compensating civilians for property damaged, destroyed or appropriated for military purposes also feeds discontent.[fn]According to the UN, 40,000 civilian houses had been damaged or destroyed by hostilities by the end of 2017, not counting those damaged by military use. UN OCHA, 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan, op. cit., p. 9. See also “People in eastern Ukraine living without housing or compensation”, Norwegian Refugee Council, 26 September 2017; Crisis Group interview, Yulia Naumenko, lawyer with Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, April 2018; Crisis Group interview, civic activist, Kurakhove, May 2018.Hide Footnote To date, plaintiffs have filed over 150 court cases concerning property damaged by hostilities. Judges have found in the plaintiff’s favour in dozens of these cases, but no one has yet received any reimbursements; higher courts often overturn verdicts citing lack of government funds or the absence of a legal mechanism for compensation. Parliamentarians have introduced several bills outlining such procedures, but the votes are repeatedly pushed back. Legal experts say there is no political will to pass these measures, with many officials viewing them as a luxury the country cannot afford.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Yulia Naumenko, lawyer with Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, April 2018.Hide Footnote

The situation for civilians whose homes have been appropriated by the military is even more complex than for those whose property has been damaged by live fire: the law stipulates that the military must supply homeowners with documentation certifying confiscation of property so that they can receive compensation – but in practice they provide no such papers nor do legal procedures exist for them to do so. The policy gaps risk leaving many dependent on international aid for years to come.[fn]Norwegian Refugee Council, op. cit.Hide Footnote As with holes in pension provision, these gaps could also lead to future headaches for Kyiv in the form of European Court of Human Rights cases, where verdicts would likely call for compensating moral as well as material damages.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Yulia Naumenko, lawyer with Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, April 2018.Hide Footnote The government should promptly pass laws ensuring compensation for those affected – with support from the donor community as needed.

Residents of areas near the front line are also at risk of ill treatment at the hands of the police and state security services, widespread allegations of which persist.[fn]See, for example, UN Human Rights Council, “UN expert says persistent claims of torture and impunity in Ukraine”, 11 June 2018; Amnesty International, Ukraine 2017/2018 (online); U.S. Department of State, Ukraine 2017 Human Rights Report (online).Hide Footnote “The fact that there could be a war here was the first shock for us”, a civil servant in a front-line village said, speaking on condition of anonymity, “but the second shock was when our security services started coming to our homes at night”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil servant, Luhansk region, December 2017.Hide Footnote Human rights monitors from the UN as well as several domestic humanitarian and legal protection organisations note that while the rate and severity of illegal detentions has decreased since 2015, Security Service officers continue to enjoy impunity for such acts, which can be prompted by suspicions of collaboration with the rebels – or by conversations among civilians about troop movements or heavy weapons spotted in their towns.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights staff, Kramatorsk, August 2017; civil servant, Luhansk region, December 2017; humanitarian aid worker and resident, Avdiivka, May 2018; Maryinka native, Kurakhove, May 2018.Hide Footnote Residents of areas outside government control face a double threat in that Security Service officers may pressure them to become informants, placing them at serious risk of ill treatment by the Russian-backed armed formations upon their return home.[fn]Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, 16 August-15 November 2017, p. 25; Crisis Group correspondence, Donetsk-based independent researcher, April 2018.Hide Footnote

Some military and security personnel in front-line areas, including among civil-military authorities, say they are suspicious of many locals’ loyalties – while often offering shaky evidence for their claims. “We’re constantly on edge because most of the population here is for the other side [the Russian-backed armed formations]”, said one Security Service member, “and they’re waiting for [those forces] to come and liberate them”. Asked what threat the town’s largely elderly population posed, he said they could be spying.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Stanytsia Luhanska, December 2017.Hide Footnote A commander in the Donbas Battalion described the civilians of Travneve as separatists in a February 2018 public Facebook post, because the elderly women requested access to a market across the contact line in DPR-controlled Horlivka, where they hoped to sell some of the food soldiers had brought them. “We don’t give an eff about them”, he wrote.[fn]Vyacheslav Vlasenko Facebook post, 27 February 2018, https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1794897994145785&id=100008768047763. An independent researcher who spent time with the battalion described the commander as well respected within the forces. Crisis Group correspondence, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Raising troops’ morale, improving their psychological care and training them in community outreach techniques could improve relations and have positive knock-on effects upon civilian safety.

Ukrainian officers from the Joint Center for Control and Coordination, as well as Ukrainian Civil-Military Cooperation staff, were more positive about civilians but noted that their community outreach efforts focused on pre-adolescent children who had not yet been indelibly shaped by their parents’ “aggressive” and “pro-Russian views”. As evidence of the latter, they cited many children’s aversion to people in military uniform, saying this fear was the product of parents’ slander.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Joint Centre for Command and Control officers, Kramatorsk, September 2017; Crisis Group field observation with Kramatorsk Civil-Military Cooperation personnel, Donetsk region, October 2017.Hide Footnote They characterised many locals as deficient not only politically but socially, saying they “choose to sit in the village and receive aid”, or “sell themselves” or their children, rather than relocate.[fn]Crisis Group field observation with Kramatorsk Civil-Military Cooperation personnel, Donetsk region, October 2017.Hide Footnote

Raising troops’ morale, improving their psychological care and training them in community outreach techniques could not only improve relations between them and civilians, but also have positive knock-on effects upon civilian safety. Troops often complain that they are bored and “not allowed to work” – meaning, not permitted to fight as much as they would like to.[fn]Crisis Group interview, veterans’ rights expert, August 2018. In interviews in October 2017 and March 2018 respectively, a foreign military adviser and Ukrainian military journalist gave similar assessments.Hide Footnote In worst-case scenarios, researchers have observed soldiers using downtime to experiment with weapons within close range of civilians or to fire large-calibre weapons without permission.[fn]Crisis Group correspondence, independent researcher, March 2018; Crisis Group interview, humanitarian worker and resident, Avdiivka, May 2018; Crisis Group interview, veterans’ rights expert, August 2018.Hide Footnote One demobilisation expert suggested that units could use downtime for community outreach purposes, to get a better sense of civilians’ safety and humanitarian needs and reduce the risk of low-level conflict between the two groups. Yet she added that given the military command’s apparent reluctance to confront issues of troop morale, her ideas belonged to “the realm of fantasy” – a characterisation other observers shared.[fn]Crisis Group correspondence, independent researcher, March 2018; Crisis Group interview, veterans’ rights expert, August 2018.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group found no residents of government-controlled areas who identified as separatists, but also few who subscribed to the military and security officers’ ideas of patriotism. Many stated: “This isn’t our war”; almost all insisted that the conflict was not a battle of ideals but a convenient source of income for corrupt individuals on both sides. Few bore any animosity toward or harboured suspicion of residents of areas outside Kyiv’s control: “They didn’t want this war”. Several men expressed anger at suggestions that they ought to serve in the armed forces: “How am I supposed to go kill my neighbours?”; “I’ll never fight my own people”. A man from a front-line town where soldiers took over most homes told Crisis Group that Security Service officers “took me out to the field for a so-called conversation” and accused him of separatism in response to his request for compensation for himself and his neighbours. He said the experience had convinced him that “there isn’t really much of a difference between the two sides” in the conflict. “I’ll never be a separatist”, he insisted, “but my country is pushing me away”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, community activists, Avdiivka, May 2018; psychosocial worker, Lysychansk, December 2017; community activist, Shchastia, December 2017; Antratsyt residents, Sievierodonetsk, December 2017; Luhansk city residents, Novoaidar, December 2017; Shchastia resident, Novoaidar, December 2017; Luhansk city resident, Starobilsk, December 2017; Marinka native and community activist, Kurakhove, May 2018; Donetsk city resident; Kyiv, April 2018; Donetsk city residents, Mariupol, May 2018.Hide Footnote

III. Public Opinion and the Future of Eastern Ukraine

The circumstances of the last few years have left many Donbas residents angry, or at least deeply disaffected, with those who purport, with such violence, to have their interests at heart. The same refrains come up again and again in everyday conversations with residents on both sides of the line: “This is just a game and we’re caught in the middle”; “I don’t care whether Russia takes us or Ukraine does – I just want this to be over”; “Nobody wants us”.[fn]Crisis Group conversations, aid workers/residents, Avdiivka, May 2018.Hide Footnote

Kyiv shows little appetite for engagement with these views. Officials offer a range of reasons why they consider them unimportant: they come from Russian and separatist propaganda, or innate anti-Ukrainianism; those who espouse them will see the light when exposed to Kyiv’s narrative of the conflict, or are so exhausted that they will accept whatever arrangement comes their way post-liberation, or will cross the eastern border and become Russia’s problem.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, opposition parliamentarian, Kyiv, September 2017; political analyst, Kyiv, September 2017; military expert, Kyiv, September 2017; civil-military official, Avdiivka, October 2017; opposition politician, Kyiv, March 2018; opposition politician, Kyiv, April 2018; state security operative, Sievierodonetsk, May 2018.Hide Footnote

Regardless of the merit of these arguments, Kyiv cannot afford to close its ears to conflict-affected citizens’ grievances if it wants to reintegrate these people peacefully and sustainably. If Moscow decides to loosen its grip on Donbas, many shell-shocked residents may indeed tolerate whatever Kyiv puts before them. But toleration is not the same as active buy-in. Many officials are fond of saying Donbas lacked active, progressive citizens before the war, which made the region susceptible to invasion.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, opposition parliamentarian, Kyiv, October 2017; parliamentarian from ruling coalition, Kyiv, March 2018; opposition parliamentarian, Kyiv, March 2018; government adviser, April 2018; patriotic activist Ruslan Skalun, Mariupol, May 2018.Hide Footnote This analysis is deeply questionable, but those who adhere to it must recognise the benefits of creating every condition for active citizenry in the region now.

Kyiv must ensure that the media it broadcasts treats civilians as real people with valid grievances rather than members of a passive herd.

The first step is for Kyiv to acknowledge that residents’ disillusionment stems – at least in part – from lived experience. For people in government-controlled front-line settlements, this experience includes seeing their country’s forces sometimes firing in the direction of their neighbours across the line, or firing from positions in their villages and thus exposing them to return fire. For those in areas outside Kyiv’s control, it includes suffering from shelling of civilian areas that Kyiv has taken inadequate steps to avoid, and seemingly endless hurdles to retaining rights conferred by Ukrainian citizenship. For all alike, it includes having their judgment, patriotism and fitness for polite society questioned after four years of misery that most other Ukrainians have not endured. Such feelings are not unanimous: many excuse Kyiv for its failures given the strength, covert approach and implausible denials of its opponent. Yet these feelings can be found across the social and political spectrum, in Kremlin sympathisers as well as in people who loathe and have suffered at the hands of the separatists and their Kremlin backers.

Kyiv can afford to, and should, acknowledge the validity of these grievances – and take immediate steps to address some of the key ones. Its priority must be to improve the safety and security of all civilians, and to reduce the extent of damage and displacement. It should restore pension payments for residents of areas outside its control, with international aid; if necessary, donors should provide funds expressly for this purpose. It should develop and activate a mechanism for compensating front-line dwellers for damaged or appropriated property, again, with targeted donor aid if necessary. It should pursue disengagement in the area of Stanytsia Luhanska to enable restoration of the bridge, while it negotiates opening of new crossing facilities, and prioritise affordable housing in IDP host communities. It needs to either offer front-line dwellers viable relocation options with full financial support or stop positioning soldiers in villages. It needs to make its troops conform to its insistence that they always fire defensively. It needs to pass laws that will facilitate reintegration by offering the credible prospect of amnesty.

Once it is armed with objective evidence of a changed approach toward its citizens in areas outside its control, Kyiv should broaden and deepen its communication with them by all feasible means. In July 2018, the Cabinet of Ministers adopted the Strategy for the Informational Reintegration of Donetsk and Luhansk regions by 2020, which aims to expand access to Ukrainian television and radio in uncontrolled areas as well as front-line areas under government control where coverage is poor. This step is promising, but Kyiv must ensure that the media it broadcasts treats civilians as real people with valid grievances rather than members of a passive herd who, as one government document puts it, were “misled and ‘taken captive’ by Russian politics”.[fn]Стратегія інформаційної реінтеграції Донецької та Луганської областей, Cхвалено розпорядженням [Strategy for the informational reintegration of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts], Cabinet Ministry Order No. 539, 26 July 2018, p. 5.Hide Footnote

Media outreach should focus on three main issues: first, providing the clearest, most accurate information possible on how to get access to Ukrainian government benefits, acquire official documentation and, if residents choose, relocate to government-held areas. Kyiv should take extra care to tailor this outreach to the technical and physical limitations of the most vulnerable conflict-affected citizens, including those of restricted mobility, sight or hearing – something the July strategy makes note of. Secondly, it should, when data allows, report civilian casualties not only in Kyiv-held areas but on the other side of the contact line as well – without assigning blame, offering excuses or providing information that puts its own forces at risk: Kyiv needs to acknowledge, publicly and consistently, that it values civilians’ lives regardless of where they live. Thirdly, outreach needs to tackle the issue of amnesty, reassuring residents that its application will be wide-ranging enough to enable broad reconciliation but no less effective in securing justice for the conflict’s victims.

Outreach efforts ought to acknowledge that it is not only how Kyiv talks to people in Donbas that matters, but how it talks to the rest of the country and to its international partners about them. Kyiv has done an effective job advertising the bravery with which its troops have confronted Moscow’s military machine. It should now apply this same energy toward presenting and encouraging media to present a clear picture of life in the conflict zone, drawing attention to humanitarian needs on both sides of the line and shortages in aid funding – both to attract international attention and to show the region’s residents that they are a national priority.

IV. Conclusion

Ukraine faces overwhelming odds in its fight for its security and territorial integrity. It did not choose this fight, nor should it be blamed for being unprepared to wrestle with the legal, humanitarian and public relations fallout of the conflict: any of these challenges would have tested more economically and politically developed states. Yet Ukraine’s government needs to pause and ask how the alienation of millions of citizens will affect the country’s chances of peaceful reintegration – or the leadership’s stated goal of building an inclusive, rights-based political system that distinguishes Ukraine from the neighbour whose shadow it is trying to escape.

The evidence suggests that alienating conflict-affected Ukrainians will only make these goals more distant. When self-identified patriots living in areas outside Kyiv’s control wonder aloud whether the state views them as Ukrainians; or those in Kyiv-controlled front-line areas ask whether there is a fundamental difference in the behaviour of Ukrainian and Russian-backed forces; when people on both sides say the conflict has nothing to do with their interests or that nobody wants them as citizens – then there is a problem that is not exclusively of Moscow’s making. Convincing people in Donbas that Ukraine wants them – not just the territory on which they reside – will not guarantee peaceful or imminent reintegration, but it is a minimal condition that Kyiv can and should meet.

Brussels/Kyiv, 1 October 2018

Appendix A: Map of Eastern Ukraine

Soviet-Era Apartment Block - Zhytomyr - Polissya Region - Ukraine. Taken on 19 May 2016. FLICKR/Adam Jones
Report 247 / Europe & Central Asia

Ukraine: Will the Centre Hold?

Far from the deadly battle against Kremlin-backed separatists in its eastern provinces, Kyiv faces a groundswell of resentment and disenfranchisement among citizens in the country’s west. To restore faith in the state’s laws and institutions, the government must address endemic corruption to win back those in the state’s margins.

  • What’s the issue?

    While the war in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas rumbles on, the regions of Polissya and Zakarpattya in the country’s west are corroded by systemic state corruption. Resentment toward Kyiv in these peripheral regions is pushing many into the shadow economies and exacerbating state fragility.
  • Why does it matter?

    Widespread corruption in Ukraine’s western regions demonstrates that state fragility is not limited to areas controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists. This is undermining Kyiv’s capacity to withstand Russian aggression and restore its sovereignty over Donbas, meaning Moscow’s withdrawal from eastern Ukraine will not necessarily lead to national cohesion.
  • What should be done?

    Kyiv must acknowledge that Moscow, while clearly the aggressor in Donbas, is not the root cause of all the country’s challenges. Ukraine’s leaders need to correct their failing battle against corruption. Kyiv’s international backers, in particular the European Union, must attach stricter conditions to financial assistance.

Executive Summary

As Kyiv battles Kremlin-backed separatists in its eastern region of Donbas, it is also waging a half-hearted war against corruption whose mismanagement risks further undermining national stability. While several million Donbas residents live under separatist rule, Ukrainians elsewhere are losing faith in the country’s laws and institutions. The result is a dramatic weakening of the state: millions of dollars bypassing the official budget, chronic low-level violence in centres of illegal trade, and swathes of rural territory with no legal workforce or tax base to speak of. Kyiv and its allies need to acknowledge their failures in battling corruption and quickly change course. If not, centrifugal tendencies could potentially spread well beyond Donbas.

At every opportunity, Kyiv reminds its constituents and international backers that Kremlin aggression is the single greatest threat to the country’s statehood. They are right: between the invasion of Donbas, the annexation of Crimea, possible infiltration of military and security structures, and insidious information warfare, Moscow has played a lead role in Ukraine’s destabilisation. Securing Ukraine’s future will require the West to take a firm, consistent line on Russia, namely maintaining all sanctions until Moscow withdraws fully from Donbas. Yet as Kyiv and its allies acknowledge these truths, they must also face the profoundly corrosive effects of continuing systemic corruption.

These are suggested by the phenomena of organised crime in, and mass migration from the two western Ukrainian regions of north-western Polissya (along the Belarusian and Polish borders) and south-western Zakarpattya, next to Hungary. Outside meddling is present in both regions, but corruption at all levels of government is the decisive factor behind the social problems they face.

Just as Kyiv cannot afford to maintain its current stance on Donbas, where it lacks a coherent policy to reintegrate a war-scarred population ruled by Kremlin-backed separatists, it cannot retain its current haphazard approach to vulnerable populations on the far side of the country. The latter, in large numbers, are seeking better livelihoods across borders or retreating into shadow economies. Poorly-conceived attempts to confront these behaviours – such as ill-timed language laws and disingenuous crackdowns on organised crime – may be only fuelling resentment toward Kyiv. Instead, Kyiv must confront their root cause by following through on old promises to hold accountable corrupt officials at all levels.

Many residents of these areas live on the state’s margins. In Polissya, tens of thousands work in a multimillion-dollar, illegal amber trade controlled by armed gangs and allegedly sheltered by officials. In Zakarpattya, much of the working-age population relies on labour migration and tax-free remittances that deprive entire communities of their workforce or tax base. Some ingredients of the Donbas conflict – strong regional identities; deep resentment toward an ineffectual, heavily centralised state; corrupt law enforcement and criminal shadow economies – are also present here, and outside actors – including Moscow and Budapest – could use it to stir up separatism. Absent organised irredentism, these regions’ alienation from the state still casts doubt on whether Kyiv is capable of governing its vast, diverse territory in an inclusive manner.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s leaders have reaped colossal profits from politics. It is no surprise, then, that a large part of the population – between one-quarter and half, according to various estimates – operates in the shadow economy: they see leaders prioritising private wealth over public good and follow suit. Kyiv has made large strides since Maidan, with a new anti-corruption bureau, a new police force, and momentum toward regional decentralisation – yet Ukrainians remain largely convinced that their leaders systematically obstruct or derail reforms to protect personal fiefdoms and corporate bottom lines. Ukraine must get serious about fighting corruption, or risk becoming a state that people on the margins choose to abandon.


To the government in Kyiv:

  1. Create a specialised national anti-corruption court with regional representation, in line with the Venice Commission’s October 2017 recommendation.
  2. Amend national legislation governing the use of mineral resources to facilitate licencing of small, local mining cooperatives managed at the oblast, district or hromada (community) level.
  3. Address language controversies by: (a) Revising ethnic language elements of the September 2017 Law on Education; (b) Developing legislation in partnership with education experts from the Hungarian, Romanian and other minority-language communities to augment Ukrainian-language instruction in minority language schools; (c) Following best practices regarding mother tongue-education for persons belonging to national minorities.
  4. To reduce incentives to take bribes and combat personnel shortages, raise salaries of police, doctors, teachers, and other civil servants incrementally through 2020, adjusting target salaries to account for inflation when necessary.
  5. Ensure decentralisation reform in Zakarpattya and other minority-majority regions proceeds in consultation with local communities, including but not limited to minority community leaders.

To the Rivne, Volyn, and Zhytomyr oblast governments:

  1. Oversee transparent, lawful provision of amber mining licenses for community-based cooperatives.

To the Zakarpattya oblast government:

  1. Approve the Office for Self-government’s plan for redistricting within the framework of decentralisation reform.

To the government of Hungary:

  1. Denounce calls by Hungarian officials for Zakarpattian autonomy.
  2. Refrain from blocking Ukrainian-led initiatives in multilateral bodies, except for cases when these could pose a direct threat to either human rights or the principles of the body in question.
  3. Revisit implementation of the 2010 Law on Citizenship for compliance with OSCE best practices, which call on states to ensure that “conferral of citizenship [to ethnic kin in other states] respects the principles of friendly, including good neighbourly, relations and territorial sovereignty”.

I. Introduction

Crisis Group’s 2014-2016 reporting on Ukraine focused on the security situation in Ukraine’s eastern breakaway territories, and the Kremlin’s crucial role in arming and financing the de facto entities. The December 2016 report Military Deadlock, Political Crisis argued that the main goal of Moscow’s interference in Donbas was to destabilise Ukraine and freeze its path to Eurointegration – and that Kyiv, through stalling on anti-corruption reforms, was only aiding this goal. The second part of this analysis is even truer today: corruption continues to take a corrosive toll on Ukrainian civic life, leading to potential instability even in parts of the country distant from the conflict zone. The present report takes a close-up look at this phenomenon, examining two peripheral regions where the state is particularly fragile, and many disaffected citizens are either resorting to illegal activities or abandoning the country altogether.

The Maidan uprising that culminated in the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in early 2014 promised to replace his kleptocratic regime with a European-style government based on rule of law. The Kremlin-backed insurgency that subsequently arose in eastern Ukraine lent this promise urgency: Kyiv’s international backers and domestic reformers agreed that deep anti-corruption and good-governance reforms were key to restoring territorial integrity and enticing residents of separatist-held territories back into the fold. In May 2014, President Petro Poroshenko won a convincing electoral victory with a series of interdependent promises: he would end the war and crack down on corruption, as well as sell or create blind trusts for his vast business assets.

Yet three years later the war continues to simmer, with over 10,225 dead and no end in sight.[fn]Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report on the human rights situation in Ukraine, 16 May to 15 August 2017, p. 7.Hide Footnote Billions of dollars of Western aid have failed to yield clear breakthroughs in fighting corruption. Decentralisation and police reform have yielded modest successes, bringing new, young faces to the law enforcement sector and larger budgets to some poor rural areas. Yet despite these hopeful steps, many Ukrainians believe aid has only strengthened and legitimised high-level corruption, and that the president himself – who continues to control several increasingly profitable businesses – is a main offender.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kyiv, September-October 2017. See also Oleg Sukhov, Oksana Grytsenko and Alyona Zhuk, “All in the family: the sequel”, Kyiv Post, 7 October 2016; “International Investment Bank shareholders approve 25% rise of charter capital”, Interfax, 25 April 2017; Yevhen Solonina and Oleksandra Poloskova, “Російський бізнес Порошенка: продати не можна лишити” [“Poroshenko can’t hold onto his Russian business interests – or get rid of them”], Radio Svoboda, 28 March 2015; “Банк Порошенко увеличил чистую прибыль почти втрое” [“Poroshenko’s bank nearly doubles its net profits”], Ekonomicheskaya Pravda, 5 May 2017.Hide Footnote He denies any wrongdoing.[fn]See, for example, “Ukrainian president rejects fugitive lawmaker’s corruption allegations, but shock waves extend abroad”, Radio Free Europe, 7 December 2016.Hide Footnote

If Kyiv and its backers initially saw the post-Maidan fight against corruption as a way to hasten a peaceful resolution to the Donbas war – by convincing would-be separatists to value Ukrainian sovereignty – citizens’ perceptions of continuing large-scale corruption have become a clear impediment to this mission.[fn]Serhiy Fursa, “Чому корупія більше вбиває Україну, ніж війна з Росією” [“Why corruption is killing Ukraine more than the war with Russia”], Espreso.tv, 6 July 2017; IRI survey conducted in June-July 2017 showed that corruption within state bodies is the most important issue for Ukrainians along with the conflict in Donbas. “Ukraine Poll: Slight Improvement in National Outlook; Strong Support for Europe”, International Republican Institute (www.iri.org), 22 August 2017.Hide Footnote A member of the nationalist opposition recently argued that public calls from Kyiv and western allies to “save the three million people of Donbas” ring hollow: the real priority should be to “save the over 40 million people” in Kyiv-controlled Ukraine from a future of indignity.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv city, September 2017.Hide Footnote Like other government critics, he called for those concerned about the country’s stability to look “not just to the eastern border, but to the western border”, where Ukrainians’ close attention to neighbouring states’ superior living standards is driving anti-government sentiment.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kyiv city, February 2017, April 2017, September 2017.Hide Footnote

To weigh the merit of these critiques, this report examines citizen-state relations in Polissya and Zakarpattya, two western Ukrainian regions that domestic and international observers identify as potential centres of further state erosion.[fn]Crisis Group interview, advisor to high-ranking national official, Kyiv, November 2017; Balazs Jarabik, “Ukraine’s Fall”, Visegrad Revue, 28 September 2015; “Сепаратизм по-закарпатськи” [“Separatism Zakarpattian-style”], TSN, 18 June 2017.Hide Footnote It looks at the survival strategies residents use to work around state dysfunction and poverty. The present study does not argue that state fragility in western Ukraine deserves greater attention than the Donbas war, where soldiers and civilians continue to die each week, and where up to 3.7 million residents live under Moscow-backed de facto regimes that show little respect for basic rights.[fn]For various estimates of the population of the de-facto entities, see Delovaya Stolitsa, Occupied Territories: Economics, Demography, Groups of Influence, October 2017.Hide Footnote It does, however, seek to show how crises of governance in areas far from Donbas can shed light on long-term obstacles to the creation of a strong, peaceful and cohesive state.

Field research was conducted between January and June 2017 in Kyiv city, Zhytomyr oblast (Olevsk and Korosten cities), Rivne city and oblast (Rokytne and Sarny districts), Zakarpattya oblast (the cities of Uzhhorod, Berehove, Mukachevo, Solotvyno, Tyachiv, Lysychovo and Mezhhirye). These locales were chosen for high rates of poverty and damage to infrastructure, emigration and circular migration and/or proximity to illegal trade centres. Interviewees included local officials, journalists, health and education experts, small proprietors and black marketeers. Follow-up interviews were conducted with Kyiv officials in September-November 2017.

II. Polissya

Polissya, meaning “woodland”, is a geographical region that stretches from eastern Poland along the Ukraine-Belarus border into western Russia. Ukraine’s portion is home to roughly three million people, largely rural and poor, and lacks the rich soil, minerals or warm-water ports that fuelled development of agriculture, industry and commerce in other regions.[fn]Ukrainian Polissya, as defined by national agricultural policy, includes sections of nine oblasts, while taking up most of the northern parts of Volyn, Rivne, Zhytomyr, Kyiv, and Chernihiv oblasts. “Про визначення поліських територій України” [“On the definition of Polissian areas of Ukraine”], the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine 2068-98-p, 25 December 1998.Hide Footnote The heart of Ukrainian Polissya comprises the northern districts of Volyn, Rivne and Zhytomyr oblasts, all of which rank below national average socio-economic indicators.[fn]Per capita income averaged roughly $1,150 in the three oblasts in 2016, compared to $1,225 for the country as a whole. “Доходи населення за регіонами України” [“Income of population by region”], State statistics service of Ukraine.Hide Footnote Within these three oblasts, the districts that comprise Polissya are among the poorest. Monthly salaries rarely exceed $200,[fn]“Соціально-економічне становище Зарічненського району у січні-квітні 2017 року” ["Socio-economic conditions in Zarichnenskyi district, January-April 2017"].Hide Footnote compared to the national average of roughly $285.[fn]“Cредняя зарплата в Украине” [“Average salary in Ukraine”], Ministry of Finance Financial Portal.Hide Footnote

Since Maidan in 2014, this border backwater has come to symbolise post-regime change chaos. News stories, YouTube videos and social media depict a region consumed by a gold-rush mentality, where well-armed miners destroy forests and armed groups compete among themselves for turf, unhindered – and in some cases abetted – by local authorities and police.[fn]For example, “Ukraine’s amber-mining outlaws”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 24 August 2017, http://bit.ly/2h60XFs; “Поколение Янтарь” [“Generation Amber”], Kanal Ukraina, 18 July 2016, http://bit.ly/2x1TyRL.Hide Footnote The illegal amber industry now reportedly employs tens of thousands, some of whom travel to Polissya from other regions, clogging rural roads during the spring and summer amber mining season.

Media sensationalise mining districts as “the Amber People’s Republic”,[fn]See, for example, “Янтарная Республика – это аналог ДНР на западе Украины – Романенко” [“Romanenko: The Amber Republic is western Ukraine’s answer to the DNR”], Hvylya, 13 March 2016.Hide Footnote and a Rivne oblast official warned that attempts to curb the trade by force could spark violent resistance.[fn]Crisis Group interview, journalist, Rivne, February 2017; see also “В зонах добычи янтаря может начаться вторая АТО – депутат Ровенского облсовета Ковальчук”
[“Rivne Oblast Council Deputy Kovalchuk: a second ATO [anti-terrorist operation] could begin in amber mining zones”], Antikor, 8 February 2017.Hide Footnote
While this is likely an exaggeration, amber mining and trafficking certainly fuel violent crime that the state lacks capacity to counter. Even if local law enforcement were committed to stopping the trade, officials and activists worry any dramatic escalation, such as the forcible dispersion of a mine working at full capacity, would be met with violence.[fn]Crisis Group interview, city official/activist, Olevsk, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017.Hide Footnote

A. The Amber Boom

Polissian villagers have long supplemented their incomes through informal work using what the forest provides: selling small batches of lumber, berries and mushrooms, or small amounts of fossilised tree resin – amber – dug up from forest clearings. Ukrainian amber began to attract the interest of organised crime in the 1990s after Poland cracked down on illegal mining in its Polissian regions. Some Polish gangs then migrated east and introduced their Ukrainian neighbours to a more efficient, but environmentally devastating form of extraction. Crews first clear the forest with backhoes and scoop out channels to a water source, such as a river or marsh. Then they dig pits into the sandy soil and use hoses and pumps powered by old car engines to blast water underground and raise amber, which is lighter than sand or rocks, up to the surface. This practice has polluted rivers and streams, while destroying thousands of hectares of pine and birch forest, leaving behind bare, cratered land that looks like a moonscape.[fn]The practice has been well documented in news and magazine stories and on YouTube. See, for example, John Wendle, “The dramatic impact of illegal amber mining in Ukraine’s wild west”, National Geographic, 31 January 2017. Inna Bilets’ka Facebook posts, 28 March, 24 May, 1 April 2017, https://www.facebook.com/sapelinna; Facebook search results for “Бурштинова республiка Полiсся” [“Amber republic + Polissya”], http://bit.ly/2Bwc2tu; YouTube search results for “Янтарные старатели на Полесье” [“Amber miners in Polissya”], http://bit.ly/2sfyWTx.Hide Footnote 

Crowds of Ukrainians gather near the village of Olevsk in Polissya to mine for amber. To find this ancient, fossilised resin of pine trees, miners have torn down many hectares of forest and flooded the bare soil using electric water pumps. 23 March 2017. CRISIS GROUP/Oleksandr Nikolaychuk

Strong protection rackets reportedly overseen by figures close to Kyiv[fn]Tomasz Piechal, “The Amber Rush in Ukraine”, Centre for Eastern Studies (www.osw.waw.pl), 8 May 2017.Hide Footnote emerged in the 2000s, when increases in the global price of amber stimulated illicit mining. Throughout this period, the state enterprise Burshtyn Ukraini (Ukrainian Amber) was the only legally licensed miner, and saw yields that were merely a fraction of the illicit traders’. Under Presidents Yushchenko and Yanukovych, lawmakers attempted to regulate the trade but were said to have lost their nerve as they came to understand the magnitude and power of the protection rackets.[fn]

In 2014, with the instability that accompanied Maidan and the start of the Donbas war, amber mining exploded as the economy slid into recession and Ukraine’s currency plummeted in value, driving many citizens to supplement their meagre incomes through the black market.[fn]The hryvnia’s value fell from about $0.13 in February 2014 to less than $0.03 in February 2015. See “XE Currency Charts: USD to UAH”, XE, http://bit.ly/2qYm80Y.Hide Footnote With the new volume of mining came increased chaos. Rival bands vying for turf filled the vacuum left by the consolidated protection racket that disintegrated after Yanukovych fled.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Obishche, Zhytomyr oblast, March 2017. See also Wendle, “Dramatic impact”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Ukraine’s depleted security structures were overwhelmed by the 2014 challenges;[fn]Crisis Group interviews, police official, Rivne city, February 2017; municipal official, Olevsk, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017; interior ministry official, Kyiv, September 2017.Hide Footnote unable to stem the 24 to 36 tonnes of illegal amber exported from Ukraine in 2013 for shadow earnings of roughly $1 million, according to news reports.[fn]“Теневой сектор составляет 50% экономики – НБУ” [“The shadow sector makes up 50% of the economy – National Anti-Corruption Bureau”], Novoe Vremya, 18 July 2017; “Тенденції тіньової економіки” [“Tendencies in the shadow economy”], Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, 21 September 2017.Hide Footnote In 2014, Ukraine may have illegally exported as much as 300 tonnes, worth an estimated $300 million to $600 million, based on black market rates of at least $1,000 per kilo.[fn]The estimate of 300 tonnes is cited in “Янтарная лихорадка: зачем Украине легализация добычи 'солнечного камня'” [“Amber fever: why Ukraine needs to legalise extraction of the 'sunshine stone'”], Segodnya (online), 7 August 2015. The figure of $2,000 as the price for amber on the black market is from “Украину делят на янтарь Газета” [“Ukraine is being cut up into amber”], Gazeta, 23 August 2017. The Segodnya article cited provides a lower estimated price of $1,200 per kilo for a tranche of amber seized by law enforcement in Rivne in 2015.Hide Footnote

Little attempt is made to hide illegal mining, or the sums of money involved. Polissians describe bumper-to-bumper traffic on rutted roads during the spring and summer, as both impoverished locals and workers from poor neighbouring oblasts flood into mining areas.[fn]Several Kyiv taxi drivers, for example, spoke independently of having mined amber in Zhytomyr oblast with a group of friends in the summer. One described making tens of thousands of dollars each in a single week, despite once having had their pumps confiscated by police who he said were helping local “thugs” protect their turf. Crisis Group interviews, Obyshche, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017; Kyiv city, October 2017.Hide Footnote Economic motivation comes in the form of $300 to $1,000 per shift divided among work gangs of – in their vernacular – five to ten knights per brigade and one leader, who together control access to deposits in particular areas. Traffickers pay not only the brigades but reportedly also local officials for protection, at sums equivalent to 30-50 per cent of their earnings.[fn]“Результати круглого столу щодо нелегального видобутку бурштину в Україні” [“Results of the round table on illegal amber mining in Ukraine”], Automaidan, 26 February 2016; Crisis Group interviews, February, April, November 2017.Hide Footnote According to news reports, traders in 2013 bought amber at prices up to $250 per kilo and sold it across the border in Poland for mark-ups as high as 100 per cent. As of September 2017, buyers typically paid $1,600 or more per kilo in Ukraine before selling abroad at more modest mark-ups of as low as ten per cent.[fn]An online seller offered a “discount” price of $14,500 on 25-26 September 2017, with an additional markup of $1,520 if the stone was purchased in Poland. Crisis Group correspondence, September 2017. “Янтарная лихорадка: зачем Украине легализация добычи ‘солнечного камня’” [“Amber fever: why Ukraine needs to legalise extraction of the ‘sunshine stone’”], Segodnya (online), 7 August 2015. Several local sources noted a recent slump in prices due to decreased Chinese demand, yet it is unclear whether this marks a long-term change, and if and how such a shift would affect amber’s position in the local economy. Crisis Group interviews, Sarny, Rivne oblast, April 2017.Hide Footnote

Local police are largely ineffectual at countering illegal amber. Observers point to corruption: the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) arrested four high-ranking Rivne oblast police officials in 2016 on accusations of sheltering the trade, and in early 2017 a key officer was rumoured to have struck a deal with “amber mafia” elements.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rivne city, February 2017. In April 2017, Ukraine’s prosecutor general accused Rivne oblast’s police force of systematically covering up crimes involving amber. See “О Луценко, янтарной мафии и возможных кадровых изменениях в руководстве Ровенской области” [“On Lutsenko, the amber mafia, and possible personnel changes in Rivne oblast leadership”], Zik, 28 April 2017. Following the accusations, a new head of the Rivne oblast police was appointed – but the old one was promoted to the role of special advisor for the key amber oblasts, Rivne, Volyn, and Zhytomyr.Hide Footnote Accounts abound of officers treating amber as an earning opportunity: a Rivne city policeman whose units intercept amber shipments en route to the Polish border said colleagues in the amber belt sometimes call him to say, “So you seized the amber and then what, you just turned it in?!”[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rivne city, February 2017. Crisis Group interview, Sarny, Rivne oblast, April 2017.Hide Footnote

Lawlessness in amber areas is hardly the fault of the police alone. As the Rivne officer put it: “Do you think [140 police] can take on 100 mines with 1,000 people working at each one?”[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Kyiv city, June 2017.Hide Footnote Ukraine’s ongoing national campaign to rid law enforcement of the corrupt vestiges of its militia forerunner and rebrand it as mindful of Maidan sensibilities may have brought new faces to police forces in several amber districts, yet officers remain outnumbered by armed gangs of miners, and suspicions of collusion persist.[fn]Crisis Group correspondence, trader, October 2017; Crisis Group interview, miner, October 2017; Crisis Group phone call, anti-mining activist, December 2017.Hide Footnote

B. Kyiv’s Response

In July 2015, Poroshenko denounced law enforcement and security service officials in the three amber oblasts for protecting the illegal industry. His ultimatum gave them two weeks to purge their ranks of amber racketeers, using a variation of the Russian word krysha, which means “roof” both literally and in the sense of protection racket. He also called on Ukraine’s parliament – Verkhovna Rada – to draft a bill to formalise and institutionalise a framework for regulating the trade in early 2015.[fn]“Ukraine: President Targets Illegal Amber Mining Industry”, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (www.occrp.org), 6 July 2015; Petro Poroshenko Facebook video post, 3 July 2015, http://bit.ly/2rj1w6F.Hide Footnote

But there was little change in the amber regions for almost a year until March 2016, when Rivne’s governor requested National Guard deployment.[fn]“Бурштинові війни: губернатор Рівненщини просит ввести Нацгвардію” [“Amber wars: Rivne governor asks to send in the national guard”], Gazeta.ua, 17 March 2016.Hide Footnote Less than two weeks later, a Rada deputy presented a report based on data gleaned from state security services that accused Rivne’s governor of protecting the trade in collaboration with high-ranking oblast police.[fn]“​В Раде представлен доклад о ‘крышевателях’ добычи янтаря в Ровенской области” [“Report on the ‘mafia protectors’ of the amber trade in Rivne oblast presented in the Rada”], Levyi bereg, 30 March 2016.Hide Footnote By the end of April 2016, Rivne’s governor had resigned, though he did not admit guilt or face any legal penalties.[fn]The governor said his resignation was due to his decision to pursue new career opportunities. See “Глава Ровенской ОГА Чугунников подал в отставку” [“Chugunnikov, head of the Rivne oblast administration, submits resignation”], RBK-Ukraina, 28 April 2016.Hide Footnote And in July 2016, Kyiv sent 300 personnel from various security organisations to conduct a series of raids in northern Rivne. They arrested dozens of alleged mafia operatives, including the first deputy oblast prosecutor, current and former police personnel, SBU officers and other rumoured “representatives of the criminal world”.[fn]Arsen Avakov Facebook post, 12 September 2016, http://bit.ly/2qlO8tm. Estimates for total numbers of security forces involved range from 100 to “over 300”. “Операція ‘Бурштин’ на Рівненщині: зампрокурор затриманий, прокурора відсторонять” [“Operation ‘Amber’ in Rivne: deputy procurator detained, procurator dismissed”], BBC, 4 July 2016. The former deputy prosecutor is currently on trial; another key arrestee, the Sarny district prosecutor, was reinstated 14 December 2017.Hide Footnote

In 2014, with the instability that accompanied Maidan and the start of the Donbas war, amber mining exploded as the economy slid into recession and Ukraine’s currency plummeted in value.

While national and municipal officials praised the raids as a turning point in the fight against illegal mining, others were more sceptical.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, oblast authorities, Rivne, February 2017; district official, Olevsk, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017. The head of the Rivne patrol police said the raids had “dealt with 90 per cent of the problem”, but added things had spun out of control again in the second half of 2016, when the oblast police force suffered a leadership gap of nearly two months. Crisis Group interview, Rivne, February 2017.Hide Footnote A high-ranking interior ministry official said the operation broke the back of the trade,[fn]Crisis group interview, interior ministry official, September 2017. The official noted that hardly any illegal Ukrainian amber was currently being sold on the Polish market – yet traffickers regularly bribe customs officials to receive certificates for “legal” export. Crisis Group correspondence, 26 September 2017.Hide Footnote but many locals claim little has changed on the ground. A Sarny village leader said miners simply find new ways to avoid authorities’ attention.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sarny, Rivne oblast, April 2017.Hide Footnote Miners themselves claim to have worked profitably both during and after the raids, even if they had to adjust schedules to avoid run-ins with law enforcement.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Obishche, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017; Sarny, Rivne oblast, April 2017.Hide Footnote A Rivne journalist who has reported extensively on life in amber mining villages called the arrests “a joke”, claiming new local and Kyiv-based officials continue to operate government-run protection rackets in the vacuum left by their predecessors.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rivne city, February 2017 and Crisis Group correspondence, journalist, December 2017. This account was corroborated in Crisis Group online correspondence during June and December 2017 with an anti-mining activist in Olevsk. Several amber miners shared this view in Crisis Group interviews in April 2017 and November 2017, but were unable or unwilling to cite specifics.Hide Footnote

Meanwhile, efforts to regulate the trade by 2018 – one of the conditions for Kyiv’s future International Monetary Fund (IMF) funding – have gone awry.[fn]IMF Country Report No.17/83, April 2017, p. 84. Available at http://bit.ly/2tMpwQu.Hide Footnote A bill that would have facilitated mining licencing for individuals, as well as companies, and mandated creation of communal enterprises overseen by oblasts, failed to pass its second parliamentary reading in February 2017.[fn]“Проект закону про видобування та реалізацію бурштину” [“Bill on the extraction and processing of amber”], 1351-1, 26.12.2014, National Parliament of Ukraine.Hide Footnote In theory, the state geological service issues permits to companies based on a rigorous application process that includes an environmental impact assessment; oblast authorities then oversee the distribution of land parcels. In practice, the process is opaque and licenses are widely believed to be given out based on personal relationships.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, journalist, Rivne city, February 2017; miner, Kyiv, February 2017; local parliamentarian, Olevsk, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017; miner, Kyiv city, September 2017.Hide Footnote One school of activist thought is that making licencing easier for individuals and small cooperatives would limit potential for large bribes and thus incentives for officials to engage in corrupt practices.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, journalist, Rivne city, February 2017; miner, Kyiv, February 2017; local parliamentarian, Olevsk, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017; miner, Kyiv city, September 2017.Hide Footnote

Not only did the legalisation effort fail; it was discredited by explosive corruption allegations against a central figure. After the bill sank in the Rada, Boryslav Rozenblat, a national deputy from the president’s party and one of the bill’s co-authors, accused powerful officials involved in the trade of working behind the scenes to undermine reform.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Boryslav Rozenblat, Kyiv, February 2017. Rozenblat later accused deputies who voted against the law of “state treason”. “Провал законопроекта о добыче янтаря – это госизмена, – Розенблат” [“The failure of amber mining legislation is state treason – Rozenblat”], Censor.net, 7 February 2017. Opponents of the law, including some supporters of regulation, argued it was shoddily written and failed to specify clear procedures for issuing mining licenses. Crisis Group interview, Rivne city, February 2017.Hide Footnote Then the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) accused him and his co-authors of accepting bribes to revise the draft; they also accused Rozenblat individually of improperly influencing officials to approve mining licenses on behalf of an offshore company.[fn]“Розенблат и Поляков: что известно о новом коррупционном скандале” [“Rozenblat and Polyakov: what we know about the new corruption scandal”], Liga.Novosti, 20 June 2017.Hide Footnote While he insists the charges are fabricated, he has been stripped of parliamentary immunity and may face up to twelve years in prison.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Boryslav Rozenblat, Kyiv, October 2017. See also “Розенблату грозит до 12 лет тюрьмы” [“Rozenblat faces up to 12 years in prison”], Ukrayinska Pravda, 22 June 2017.Hide Footnote

While some anti-mining activists welcome these actions as a sign that authorities are getting serious about cracking down on the amber mafia, others remain unconvinced.[fn]For example, journalist Denis Kazansky wrote, “I welcome NABU’s strike against the amber mafia – by all appearances, a real strike, not the shameful imitation we’ve observed before, where they detained miners and low-level officials in Volyn for several years in a row”. Denis Kazansky Facebook post, 21 June 2017, http://bit.ly/2AKocOK.Hide Footnote A deputy from the presidential bloc argued that the charges continued a post-Maidan trend of catching relatively small fish while freeing bigger ones.[fn]Crisis Group interview, national deputy, Kharkiv, July 2017.Hide Footnote A prominent activist asserted that NABU was simply pretending to fulfil its mandate while serving Kyiv’s goal of discrediting any attempt to regulate the trade, highlighting the cynicism many citizens feel toward state anti-corruption initiatives.[fn]“Some provincial deputy could not have organised this scheme”, the activist said, insisting that the president must have been aware of it. Crisis Group phone conversation, June 2017.Hide Footnote

Efforts to regulate the [amber] trade by 2018 – one of the conditions for Kyiv’s future Inter-national Monetary Fund (IMF) funding – have gone awry.

Since the February failure of Rozenblat’s proposal, no bill on regulation has been active in the Rada. Officials have instead opted for a controversial process of issuing licenses for private companies to mine large tracts of land in the absence of national legislation regulating and opening the industry to independent miners. Defenders of this process characterise it as a stopgap measure to achieve benefits of the failed legislation – job creation, environmental accountability, reduced child labour and tax revenues – while Kyiv comes up with something better.[fn]“В.о голови Держгеонадра: легальний видобуток бурштину – це робочі місця, податки та рекультивація” [“Acting head of Derzhgeonadr: legal amber excavation means jobs, revenues, and recultivaton”], Business Censor, 13 April 2017.Hide Footnote Opponents argue it is aimed at benefitting politically connected investors while freezing villagers out.[fn]See “В Ровно раздавали янтарние земли – со скандалом и проклятиями” [“Scandal and curses as Rovno hands out plots of amber”], Zik, 9 November 2016.Hide Footnote As of late 2017, merely four private entities had been licensed, and reports concerning their ownership suggest sceptics’ concerns may be warranted.[fn]“В Україні лище дев’ять підприємств легально працюють на ринку бурштину” [“Only nine legal companies working in the amber market”], State geological service, http://www.geo.gov.ua. See also “В.о голови Держгеонадра: легальний видобуток бурштину – це робочі місця, податки та рекультивація” [“Acting head of Derzhgeonadr: legal amber excavation means jobs, revenues, and recultivaton”], Business Censor, 13 April 2017. See also, Michał Kozak, “Ukrainian amber is a problem, but it could be an opportunity”, Central European Financial Observer (https://financialobserver.eu), 3 July 2017.Hide Footnote

There are strong, competing views as to who is ultimately to blame for, and to benefit from, the stalled legislative efforts and ad hoc interim measures.[fn]For instance, some anti-mining experts and miners themselves – as well as actors like Rozenblat – place the blame on members of the prosecutor general’s office and interior ministry. Crisis Group interview, Boryslav Rozenblat, Kyiv, February 2017; Crisis Group interviews, Obishche, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017; Sarny, Rivne oblast, April 2017; Crisis Group correspondence, Kyiv/Rivne, September 2017. Representatives cite lack of evidence. Crisis Group interview, interior ministry official, September 2017.Hide Footnote The bottom line, as several officials point out, is that a government widely perceived to be looting the state cannot credibly tell citizens to stop doing the same.

C. Local Impact

The environmental consequences of amber mining are catastrophic and well known: miners have felled large tracts of forest, pumped water out of wetlands, and washed away fertile top soil. The barren spaces left behind are bereft of traditional forest products, such as berries, and vulnerable to flooding. As of early 2017, the total area of devastated land is estimated to range anywhere from 2,600 hectares to more than 10,000.[fn]“Пілотний проект із рекультивації земель дозволить за 5 років відновити пошкоджені нелегальним видобутком бурштину землі лісового фонду – голови ОДА (відео)” [“Pilot project to recultivate land will allow for the renewal of forest fund lands damaged by illegal amber mining within 5 years – oblast administration heads (video)”], Unian, 15 February, http://bit.ly/2tM7ehD.Hide Footnote Moreover, corruption allegations have marred a February 2017 plan to recover 6,000 hectares of destroyed forest.[fn]“Rozenblat and Polyakov”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The trade has also greatly reduced the appeal of formal work in Polissya. While villagers generally play only supporting roles – as knights or brigade leaders – profits from the rise in amber prices have indeed trickled down. At the start of the amber boom in 2013, knights made about $12 (100 hryvnia) a day – three to four times normal daily earnings in these districts.[fn]At the time average monthly salaries there hovered around $100-120. “Середна заробітна плата в 2013 році” [“Average salary in 2013”], Main statistical headquarters of Rivne oblast, http://www.rv.ukrstat.gov.ua/.Hide Footnote In 2016 and 2017, someone in the same position could expect to earn about $20-$40 a day, while average monthly salaries in Polissya rarely clear $200.[fn]http://dyvys.info/2017/02/16/burshtynovi-zakony-yak-kontrolyuvaty. See “Round Table on Illegal Amber Mining”, op. cit. For monthly salaries in amber-mining districts, see “Новини у листопаді 2017 року” [“November 2017 news”], available at http://www.rv.ukrstat.gov.ua/.Hide Footnote

The former forest in Ukraine’s region of Polissya now known as the Korabel (“Ship”) tract for amber mining was cut down and devastated by thousands of people digging for the valuable fossilised pine resin. Shebedykha, Ukraine. June 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Oleksandr Nikolaychuk

Local economic benefits have been mixed. One anti-mining activist argued that amber money only has a superficial effect on villagers’ living standards: “People are buying iPhones and using them to light the way to their outhouses”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local parliamentarian and activist, Olevsk, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017.Hide Footnote Anecdotal evidence suggests the new income has in fact been a boon for previously impoverished families, allowing them to afford essential goods.[fn]Lyubov Velichko, “Лихорадка” [“Delirium”], Argument, 9 July 2016.Hide Footnote But the under-the-table nature of these earnings still limits the trade’s long-term positive impact on communities. Villages flush with new amber money have next to no tax base. Rivne oblast generated a mere $8.5 million in tax revenue for the state budget in 2016, most of it thanks to industry located outside of the amber belt.[fn]Budget of Ukraine 2016, infographics, 2016, http://bit.ly/2qhTuH3.Hide Footnote An official responsible for oblast-level decentralisation in Rivne pointed out that the dearth of taxes is a crucial obstacle to these reforms, which envision municipalities using locally generated taxes to pay for their own infrastructure needs.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rivne oblast self-government official, Rivne city, February 2017.Hide Footnote This is particularly unfortunate given that decentralisation was conceived, at least in part, to revitalise depressed rural areas like Polissya.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kherson oblast self-government official, Kherson city, March 2017; village head, Sarny district, Rivne oblast, April 2017.Hide Footnote

The trade has also had dire effects on education. So many children skip class to help families extract amber that a Rivne school deputy head said secondary classes are often half-empty during fall and spring; mining only stops when the ground freezes in winter.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rokytne, Rivne oblast, February 2017. This source, it should be noted, saw this as a tendency that had begun well before 2014, and attributed it not only to amber mining but to corruption. Students regularly have to pay bribes to get in to universities or pass routine exams.Hide Footnote The head teacher said many students see little need for a university education, since they already make more money than teachers.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rokytne, Rivne oblast, February 2017. A district head in Rivne oblast and a village head in Sarny district, Rivne oblast, concurred in two separate April 2017 interviews.Hide Footnote

The environmental consequences of amber mining are catastrophic and well known.

Potential security concerns are also worrying. According to locals, a majority of families in amber-mining areas keep firearms, most of which are unregistered.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, law enforcement officer, journalist, Rivne, February 2017; local official/activist, Olevsk, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017; schoolteachers, Rokytne, Rivne oblast, February 2017.Hide Footnote Officials say the number of firearms in Ukraine as a whole, and Polissya in particular, has increased in recent years, facilitated by smuggling that has taken off since the start of Kyiv’s operations against Russian-led forces in Donbas.[fn]Registering guns is an arduous process in Ukraine; statistics tend to be unreliable. According to Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, the number of legally registered guns has grown to about one million nationwide, up from about 800,000 at the beginning of 2015. “В Украине на руках 1 000 000 единиц зарегистрированного оружия – Аваков” [“Avakov: there are 1,000,000 registered arms in possession in Ukraine”], Strana.ua, 13 March 2017. For a brief overview on the rise in demand for firearms in Ukraine, see “Ukraine, a ‘supermarket’ for guns”, The New Yorker, 17 January 2017.Hide Footnote Sources also say grenades are readily available in mining areas, where they cost between $50 and $150.[fn]Crisis Group interview, law enforcement officer, Rivne, February 2017.Hide Footnote

Crime – especially of the violent kind – has increased in amber areas much more rapidly than in the country as a whole in recent years. While the total number of crimes committed in Ukraine rose about 6.5 per cent from 2013 to 2016,[fn]“Правопорушення” [“Crimes”], State Statistics Service of Ukraine (www.ukrstat.gov.ua), 21 February 2017; and “В Украине стремительно растет преступность: Луценко назвал причины” [“Crime is rapidly growing in Ukraine: Lutsenko names the reasons”], Segodnya (online), 15 February 2017.Hide Footnote crime in Rivne’s Rokytne district jumped by 40 per cent in 2015 alone. To cite the most extreme examples in amber areas over the past two years, violent crime has tripled in Rokytne,[fn]“Соціально-економічне становище Рокитнівського району за 2015 рік” [“Socio-economic conditions in Rokytne district as of 2015”], Rokytne district state administration (www.rv.gov.ua), 1 February 2016.Hide Footnote while rising just 18 per cent nationwide.[fn]“В 2016 году в Украине возросло количество преступлений, в том числе – тяжких на 20%. Подробная статистика” [“The number of crimes committed in Ukraine rose in 2016, while violent crime rose 20 per cent: in-depth statistics”], ASN, 19 January 2017; “Преступность на Украине. Статистика и динамика” [“Crime in Ukraine. Statistics and dynamics”], Narodnyi Korrespondent, 26 November 2016.Hide Footnote In neighbouring Volodymyr, crime has increased 22 per cent, while violent crime has more than quadrupled.[fn]“Соціально-економічне становище Володимирецького району за 2015 рік” [“Socio-economic conditions in Volodymyrets district as of 2015”], Volodymyrets district state administration (www.volodrda.gov.ua), 8 February 2016; “Соціально-економічне становище Володимирецького району у січні-липні 2016 року” [“Socio-economic conditions in Volodymyrets district as of January-July 2016”], Volodymyrets district state administration (www.volodrda.gov.ua), 8 September 2016.Hide Footnote Local leaders say most violence is linked to turf wars and financial disputes. Even without police corruption, any further increases could stretch local law enforcement’s limited capacity to the breaking point.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local parliamentarian, Olevsk, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017; district officials, Rokytne, Rivne oblast, April 2017; village official, Sarny district, Rivne oblast, April 2017. Crisis Group correspondence, police official, Rivne city, July 2017.Hide Footnote

D. Outlook

While the amber trade currently shows few signs of sparking large-scale violence, Kyiv is not considering any viable long-term solutions to the structural problems it represents – namely a widespread loss of faith in the rule of law. An anti-mining activist in Olevsk, who was an active supporter of the Maidan revolt, compared the situation in his region to 1990s Donbas, when coal and steel barons presided over a subculture largely divorced from the laws of the land, laying the groundwork for some locals eventually to decide that they should split from Kyiv.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Olevsk, Zhytomyr oblast, February 2017.Hide Footnote Other liberal, Maidan-supporting Polissians find themselves, in spite of their core beliefs, looking enviously across the border at autocratic Belarus, where strict laws on soil usage and draconian enforcement have helped preserve the forests.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Rokytne, Rivne oblast, February 2017.Hide Footnote Kremlin-affiliated media have devoted substantial space to the state’s supposed collapse in Polissya, relying primarily on concerned, pro-Maidan locals to make their case.[fn]“Янтарная народная республика” [“The Amber people’s republic”], Lenta.ru, 19 March 2016. This article cites a Kyiv-based blogger and passionate Kremlin critic at length.Hide Footnote

Kyiv can work toward restoring citizens’ belief in the rule of law by following through on long-pledged reforms. It needs to build on modest successes in police reform as well as carry out pledges to raise salaries for police and prosecutors – a move experts agree will not automatically lead to more effective law enforcement, but will reduce incentives to take bribes from organised crime.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, police official, Rivne city, February 2017; human rights activist, Kharkiv city, July 2017.Hide Footnote Criminal justice reform is also key: as long as Polissian miners believe prosecutors are sheltering organised crime, they will see little reason to obey the law themselves. Finally, Kyiv should create its promised Anti-Corruption Court, without which NABU’s investigations of high-level corruption in the amber trade may have little consequence.

Kyiv, crucially, also should take steps to convince Polissians that the state can in fact be trusted to provide public services – and that taxation is key to this function. One step could be to pass legislation that would facilitate licencing of local cooperatives – including for amber extraction and processing. These enterprises could be managed on the oblast level, as suggested by the Rozenblat draft, or at the level of sub-oblast municipalities, which may now levy and collect their own taxes under decentralisation reform.[fn]Crisis Group interview, village head, Sarny district, Rivne oblast, April 2017. Prospects for cooperatives are also addressed in Denis Kazanskiy, “Мафія бессмертна, або хто саботує легалізацію видобутку бурштину?” [“The immortal mafia, or, who is sabotaging the legalisation of amber mining?”], Tyzhden, 7 July 2016.Hide Footnote Of course, such an arrangement would need to be handled carefully, so as not to merely reinforce local entrenched interests. When Polissians see their tax money going to tangible improvements in local infrastructure, they may stop thinking of the state as something to be looted before it has a chance to steal from them.

III. Zakarpattya

Zakarpattya – known to the West as Transcarpathia – is one of Ukraine’s most diverse oblasts.[fn]The oblast’s roughly 150,000 Hungarians are concentrated along the border. Rusyn community leaders estimate their population at about 600,000. There is also a smaller Romanian minority in the south, and a substantial Roma population. State Statistics Service of Ukraine (www.ukrstat.gov.ua), 18 October 2016, op. cit.Hide Footnote Located in the far south west, it shares a border with four European Union (EU) countries. The region is also poor relative to the rest of Ukraine, largely rural, and most of the population lives in villages surrounded by mountains and dense forests.[fn]Salaries in Zakarpattya fall slightly below the national average: as of March 2017, the average monthly salary was roughly $225 compared to the national average of $260. Per capita income in 2016 was $963, less than 80 per cent of the national average. At least 63 per cent of the population lives in villages, where jobs are scarce. “Обсяг реалізованої продукції (товарів, послуг) підприємств за їх розмірами за регіонами у 2015 році” [“Sales of products (goods and services) by enterprise, size, and region in 2015”], State Statistics Service of Ukraine (www.ukrstat.gov.ua), 18 October 2016.Hide Footnote Many of its 1.2 million inhabitants understand at least three languages and have lived and worked in the EU. Ukrainian nationalists, as well as external actors, regularly warn of – or incite – separatist tendencies among the oblast’s two major ethnic minorities: Hungarians and Rusyns.[fn]Kyiv does not recognise Rusyns as an ethnic minority. Ukrainian elites often argue that Rusyns are simply Zakarpattian Ukrainians with a distinctive regional dialect – and that Russian propaganda is responsible for the view that they are a separate ethnos. However, Rusyns are recognized as an ethnic minority in other countries where they live in large numbers: Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Serbia, and Croatia. For a discussion of controversies surrounding Rusyn identity and the way Moscow has used it to stoke regional tensions, see Alexandra C. Wiktorek, Rusyns of the Carpathians, unpublished thesis submitted to Georgetown University. Available at http://bit.ly/2oCdF66. There is some history of Zakarpattian Rusyns possibly furthering Kremlin propaganda: see Pavel Korduban, “Is Yushchenko’s Top Aide Backing Ruthenian Separatist Movement?”, The Jamestown Foundation, 5 November 2008.Hide Footnote Both communities were key constituencies behind a failed 1991 bid for autonomy, whose stubborn legacy earns frequent, if misplaced, comparisons to Crimea. Yet the most immediate problem facing Zakarpattya is not active separatism, but something more banal. Its culturally agile population, fed up with corruption and the anaemic local economy, might simply drop out of civic life – either by retreating into a state of permanent circular migration, or by leveraging family ties in EU neighbours to emigrate altogether.

A. Separatism in Zakarpattya: A Phantom Threat?

History shows that separatism in Zakarpattya is more bark than bite. When Ukraine voted to leave the Soviet Union in 1991, the local governments of two territorial entities – Crimea and Zakarpattya – held parallel referendums on self-rule.[fn]In 1990, the Soviet Supreme Court approved a law specifying that should a constituent republic leave the Union, any section of the republic that had not been part of its territory upon accession must be allowed to vote on its own status. Having been transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic from Czechoslovakia in 1945, Zakarpattya joined Crimea in making use of this provision. The oblasts of Ivano-Frankiivsk, Lviv, Rivne, Ternopil, and Volyn did not use it despite meeting the requirements. See Article 14.7 of “Закон СССР от 03.04.1990 No. 1409-1” [“USSR Law No.1409-1 from 3 April 1990”].Hide Footnote Nearly 80 per cent of Zakarpattians voted for autonomy within Ukraine. Yet unlike Crimea, Zakarpattya never went ahead with self-government, and only marginal local politicians continue to call for the referendum’s implementation. Many Zakarpattians insist oblast residents are too pragmatic and concerned with household economics to bother with separatism or even federalism. While reassuring, this also holds the key to a more real threat Kyiv faces in Zakarpattya and other western peripheries whose populations have extensive cross-border ties in the EU: the same pragmatism that militates against active separatism is also eroding citizens’ respect for – and perhaps loyalty to – a state that refuses, in their eyes, to give its constituents a chance to achieve dignified living standards.

Where Zakarpattya is concerned, Kyiv’s separatism fears revolve around the oblast’s roughly 150,000 ethnic Hungarians. Zakarpattian Hungarians were a major driver of the 1991 referendum, for which Budapest actively lobbied. In 2010, the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán introduced a law guaranteeing Hungarian passports to anyone who could pass a language test and offer proof of ancestors “deprived of Hungarian citizenship” during 20th century territory shuffles.[fn]“Почти 100 тысяч жителей Закарпатья сменили паспорт на венгерский” [“Almost 100 thousand inhabitants of Zakarpattya have switched over to Hungarian passports”], Zerkalo Nedeli (online), 27 February 2015.Hide Footnote

[Zakarpattya's] culturally agile population, fed up with corruption and the anaemic local economy, might simply drop out of civic life.

Kyiv at the time paid little attention, but Ukrainian nationalists – both officials and activists – have grown increasingly nervous about cross-border interference since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Many point to the increase in Ukrainians obtaining Hungarian passports: according to statistics cited in a March 2017 news report, there are now over 118,000 Hungarian citizens in the oblast, and other sources put the number at over 200,000.[fn]“План створення угорської автономії на Закарпатті (Документ)” [“The plan to create a Hungarian autonomy in Zakarpattya (Document)”], Informator, 11 March 2017. A 2017 news report, viewed side-by-side with an announcement by Hungarian authorities’ that about 94,000 Zakarpattians had received Hungarian passports since the policy took effect, suggests that the number of Hungarian passports issued in 2016 exceeded the total number issued between 2010 and 2015. “Tavaly több mint 103,5 ezer útlevelet adtak ki Kárpátalján” [“More than 103.5 thousand passports were issued in Zakarpattya last year”], KarpatHir, 8 January 2017. For the estimate of Hungarian citizens in the oblast, see “Cамоопределение от ‘йоббиков’ и ‘великая венгрия’ от орбана” [“Jobbiks say ‘self-determination’, Orban says ‘great Hungary’”], Strana.ua, 18 October 2017. Lviv Mayor Sadoviy has stated that 30-40 per cent of Zakarpattya residents have dual citizenship. This allegation was quickly picked up by pro-Kremlin outlets, turning into the headline. “Тризуб не нужен. 40% жителей Закарпатья имеют венгерские паспорта, 80% буковельцев уже румыны” [“No more need for the [Ukrainian] trident: 40% of Zakarpattya residents have Hungarian passports and 80% of Bukovelians are now Romanians”], Antifashist, 19 March 2017.Hide Footnote Critics also call attention to inflammatory statements by both Orban and members of the far-right opposition party Jobbik, calling for autonomy for Hungarians in neighbouring states.[fn]“Rumblings in the West: Ukraine’s other ethnic quandary”, Radio Free Europe, 6 June 2014.Hide Footnote In the most extreme analysis, Orbán’s ostensible Russian President Vladimir Putin alliance is seen as evidence of shared tactics of hybrid warfare, and that Budapest is grooming its Hungarian minority for a Crimea-style annexation of Zakarpattya.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Svoboda and Azov members, Kyiv, October 2017.Hide Footnote

In practical terms, Hungary’s EU membership would preclude any such ambitions, yet political forces in Ukraine regularly take the bait. Nationalist activists from the right-wing Svoboda party and Azov civil corps have now held several torch-lit marches protesting the use of the Hungarian language and other markers of Hungarian ethnic identity in the quiet Zakarpattian town of Berehove.[fn]“Бабяк про марш Свободи: спільнота Берегова засуджує єктримістський видступ” [“Babyak on Svoboda march: the population of Berehove condemns extremist demonstration”], Beregovo.today 14 November 2017.Hide Footnote Officials in Kyiv – including the president – have also called for banning dual citizenship to stem the tide of Hungarian “passportification”, drawing ire from the oblast’s vocally anti-separatist governor.[fn]“Что ждет жителей Закарпатья, имеющих второе гражданство?” [“What awaits Zapkarpattians with dual citizenship?”], BBC Ukraine, 31 March 2017.Hide Footnote

Separatism fears have already had a palpable impact on governance in Zakarpattya. Decentralisation reform, in which sub-oblast municipalities form new units called hromadas that levy their own taxes and manage their own budgets, has offered a lifeline to some poorer Ukrainian villages since the process began in 2015, increasing the funds at their disposal by orders of magnitude. Yet in Zakarpattya, the process has ground to a halt. Some barriers are technical: many small municipalities need to amalgamate with neighbouring ones to form electoral units with a viable tax base, a difficult task in an oblast where many poorer villages are surrounded by mountain and forestland. Yet the key obstacles may be political: authorities are loath to allow hromadas to form in majority-minority areas, lest this encourage ethnic divisions, and their concerns have only grown amid recent tensions between Kyiv and Budapest.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, head of oblast local decentralisation office, March, December 2017.Hide Footnote This impasse comes at considerable cost to ordinary Zakarpattians, who are hungry for more control over how they are governed.[fn]A 2016 IRI survey of residents of oblast capitals found that Uzhhorod residents overwhelmingly rejected the idea of presidential, gubernatorial, or ministerial involvement in local decisions. At the same time, Uzhhorod was the only oblast capital in which zero per cent of respondents supported a role for the president and/or governor on decisions regarding decentralization. See “Ukrainian municipal survey 20 January – 8 February, 2016”, International Republican Institute, March 2016.Hide Footnote

The clearest example of Kyiv’s misbegotten response to concerns about cross-border influence is the September 2017 education reform package, which included a law that requires minority-language schools to begin transitioning grades 5-12 to Ukrainian-only curricula starting in 2018, and grades 1-4 starting in 2020. This has presented moral and logistical dilemmas to Zakarpattya’s over 100 minority-language schools, which include over 50 Hungarian ones.[fn]“Про освіту” [“On education”], Supreme Rada of Ukraine, Law from 5 September 2017, No.2145, zakon.rada.gov.Hide Footnote The initiative is tied to Kyiv’s ongoing Ukrainianisation campaign. Motivated largely by Putin’s claim that Russia annexed Crimea to protect Russian-speakers, Kyiv has sought over the past three years to ensure predominance of the Ukrainian language in public life. While Ukrainianisation focuses largely on reducing the prevalence of Russian, supporters of education reform present it in part as a way to counter so-called Magyarisation of primary and secondary education in Zakarpattya.[fn]Crisis Group interview, oblast education official, Uzhhorod, March 2017.Hide Footnote

The law’s passage drew a swift, angry response from neighbours; Hungary led the charge. In October, Budapest initiated an EU-member review of Ukraine’s EU Association Agreement, fully in force since 1 September 2017.[fn]Krisztina Than, “Hungary asks EU to review Ukraine ties over language row”, Reuters, 10 October 2017.Hide Footnote Budapest also promised to block Kyiv-led initiatives in multilateral organisations, including the UN and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Foreign ministers of Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania – there are over 90 Romanian-language schools in Zakarpattya, Chernivtsi, and Odesa oblasts – also asked Kyiv to reconsider.[fn]“Четыре страны ЕС просят Киев не ограничивать языки нацменьшинств” [“Four EU Countries ask Kyiv not to limit ethnic minority languages”], BBC, 15 September 2017.Hide Footnote Moscow’s response was slow and subdued; some Kyiv-based experts speculate it was sparing itself the effort as Ukraine’s western neighbours were making enough noise on their own.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kyiv, September 2017.Hide Footnote Political observers see the row as proof of Kyiv’s proclivity to further divide Ukraine through heavy-handed measures to strengthen national cohesion, as well as neighbours’ eagerness to take advantage of its weakness.[fn]Crisis Group interview with senior statesman, Kyiv, November 2017; see also Mustafa Nayyem Facebook post, 26 September 2017, http://bit.ly/2oSnI6W.Hide Footnote

The new education law has some valid goals in terms of better integrating residents of the country’s south-western oblasts into civic life. Zakarpattian schoolchildren, along with their heavily Romanian-speaking neighbours in Chernivtsi, consistently have the country’s highest failure rate on university entrance exams, which revolve around Ukrainian-language proficiency. In both 2016 and 2017, roughly 27 per cent of college-bound Zakarpattians failed the state exam; some estimate that this included over half of Hungarian-language high schoolers.[fn]“Викладач: 40% студентів-закарпатців через незнання української не змогли б викликати швидку” [“Professor: 40% of Zakarpattya university students wouldn’t be able to call an ambulance”], Zik, 10 November 2016. See “Регіональні дані ЗНО-2016” [“Regional EIE (External Independent Evaluation) data, 2016”], Ukrainian Center for Education Quality Assessment (http://stat.testportal.gov.ua/), 2007-2016. Another 27 per cent of the oblast’s test-takers did not pass the 120/200 point threshold, and students from Hungarian-language schools are overrepresented within this group.Hide Footnote Ukraine’s Education Minister Liliya Hrynevych lobbied for the bill partially because low Ukrainian fluency limits minority students’ prospects at home. In late 2016, she said reform is aimed at “integrating these children and giving them a chance to continue their education in Ukraine, not Hungary or Romania”.[fn]“Лілія Гриневич: МОН підготувало пропозиції щодо вирішення мадяризації освіти на Закарпатті” [“Liliya Hrinevich: Education ministry has prepared proposals to solve the Magyarisation of education in Zakarpattya”], Tyzhden.ua, 4 November 2016.Hide Footnote

Separatism fears have already had a palpable impact on governance in Zakarpattya.

However, even harsh critics of Budapest in Zakarpattya oppose the new law, which contradicts international best practices on minority language education. The OSCE high commissioner on national minorities recommends minority children be given the opportunity to develop literacy in their native language, and states that this goal is best met when countries guarantee access to primary school curricula taught mostly in that language – a guideline that the law violates by calling for grades 1-4 to transition to Ukrainian only.[fn]OSCE Office of the High Commissioner on National Minorities, The Hague Recommendations Regarding the Educational Rights of National Minorities, October 1996, pp. 6-7.Hide Footnote The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, while characterising state language knowledge as an essential pillar of national cohesion, stated that it “deplores the fact there was no real consultation with leaders of minority communities in Ukraine” when preparing the law.[fn]“The new Ukrainian law on education: a major impediment to the teaching of national minorities’ mother tongues”, Parliamentary Assembly Resolution 2189 (2017), Provisional Version, 10 October 2017.Hide Footnote

Zakarpattya Governor Hennadiy Moskal, known for his vocal distaste for any discussion of regional separatism or autonomy, denounced the law as showing zero appreciation for conditions in multi-ethnic regions. He said Zakarpattya’s minorities are “law-abiding citizens of Ukraine, striving to master the state language”.[fn]“Москаль: Новий Закон про освіту суперечить Європейскій хартії региональних мов, Закону ‘Про національні меньшини в Україні’ та міжнародним договорам, укладеним Україною із сусідніми країнами” [“Moskal: the new law on education contradicts the Europe Charter on regional languages, the ‘law on national minorities’ in Ukraine and international agreements concluded with neighbouring countries”], Hennadiy Moskal, official website (moskal.in.ua), 8 September 2017.Hide Footnote A Kyiv senior statesman, after voicing concerns that Budapest has designs on the oblast, called the law an “idiotic” move tailor-made to alienate Zakarpattians.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, October 2017.Hide Footnote Berehove’s town head condemned discussions of autonomy in Budapest and called for improved Ukrainian-language instruction in Hungarian schools – while stressing the right of Hungarians to study in their native language: “We would like to be considered full-fledged members of society, having lived for centuries at the foot of the Carpathians”, he wrote, adding: “It’s not our fault that the border changed several times in a single decade”.[fn]Zoltán Babják Facebook post, 25 October 2017, http://bit.ly/2zDWGnB.Hide Footnote

There is still time to defuse tension the law has provoked. In response to the uproar following its passage, Kyiv submitted it to the Venice Commission, which partially endorsed “the strong domestic and international criticism [of] provisions reducing the scope of minority language education” – while noting that these provisions were vague enough to offer “space for an interpretation and application which are more in line with the protection of national minorities”.[fn]The commission also raised concerns that while the law at least provides flexibility regarding the teaching of EU languages, no such provisions are made for Ukraine’s second-most commonly used language, Russian. “Ukrainian Education Law: sufficient minority language teaching needs to be maintained, and unequal treatment of non-EU languages problematic, says Venice Commission”, Council of Europe press release, Strasbourg/Venice, 8 December 2017.Hide Footnote Ukraine has promised to consult with minority community leaders regarding the legislation’s most controversial components. These are positive signs, but a longer-term solution to challenges of minority integration will require Kyiv to address deeper structural problems.

B. Economics, Not Nationalism, Drive Cross-border Ties

Lost in conversations about language proficiency and the threat of separatism is the deeply pragmatic nature of many Zakarpattians’ ties to Hungary and other neighbouring states: residents opt for dual citizenship and Hungarian-language education not out of allegiance to Budapest, but to ease the process of labour migration. Officials and private citizens have made a strong case for the practical nature of dual citizenship. The oblast head for decentralisation reform called it “awful”,[fn]Crisis Group interview, Uzhhorod, February 2017.Hide Footnote but dismissed as absurd the notion it reflects residents’ loyalty to other states. Staff at an Uzhhorod visa agency asserted there is “absolutely no ideology” behind the choice to get legal documentation for Hungary or any neighbouring state, saying the decision is based on poor living standards, rising utilities prices and frustration with Kyiv.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, visa preparation agents, Uzhhorod, February 2017.Hide Footnote Pensioners crossing the nearby Romanian border echoed this sentiment, saying they had obtained EU residency to access better medical care and because post-Maidan leaders had “looted the country”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sighetu Marmației/Solotvino checkpoint, March 2017.Hide Footnote

Zakarpattya has traditionally had one of the highest rates of labour migration in Ukraine, and it shapes nearly every aspect of oblast life. Work opportunities are scarce, and much of the economy revolves around cross-border smuggling rings allegedly controlled by a political dynasty from the city of Mukachevo, the Balogas – who spend just enough of their vast wealth on infrastructure to retain local backing.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Uzhhorod, April 2017; Lisichovo, Mezhhirye, March 2017; Kyiv, December 2017. Rada Deputy Viktor, the family’s most prominent member, denies any illegal activity and attributes rumours thereof to Kyiv’s hostility toward the “Zakarpattian intelligentsia”. See “Виктор Балога, народный депутат. ‘Люди’. Hard Talk. LIVE” [“Viktor Baloga, people’s deputy. ‘People’. Hard Talk. LIVE”], video, YouTube, 4 February 2017, http://bit.ly/2jPoSLB.Hide Footnote Remittances are the core source of income for many rural households, but do not produce tax revenue because they are neither passed through formal channels, nor reinvested in domestic business development.[fn]M.I. Petyulich and T.Y. Kovach, “Problems of transformation of money transfers by labour migrants into investment resources”, Ukrainian National Forestry University, 2011.Hide Footnote This dynamic has made Zakarpattya a place of dramatic contrasts, where Western living standards often exist in the home, but nowhere else. Many villages consist of half-destroyed roads lined with grand multi-story houses: a constant reminder to working-age Zakarpattians of the greater earning potential just across the border.

Zakarpattya has traditionally had one of the highest rates of labour migration in Ukraine, and it shapes nearly every aspect of oblast life.

Weak identification with the Ukrainian ethnos does not completely explain high out-migration: heartland oblasts, including largely Ukrainian ones like Vinnytsia, also have rural working-age populations abroad in large numbers.[fn]“Міграційний рух населення у січні-липні 2017 року” [“Migration dynamics in January-July 2017”], State Statistical Service of Ukraine.Hide Footnote What distinguishes Zakarpattya and neighbouring Chernivtsi, bordering Romania, from these heartland regions is the fact that residents leverage ethnic ties with neighbouring states to ease the process: Hungary is often not Zakarpattians’ final destination; instead, many labourers use it as a springboard to other EU states with stronger economies. A man from the majority-Hungarian border district of Berehove quoted in an October 2016 report spoke of using his Hungarian documents to find work in Spain, where he earned enough money to pay for a life-saving operation for his mother.[fn]“Сколько закарпатцев попадет за решетку … за двойное гражданство?” [“How many Zakarpattyans will be jailed … for dual citizenship?”], Ua-Reporter.com, 13 October 2016. A source in Berehove gave a similar account of leveraging ties to the Hungary community for migration purposes. Crisis Group interview, Berehove, April 2017.Hide Footnote An ethnic Ukrainian pensioner working at an Uzhhorod market, desperate for a Hungarian passport, said her daughter obtained citizenship after picking up the language from childhood friends. Unable to use her economics degree at home, she looked for work in Hungary before moving to Prague, where she finally found decent wages at a clock factory.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Uzhhorod, February 2017. The saleswoman said her daughter had left Hungary because “there’s nothing good on the horizon there either”.Hide Footnote Dual citizenship is pragmatic.

Language issues must also be viewed in the context of migration. One in five oblast schoolchildren has one or more parents working abroad, a factor that a January 2017 study linked to an average loss of up to eight points on state Ukrainian language tests,[fn]Igor Samokhin and Iryna Kohut, “Cоціально-економічні фактори у нерівності результатів навчання у середній школі” [“Socio-economic contributors to unequal educational achievement in high school”], CEDOS, 27 January 2017.Hide Footnote suggesting poor Ukrainian knowledge correlates to parental transience. Moreover, many neglect Ukrainian precisely because they plan to study abroad to increase future earning potential. An expert on education among ethnic Hungarians in the oblast noted that demand for slots in Hungarian-language schools has increased in recent years, saying this was likely because parents want to give their children a chance to obtain Hungarian citizenship, and the educational and earning opportunities that go along with it.[fn]“Pedagógushiánnyal küzdenek a magyar iskolák” [“Hungarian schools are suffering from a lack of teachers”], Karpatalja, 31 August 2016. A high-ranking oblast education official corroborated this analysis in a March 2017 interview with Crisis Group in Uzhhorod.Hide Footnote

As in other parts of the country, mass migration means shortages of qualified experts in critical fields – particularly teachers and doctors. A medical resident at Uzhhorod National University, who planned to move to Slovakia, said half of his graduating class left for the EU before even starting their residencies.[fn]“Медики Закарпатья массово выезжают работать за границу – больницы пустеют” [“Hospitals empty out as Zakarpattya doctors leave en masse to work abroad”], Ua-Reporter.com, 27 October 2016. The resident later confirmed his account in an April meeting with Crisis Group, by which point he was already living and working in Slovakia. Crisis Group interview, Uzhhorod, April 2017.Hide Footnote The head of a highly-regarded family clinic in Uzhhorod reported that 30 per cent of his residents had dropped out in 2016 to practice in EU countries: “They are never coming back”, he said. “We’re training doctors for Hungary and Germany”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Uzhhorod, March 2017. The doctor explained that while low salaries are a key push factor for young male doctors, fears of military conscription also drive them.Hide Footnote

Zakarpattya’s shortage of expert professionals has an ethnic dynamic absent from other oblasts – again, due less to national allegiance than the fact that specialists who speak a minority language have an easier time finding work abroad. Teachers at Hungarian, Slovak and Romanian-language schools leave to fill vacancies in Hungary, Slovakia and Romania left by teachers who are themselves working even further west. In first stop Hungary, teachers already make up to six times more than their Zakarpattian monthly income of $150-$230;[fn]Crisis Group interview, oblast education official, Uzhhorod, March 2017. See also Mariana Semenyshyn and David J. Smith, “Territorial-Administrative Decentralization and Ethno-Cultural Diversity in Ukraine: Addressing Hungarian Autonomy Claims in Zakarpattya”, European Center for Minority Issues working paper #95, 2016.Hide Footnote this only increases going west. Within the past year, hospitals in the majority-Hungarian district of Berehove have had to bring in staff from neighbouring areas to work night shifts because so many staff have left the country.[fn]“Медики Закарпатья массово выезжают работать за границу – больницы пустеют” [“Hospitals empty out as Zakarpattya doctors leave en masse to work abroad”], Ua-Reporter.com, 27 October 2016.Hide Footnote Despite a 20-30 per cent salary hike at the start of 2017, a new Ukrainian doctor can still only expect to make roughly 2,500 hryvnia (about $90) a month,[fn]Crisis Group interview, oblast official, Uzhhorod, March 2017. “Salary more than 1 thousand euros: the top countries to which Ukrainian doctors go to work”, video, YouTube, 20 November 2017, http://bit.ly/2BqOtCj.Hide Footnote compared to the $900 they can make next door in the EU.[fn]Crisis Group interview, medical professional working in Slovakia, Uzhhorod, April 2017.Hide Footnote In a hopeful step, the Rada passed a medical reform package in late 2017 that is due to raise the average doctor’s salary to $720 by 2020 – a plan that is naturally contingent on the state not losing critical amounts of money to corruption.[fn]“Просто про бюджет-2018: хто виграв, хто програв, а кому байдужне” [“Simply about the 2018 budget: who won, who lost, and who just don’t care”], Ekonomichna Pravda, 11 December 2017.Hide Footnote

Many ordinary Zakarpattians are deeply alienated from Kyiv, but this alienation should not be conflated with irredentism. Some describe the oblast as its own “separate republic”, referring to other provinces as simply “Ukraine”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, small proprietors in Lysychovo, Solotvino, and Mezhhirye, March 2017; Crisis Group interview, civil servant, Uzhhorod, April 2017.Hide Footnote Many express contempt for Kyiv officials whose professionalism falls far short of the EU standards with which they are familiar.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, oblast official, Uzhhorod, March 2017; border police, Solotvino, March 2017; police personnel, Uzhhorod, April 2017; city officials, Mukachevo, April 2017.Hide Footnote Others remark that given higher living standards in neighbouring states, life would be simpler had Zakarpattya joined one of them at the end of the Second World War.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, small proprietors in Lisichovo, March 2017, and Uzhhorod, April 2017.Hide Footnote Yet these casual references to Zakarpattian exceptionalism are best seen as a regional variation of an all-too-Ukrainian theme – anger at economic malaise and poor governance. Remarks by a hotel owner in Mezhhirye present an unusually hyperbolic example of this: “I’m basically against dividing Ukraine”, he said. Yet he predicted that Kyiv, Moscow, and Budapest would soon do just that, with Hungary taking Zakarpattya. Explaining his far-fetched prediction, he appealed not to widespread ethnic nationalism or historic cross-border ties, but to the everyday complaint that Kyiv lacks the will to fight corruption and put its constituents first.[fn]Crisis Group interview, small proprietor, Mezhhirye, March 2017. An Uzhhorod official took a similar tone when asked whether he thought federalization was possible in the near future. “No”, he replied: “If Ukraine falls apart, it will be completely”. Crisis Group interview, April 2017.Hide Footnote

IV. Conclusion

Ukraine has made significant strides since Maidan, in spite of enormous external challenges from Kremlin-backed insurgents in the east and inconsistent support from a troubled Euroatlantic world. Yet this is far from the whole story. Conditions in its western regions show that the state remains fragile, even beyond those parts of the country where Moscow is actively undermining sovereignty. In the years since Maidan, the Poroshenko government has not shown itself capable of admitting to – let alone addressing – the root cause of this fragility: leaders prioritising private wealth over public good. Instead, it attacks symptoms: mass participation in shadow economies or weak identification with markers of Ukrainian ethnic identity, such as language. Authoritarian neighbours are eager to provoke and capitalise on these missteps, as illustrated by the row with Budapest and Kremlin-affiliated outlets’ gloating coverage of the amber fiasco. But their predatory behaviour should not distract from Kyiv’s responsibility to correct its own mistakes.

Kyiv’s leadership cannot afford to deny its core weaknesses any longer. Ukraine needs the buy-in of all its citizens if it is to survive as a state. Three years ago, President Poroshenko promised to end the war in Donbas and confront corruption. Fulfilling the first promise would be hard enough on its own, as it requires major concessions from an intractable neighbouring great power and a watertight strategy to reintegrate a traumatised population growing used to living under separatist rule. Yet Kyiv cannot treat these challenges as an excuse to neglect inclusive governance or stop fighting corruption. If it does, the people of Donbas will not be the only ones Kyiv will have to struggle to win back.

Polissya/Zakarpattya/Kyiv/Brussels, 21 December 2017