A year ago, the people of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine voted on independence. Today, approval of the pro-Russian separatists seems to be even greater than before.
Gigantic posters printed with a black, blue and red flag and two-headed eagle read "Day of the Republic", and in smaller print, there's the date, May 11. Donetsk, one of the pro-Russian separatist strongholds, on Monday celebrated "founding the state." There was music in the streets, and a demonstration with about 30,000 participants, at least according to the organizers. Olha, a teacher, was one of them. "We were told we had to go," she says. "But no one really minds." The new authorities in power have paid the teachers' arrears, so they are pleased.
A year ago, people in the eastern Ukrainian Donetsk and Luhansk regions, on the border with Russia, voted on splitting from Kyiv in what was proclaimed as "referendums".
The vote was organized by armed pro-Russian separatists who had seized power a few months earlier. According to the organizers, about 90 percent of the population endorsed sovereignty. The vote was illegal, as Ukrainian law doesn't provide for local referendums. The results, too, are doubtful, as there were no independent election observers.
Both regions declared themselves independent a day after the vote, and declared themselves People's Republics. Activists from Moscow appeared, including Donetsk People's Republic "Prime Minister" Alexander Borodai. No government, in Kyiv or anywhere else, recognizes the self-proclaimed "People's Republics." Russia, on the other hand, hasn't ruled out recognition. "We'll keep an eye on reality," President Vladimir Putin recently said in an interview.
Before the crisis, about seven million people lived in the two regions combined; today, estimates say that number has dwindled by more than half in the areas controlled by the separatists. Millions of people have either fled to Russia or to other parts of Ukraine. The people who stayed behind sympathize with the separatists or lack the means to move.
It is difficult to assess the mood in the regions theses days, many people are afraid to give their names, or speak out against the new rulers. Tetjana from Donetsk admits having voted "yes" a year ago because she wanted more autonomy, but never a split. The 50-year-old blames the Ukrainian government for the war that has been raging for a year as well as for the many casualties. Kyiv, she argues, didn't want to grant Donetsk autonomy. Tetjana is satisfied with the current situation.
A businessman who prefers to remain anonymous says he is disappointed by the Donetsk People's Republic. "I joined the referendum because I was hoping for improvements," he says, adding that what happened instead was a war, and "the new rulers run around with machine guns." There's poverty and unemployment everywhere, he says.
The Ukrainian government has no idea of the real mood in the areas controlled by the separatists, says Wolodymyr Paniotto, Director of the Kyiv Institute for Sociology (KMIS). In March, the researchers interviewed people on both sides of the conflict. Only eight percent of the people in the part of Eastern Ukraine controlled by Kyiv wanted a split, while 42 percent were in favor in the renegade regions – twice as many as a year ago.
However, about 50 percent of the population in both "People's Republics" favors staying in Ukraine. Most likely, many of the more than one million internally displaced people are also opposed to the eastern regions splitting off - people like Switlana Sakrewska of "Allianz", an NGO that looks after internally displaced refugees. Sakrewska is from Donetsk, but today, she lives in Kyiv.
Day to day
"People who had to leave Donetsk, but who deep down in their souls are pro-Ukraine, would like to see the illegal armed troops leave Donetsk so they can go home," she says. Ukrainian politicians could have stopped the separatist move last year, she argues. "They should have gone to every home and shaken every hand," Sakrewska says. "But they were busy distributing power." The "referendums" in Eastern Ukraine took place two weeks before the presidential election, which had been moved up. With no idea if and when the war will end, neither Sakrewska nor Olha, the teacher, dare predict the future. They live from day to day.