Because of armed conflicts, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine have lost control over considerable parts of their territories.Theyare occupied by so-called self-proclaimed republics. How did they change after occupation? What happened with lives of ordinary people? Was it possible to avoid these conflicts? How can Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine restore control over the occupied territories and what are they doing for it?
OCCUPIED TERRITORIES: HANGOVER FROM RUSSIA
This is my story about South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, the DNR and LNR. Republics, to which the words «pseudo» or «fake» are often attached, and their status as states was recognized, for the most part, only by themselves. In diplomatic language, they are called temporarily occupied territories. For me, as a Ukrainian journalist, a working visit to each of these republics was accompanied by threats of interrogation by local law-enforcement agencies
or being put inside a local jail.
Author: Khristina Shevchenko
Photo and video: Vitaliy Chvak, Rostik Podolets
Republics behind the curtains
These small territories were born under the exploding of shells and buzzing of tanks, in the midst of the weeping of thousands of refugees and the ashes of empty children’s rooms. However, war is not the only thing that unites these republics. Nostalgia for the Soviet Union and a hot passion for Russia – this is the Freudian “id” of the local mentality.
Geographically, they are mostly located at the side of the countries from which they came out or want to leave (Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine), and are small pieces on the map. All except for Transnistria have a common border with Russia.
Even the all-seeing eye – Google – does not mark them as individual countries, so what can be said about the average citizen of the world, who probably knows much more about Narnia than about any of these so-called republics. The only exceptions are the inhabitants of the post-Soviet area, which are mentally closer to these territories, but they also “digress”: they have heard about the war, but rarely can they name one city located in these mysterious lands. Life on these “scraps” is covered in dark thick-walled curtains, which the inhabitants of the so-called republics themselves are in no hurry to open. I tried to look behind the backstage of this post-Soviet drama.
I began my voyage from Georgia, or as the Georgians call it, Sakartvelo. The country of vines and the Caucasus Mountains has two occupied territories, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
At first I try to get to the border with Abkhazia, a republic recognized by four countries of the world which are also members of the United Nations: Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru. This republic arose in 1993 after a fierce war with Georgia, a conflict that Russia supported.
Historical reference. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia, which was part of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, declared its independence. During this time, Russian intelligence agencies, which carried out a propaganda campaign and secretly handed arms to Abkhazian separatists, were active in the region. In August 1992, Georgia deployed troops to Abkhazia, but they were greeted by armed resistance there, particularly on the part of Russian and Chechen mercenaries. The military conflict, which led to Georgia losing control over Abkhazia, ended on 30 August, 1993.
As a result of the confrontation, about 200,000 ethnic Georgians were expelled from Abkhazia, and 13,000 Georgians and 3,000 Abkhazians died. Georgia still recognizes Abkhazia as its own territory and offers it broad autonomy.
Nuts and corn
My path runs through the city of Zugdidi, which is located in western Georgia, not far from the Black Sea, and which borders the republic of Abkhazia. Morning is greeted by the sun and promises a hot September day. In Zugdidi, apart from the unusual fashion of walking in black nylon stockings, I notice the balconies. Colored underwear hangs from many houses. As it turns out, this is connected to the conflict in Abkhazia, but I continue heading to the border.
“Journalists? Ukraine? Yeah… I need to call the Interior Ministry, wait, no video or photos for the time being”, says a Georgian policeman in broken Russian, looking at my passport and the passports of the photographer and driver.
While he talks to his superiors, we watch the border – there’s hustle and bustle here. Cars bearing Georgian and Abkhazian plates are parked on the roadside. And near them are drivers smoking – typical “cool guys” intermingling with each other. Taxis approach constantly on the side of Abkhazia, people with bags emerge and walk in the direction of Zugdidi. Someone gets into a car.
And at last the policeman gives us permission to film, but only under his close watch. He leads us to a bridge that is partly Georgian and partly Abkhazian. There is constant movement here – groups of people come from the occupied territory.
“No one will tell you a thing, so don’t even try,” the policeman says laughing.
– And where is Abkhazia?
– Over there, it’s just 500 meters away.
I stand with an oil painting in front of my eyes – high mountains, and in the valley white strokes – huts.
I depart from this trance of beauty and go to grab some Abkhazians.
I see a woman who is around 50 years old and her gray-haired husband.
– Why are you going in the direction of Georgia? – I say, trying to be friendly.
– To a funeral, – only now do I notice that the woman is wearing black.
– On what side of the border would you like to live?
– At home. We’re from Gali.
– Do you like it there?
– Maybe I don’t like everything… But we live… It’s difficult to get work. But that’s most likely the case for everyone. We often cross the border – to attend a wedding, a funeral…
Further on I spot an old man.
– I’m from Gali District, – a smile appears across his face.
– Can you show me your passport?
– Yes, I can, and the old man gets out his Abkhazian passport. In the little green book I read the name of the old chap, Mikka.
– Mikka, why do Abkhazians cross the border?
– They go to the Zugdidi bazar. Food is cheap in Georgia, and some products are unavailable in Abkhazia… I have a flat in Georgia. And I have a house back in Gali District. I live a bit here and a bit there…
There are more and more people who come from Abkhazia towards Zugdidi. Look, a cart passing by. An intelligent-looking person in glasses comes toward me and tells me about daily life in Abkhazia.
– People suffer the most from economic difficulties… Nuts and corn are our main income. There are no jobs. The Georgian language was banned in schools recently. Abkhazians have also forgotten their language, and mostly speak Russian, – a man traveling to Zugdidi tells me.
The people I meet are mostly from Gali District. Most of them consider themselves Georgians, and not Abkhazians, – these two ethnic groups are clearly divided here. Abkhazians have their own language and their own traditions. However, Georgians from Gali find themselves within the borders of the Abkhazian pseudo-republic, and so are forced to live by its laws.
I never quite managed to get through to people calling themselves Abkhazian at the border. Most of them fled the moment they heard that I was a journalist.
Medicine from Georgia
I return to Zugdidi and meet a local journalist.
“There are a lot of Abkhazians living here. They mostly trade at the bazar. And Zugdidi also has lots of immigrants – the Abkhazians who came here in the 1990s, after the war. Their flats are there, – the journalist points up, where I can see colored laundry, – only they have a habit of hanging their things like that… To tell you the truth they get mixed treatment here, since they got housing for free and receive social security benefits from the Georgian government. So they are idling around.”
Zugdidi has a settlement for displaced persons, a block of nice pastel-colored houses. The displaced persons received these flats via a government program. Come evening older women gather around tables in front of the houses. One of them, Nanuli, holds the hand of her child.
“I live there [in Abkhazia] together with my husband, we have a house there. But I also have a flat in this block. Life there is hard. If you make something with your own hands it’s possible to survive, but this year’s harvest was ruined… I cross the border on foot mostly to get treatment for my daughter – she suffers from epilepsy. I bring her to the Georgian side for appointments – there are no hospitals treating such disorders in Abkhazia. Sometimes I take my daughter to Tbilisi, Kutaisi, she gets treatment there”, Nanuli says.
Nanuli isn’t the only person to treat her child in Georgia. There is a special medical institution in Zugdidi for treatment of displaced persons and residents of Abkhazian territory. Its employees explained to us: Abkhazian healthcare is currently in poor shape, so residents of occupied territories become patients of their hospital.
Larysa Cherkvyana, doctor in Zugdidi clinic
In Zugdidi central hospital we meet dozens of people – a free checkup of the Abkhazian population is under way here. Georgia even has a separate institution for that – the health ministry of the Abkhazian autonomy. It develops government programs both for Abkhazians that are crossing the border now and displaced persons – there are more than 250,000 of them registered in Georgia. In the hospital’s corridors we also meet this institution’s minister – Ketevan Bakaradze.
Ketevan said that Abkhazians want to preserve their anonymity, because they actually live in the republic and are worried about the possible reaction of local authorities. Of course, most patients want to get into the medical institutions of Tbilisi.
“This is one of our target programs. We go to various regions, bring doctors (from 20 to 35 specialists in various fields), who check the health of these people using the foundation of medical institutions. Abkhazians come here frequently. We help them without issue. They also approach us at the ministry. We consider them our citizens. In 2016 approximately 2,000 Abkhazians were treated
at various Georgian medical institutions.”
So, you would ask, why do Georgians provide free treatment to people who do not consider themselves citizens of this country? This way Georgians display both nobleness and sagacity. The country’s government provides free healthcare to Abkhazians in order to reintegrate these people and prove that it does care about its lost citizens.
Near Zugdidi central hospital we meet an Abkhazian journalist. She brought her sick father here, and so spent some time on Georgian territory. We made several calls to her in advance – Georgian journalists recommended that we talk to her.
And here this attractive black-haired woman comes to us with an earnest smile. But as soon as she spots the camera her expression changes immediately.
– No, I won’t tell you anything – not on camera.
– Perhaps a voice recorder will be better? We won’t film you, – I ask.
– No, no… I already gave an interview to Georgian journalist once, and paid for it dearly. Please understand, I have a job and family there, I can’t take risks like that. I understand you, understand your job, but there’s nothing I can help you with, – she says with regret in her eyes.
Having said her piece, she apologized, turned around and left.
Crime and tourism
“The crime situation in Abkhazia is difficult, – political scientist Nika Chitadze tells me. – Just recently there was a case when a 14 year-old girl was raped, and people say that the main suspect is the chief of security of the so-called president of Abkhazia, but as of now no criminal investigation has been launched, and the criminal is under the protection of his own mafia.”
So even our Russian brothers prefer the sunny beaches of Georgia’s Batumi now… due to comfort and safety.
All despite Abkhazia’s potential to be the Nice of the Caucasus – it has both Aivazovsky’s seascapes and majestic mountains. And one acquaintance of mine, a displaced person from Abkhazia, described it with a short phrase – “heaven on earth”.
Back in Soviet times more than two million guests came there every year.
Economically, Georgia lost one of its most attractive tourist regions. But Abkhazia lost it as well. The low tourism culture, neglected landmarks and guest houses – and now the heavenly sands are empty.
Russia in the air
Just about a hundred thousand residents remained in Abkhazia – about half the population. Most have Russian passports. Russia pays pensions to Abkhazian citizens and invests 70% of its budget.
In addition to that, there are 5,000-10,000 Russian soldiers currently on Abkhazian territory, who control the so-called state border between the unrecognized republic and Georgia.
In fact, Abkhazia is a province of the Russian Federation.
The next point of my journey is the border with South Ossetia. This “republic” is recognized by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru, and also Abkhazia, Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Historical reference. Back in 1989 South Ossetians decided to be with Russia. A rebellion occurred back then, in which Russian volunteers took part. Yet the conflict was successfully frozen. In the noughties the leadership of South Ossetia set a course for closer cooperation with Moscow. At the same time, Russian rubles and Russian passports appeared in circulation. In 2008 Georgia attempted to reclaim its lost republic. But it was opposed by much more powerful Russian forces and separatists from Abkhazia. Thus, with the help of the Russian Federation South Ossetia became de facto independent. Georgia still considers it an occupied territory and Ossetians to be Georgian citizens.
Ask about Ossetia in Tserovani
In a ride of just 15 minutes from Tbilisi there is the town of Tserovani. It was built by the Georgian government for immigrants from South Ossetia. The town of red roofs is stunning due to its scale – there are more than 2,000 buildings, school, shops.
This cozy world for immigrants was created by the Georgian government, and people received apartments here. Many of them maintain family relationships with Ossetians and often visit Tskhinvali – the capital of so-called South Ossetia. The mayor of Tserovani, Nukzar Tynykashvili, agreed to tell me about life on the other side of the border.
“Life there is hard, agriculture has fallen into decay. This is because the only thing that remains are private plots… Pensions there are around 150 Lari (55 USD) a month, but their citizens also get our pension. We consider them ours. Most food is brought there from Russia, and fruits and vegetables from Tbilisi. Young people can only find jobs in the military, as there is absolutely no industry there.”
Just as in Abkhazia, the study of the Georgian language in the schools of South Ossetia is prohibited in classes 1 to 4.
The border with Georgia is controlled by Russian border guards, and it is also constantly moving. In 2012 the border, which looks like a barbed wire fence, was moved into Georgian territory and set in the middle of several villages. Some of them – Gugutiantkari, Didi-Khurvaleti and Dici – found themselves in South Ossetia.
“Russia justifies itself with the fact that there are old Soviet maps with borders of South Ossetia marked, and wants to restore the border according to them. But it is not known which maps these are. I certainly have not seen them”, – political scientist and military expert Tornike Sharashenidze explains.
The border is moving, despite the fact the South Ossetia is currently having a bad time – it’s just like an alcoholic. The only dose of support for the existence of this unrecognized republic comes from the Russian budget. No big companies, no medium businesses… You will find the Russian ruble in circulation here, which makes the economy fully dependent on Russia.
Russia also helps the republic with low prices for natural gas and electricity. Currently, South Ossetia can barely make ends meet, with nothing left for tourism or cultural life.
What does Russia need this territory for? Especially since it’s neither an attractive tourist spot nor an oil treasure. Mikheil Saakashvili, the Former President of Georgia, believes that South Ossetia is a strategically important bridgehead for advancing towards Tbilisi.
The country I visited after Georgia was Moldova. On the east of this country, along the shores of the Dniester River you can find a republic with a very expected name – the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic, or simply PMR.
On the map this territory looks like a sleeping dragon. At the international level PMR is recognized… guess by whom? By nobody. This time Venezuela and Nicaragua didn’t see this state, and even Russia didn’t recognize the sovereignty of this “little dragon” it gave birth to. The only ones not to ignore Transnistria were South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are troubled just as much by a lack of recognition. Moldova officially calls this formation an occupied territory.
Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic
Historical reference. Transnistria proclaimed its independence in 1991, wanting not to lose its connections with Russia. At the time Moldova was focused on Romanianization. The separatists received support from Russia’s 14th Army, which back then was deployed in Transnistria, and thanks to its help the separatists secured actual power on the eastern bank of the Dniester. Moldovan troops attempted to reclaim the territory, but failed to overcome the powerful Russian forces. After the bloody battles of 1992 the presidents of Russia and Moldova signed an agreement to settle the conflict. It is currently frozen.
Around a thousand people were killed during the war, and several thousand became refugees.
How does a journalist from Ukraine get into the frozen republic? In Chișinău, the capital of Moldova, our colleagues warned: they got thrown behind bars for filming a school holiday in Transnistria. Hmm… Not a pretty prospect.
Instead, I’m advised to ask a colleague who works both in Moldovan and the Transnistrian mass media. I find him on the social network. This guy, just like the Abkhazian journalist, refused to give an interview – while the conflict is said to be frozen, it’s obvious that sparks are still flying.
What do they think in Transnistria?
Well, I still managed to talk to locals from Transnistria, to do this I just had to go to a market in Chișinău. Every day it receives buses connecting Dubăsari – Chișinău, Rîbnița – Chișinău (Dubăsari and Rîbnița are cities controlled by PMR). The border is freely crossed both by Moldovan civilians and citizens of Transnistria.
Chișinău’s central market looks like a market near train station in any Ukrainian city: untidy counters, a large concentration of sour-faced men chewing chebureki, puddles on the ground and sellers husking seeds indifferently. In the midst of this slightly Balabanov-styled picture, I see something like a bus station – there are intercity buses parked around the corner.
Several pensioners in sweaters and a middle-aged woman come out of a white Mercedes serving the Dubăsari – Chișinău route. I ask: “May I ask you a couple of questions?” “No, you may not”, – a woman’s squeaky voice shatters my plans. All the other passengers have already scattered among Chișinău’s counters.
But I don’t lose hope, and, like a prince of Amber, head to another “shadow” – I enter a bus that will depart for Transnistria in several minutes, and inside I find fairytale characters hailing from the world of the unrecognized republic – local pensioners.
– Good day, what sort of pensions do you have there? – I ask a red-haired woman in a waterproof nylon jacket.
– They are good, a hundred dollars…
– Why do you come to Chișinău then?
– To visit… I go whenever I want. We support Moldova, and Russia, and Transnistria, we want to find a common ground with everyone, – the woman says turning to politics.
– Would you like to be with Moldova?
– I don’t even know… – the woman hesitates, but suddenly her thoughts are interrupted by an energetic voice from a neighboring seat:
– They do, they want to be with Moldova. My relatives want to, – the voice belongs to a younger woman with a winter hat pulled low.
– It’s your relatives who do, – the redhead in nylon jacket snaps.
– That’s not true, – the hat dips even lower.
– We are against Europe, there’s no future there. We’re an agrarian country, and our food products can only go to Russia, – a man says entering the conversation.
– I watch the news every day, see everyone pressuring Russia. And Russia supports everyone. Russia brings peace everywhere, – the redhead in the nylon jacket proclaims with dramatic pauses.
And I decided to change the subject.
– What kind of jobs do you have there?
– None, – the woman in the woolen hat promptly answers.
– What? We have jobs – plants, textile factories, markets, – the one wearing a nylon jacket parries
– Would you like your grandchildren to know the Romanian language and Latin script? – I inquire. My question is slightly provocative, since Romanian – the native language of Moldovans, is currently banned in Transnistrian schools.
– I would like them to know 5 languages: and also Spanish, and Portuguese, and English…
– But didn’t you say that you don’t want to go to Europe?
– Well… How can I not? A job is a job. Life may throw me anywhere, – the opponent of all things European says with sadness in her voice.
Another woman boards the bus, and I inquire about the reason she travels from Transnistria to Chișinău.
– There is no food there, in Transnistria. Ukraine stopped exporting and the shops stand empty.
– There’s plenty of everything in our shops!
The women launch into a discussion, I wish them peace and leave. In a couple of minutes the bus departs.
I’ve already mentioned school holidays and the bars, behind which Transnistrian border guards threw Moldovan journalists for such an innocent film. The thing is, in the village of Corjova, which is officially under Moldovan jurisdiction, but borders with PMR, is banned from singing the Moldovan anthem and raising the national flag. This ban was introduced by Transnistrian law-enforcement agencies, which consider Corjova their village.
Journalists wrote about the bans in schools back in 2015, but during our journey to Chișinău our Moldovan colleagues told us that the situation remains the same – Transnistrian authorities want to pull everything connected to Moldova from their territory like a bad tooth. And this especially concerns schools on the territory of the unrecognized republic teaching Romanian. Less than ten of these now remain in PMR.
Transnistria is the only place where Moldovan language still exists. Are you surprised? I’ll explain: since time immemorial Moldova did not speak Moldovan, but Romanian. However, under the Soviet Union the Romanian language got peppered with 40 percent of Slavic words, simply Russianisms. And this hybrid was adulterated with Cyrillic grammar.
In 1989 Moldova returned to its roots and voted to restore the Latin script.
On the other hand, the eastern bank of Dniester and its inhabitants saw it as a betrayal of “age-old Soviet ideas”, which set off the bloody conflict. But this is not what we are talking about now. While Moldova has moved to the Latin script and recognized its language as Romanian a long time ago, in Transnistria this linguistic fact is stubbornly denied. Here you can see a unique phenomenon of the Moldovan language – Romanian words mixed with Russian and written in Cyrillic script.
However, the star of Transnistria’s Moldovan language is waning. People speak Russian in the main (it, like Moldovan and Ukrainian, is one of the region’s official languages), parents send their children to schools where the teaching is in Russian. Official institutions also use the Russian language.
And again on the Russian needle
In the Transnistrian “kingdom” the currency is local rubles, and the budget mostly depends on Russian subsidies. Russia provides free natural gas to Transnistria. Residents and enterprises still have to pay the gas bills – however, this money does not go to Gazprom, but to the PMR republican budget.
Despite this, the economy still suffers from Ukraine’s decision to seal off smuggling channels, and all trade is now done exclusively through Moldova. Thus, PMR is currently in crisis. The average wage is 200 USD.
Most residents are pensioners, young people emigrate abroad, and it became usual for local residents to have several passports – Russian, Ukrainian, Moldovan. And after 2014, when Moldova signed a visa-free travel agreement with the European Union, the number of applicants for its passport grew even more – now more than 315,000 people from the left bank have Moldovan citizenship.
Tourism in the pseudo-republic is not developing. The piece of land on the eastern bank of the Dniester interests only those who want to see a little wonder – the USSR in a modern world – a tiny little world of Lenin busts and signboards with Soviet designs.
And despite all the love for Russia (in 2007 the residents of Transnistria confirmed their feelings in a referendum and 97% voted for integration with the Russian Federation), “big brother” has not reciprocated. Russia didn’t annex Transnistria and still hasn’t recognized its sovereignty. Just like in classical Russian literature: Karenina’s dream of a happy life with her beloved Vronsky shattered into little pieces… But the interesting thing is what PMR will do next – will it jump under a train, or will it fondly remember abandoned Karenin.
“All economic agents of the left bank are registered in Chișinău, and all export documents go through here, but they pay almost no taxes to the central budget. More than 4,000 young people from PMR study in Chișinău. We have a common football championship. This is a very strange kind of conflict”, political scientist Oazu Nantoi says.
Formations known as “DNR” and “LNR” appeared in 2014 after events on Maidan. Back then a fraction of the population from Luhansk and Donetsk Regions decided to secede from Ukraine and its new pro-European government.
Historical reference. In April 2014 pro-Russian separatists proclaimed the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics. At the same time the Russian military, led by officers from Federation’s special services, captured administrative buildings in Slovyansk, Kramatorsk and Druzhkivka. On April 13 the Ukrainian government announced the beginning of the Anti-Terrorist Operation. Mobilization was launched in the country. On May 11 the “LNR” and “DNR” held so-called referendums, after which the ringleaders of the pseudo-republics approached Russia with an offer to join it as a united territory called Novorossiya, and also make claims for other regions of Ukraine. Russia started to supply separatists with heavy military weapons, particular Grad multiple rocket launchers. Ukraine restored its control over some of the occupied territories, surrounded Donetsk and was approaching Luhansk, but intervention by the professional Russian military pushed the frontline back into Ukrainian territory. Despite the signing of Minsk agreements, which were supposed to provide a ceasefire, the war continues.
According to UN data, as of August 2017 there was 10,225 dead and 24,541 injured people recorded during the war in Donbas, as well as more than half a million displaced persons.
I’m in Ukrainian Kostyantynivka, a city in Donetsk Region located several kilometers from the frontlines. Here I’ll try to find heroes of our time, residents of “DNR”. I’m looking for them at a train station – from here residents of “DNR” travel to hated Ukraine, with some going to Kyiv, some to Kharkiv, some to Dnipro.
To the train station and back they go by bus. The drivers explain: this business, of course, is illegal, but they can make arrangements at checkpoints. These buses, which connect two worlds, are very popular, there’s a huge flow of people here every single day. And so I go to one of them, which goes to Donetsk – the capital of so-called “DNR”. People who just arrived on the Kyiv – Kostyantynivka train are starting to gather here. I approach an elderly woman and ask: “How is life in ‘DNR’?”
The granny looks at me with terrified eyes, as if I was Chikatilo, and hops on a bus. All other attempts to speak to passengers ended in fiasco. I was thinking of leaving this place, when an intelligent-looking granny in glasses approached, took me aside and quietly whispered:
– They won’t tell you anything, they are afraid…
– What are they afraid of?
– To say something objectionable. They are afraid of getting shot… My neighbor said recently: “What, does it turn out that we caused a war when we joined that rally?” But don’t record me… Don’t tell anyone that I spoke to you, – the woman looked even more scared, – there, in the bus, is my relative. If she finds out that I talked to Ukrainian journalists she will turn me in.
– How can she turn you in, to whom?
– She’ll write a report to the authorities, – that stupefied me… Did I somehow found myself back in 1937? – But I love Ukraine, love the Ukrainian language… I don’t like that Russia, – she continued, and those dissident words simply shattered my mind.
– Your relative will turn you in? But she’s a relative!
– So what, – the elderly woman said giving a vague wave.
– And these militants, what is their nationality?
– Certainly not ours. Judging by how they speak they are Russians.
– And how do you live, how do you receive pension?
– I have a sister in Kyiv, and now live with her, and only visit Donetsk, so I get a Ukrainian pension. And they live off two pensions – they get paid in “DNR”, and also come here to get their Ukrainian one. Just observe the tellers in Kostyantynivka. They all come here for their Ukrainian pension. And buy up lots of things here, because on the Ukrainian side everything is half the price. The prices over there are astronomical… And my relative does so too. Just ask, why she hates Ukraine so much, but takes her Ukrainian pension, but wait a little, don’t go right away, because she might suspect that I put you up to it…
We wait for 10 minutes. I spend this time thinking: currently the minimum pension in the “DNR” is 2,730 RUR (approximately 47 USD), and prices in the republic are higher both for food and clothing, they are now almost equal to those in Russia. No wonder grannies and grandads come here for Ukrainian money. “The Russian world” is a fine slogan, but hunger knows no friend.
So when they run out of money, they “on the sly” remember Ukraine, which officially still recognizes the residents of “DNR/LNR” as its citizens. By the way, many residents of Donetsk receive a miner’s pension, which is about 5,000-6,000 UAH, which is several times more than what a granny from Ternopil or Dnipro gets. It’s some sort of paradox…
Well, it’s time to go to a relative of our anonymous female dissident. I see her wearing a scarf sat on the front seat of the minibus.
– Good day, how is life in “DNR”?
– Why do you receive your pension in Ukraine [then]?
– So what? Don’t I have the right?! We worked for Ukraine for so many years. And they started fighting [against] us!
– What were Russian troops doing in Ukraine? And where did the militias get their arms from?
– I do not see anyone. No-one started fighting.
– That is, you did not see anyone? – I ask.
After a pause the woman said:
– Why was Donetsk handed over? Why wasn’t Dnipro or Kharkiv surrendered? You surrendered us!
After dialog with two pensioners I endeavor to speak with “DNR” youth. A young guy in jeans, wearing a cap, is stood near the minibuses lighting a cigarette.
– We don’t need this “DNR” at all. What can we do there? Who needs these degree certificates? I’m not willing to live there. I’ve been to Poland a few times, I want to go to Europe, not sit within four walls… I am a lawyer by profession, but what will I do there for work? There’s no work here, the average wage is 2,500-3,000 Russian rubles (USD 51). All of my friends are for Ukraine. The government of these clowns is perhaps supported by zombified pensioners who pray to Lenin. Do you know who this Zakharchenko was in the past? (Zakharchenko “the head of the council of ministers of the ‘DNR’”). He sold chickens. Everyone is waiting for when Ukraine will come and fight it back. I have a Ukrainian passport and I do not want to change it. If it were not for my relatives I would not have gone to Donetsk at all.
– Why don’t you go out to protest?
– The people are afraid. They wanted to protest in Horlivka and shots were fired in the air.
– You cannot escape from this vicious circle…
To my surprise, I did not meet that many fans of “DNR”. However, even those who want to return to Ukraine are afraid of the Ukrainian military, as they know this will lead to the inevitable destruction of the city. Others are afraid of being lynched by the Ukrainian side.
“They were here, these militiamen, on the rubbish heaps, alcoholics and tramps, they were given arms. People would bring them food,” a woman from a Ukraine-controlled village explains. “These militiamen said our money would not go to Ukrainian coffers but to our own Donetsk budget, that they are simply in favor of federalization. That is when we supported them but then we realized that we were tricked, and now we have a war…”
“Nobody asked us our opinions when the ‘DNR’ came through here, and they won’t ask our views if they come here again. Our points of view are of no interest to anyone… Nobody needs us, nobody feels sorry for us, and even in Ukraine today nobody has sympathy for us,” Svitlana from the village of Zalizne, which is near Kostyantynivka, adds. “Do you think we don’t understand anything? I work at the Orthodox church and our priest visits the checkpoints, and he told me that on the other side he saw military servicemen with Russian chevrons and an inscription in big letters regarding Russia…” The woman thought about it and added “but I cannot recall the inscription… But even here, in Kostyantynivka, you think that there is no support for them [separatists]? You think that there are only a handful of such people? Ah, it’s just that nobody will tell you this…”
The views of Russians
All the occupied territories, about which I wrote here, are one way or another the creations of the government of the Russian Federation. The imperial plans of their “mother,” could be stopped by the Russians themselves, the more so that the presidential election will be held soon.
On the border with Abkhazia, I met a Russian woman with her friend who live in St. Petersburg and still come to Abkhazia to resolve their private affairs. I decided to ask them what they now think of Putin and Russian politics.
– South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, ‘DNR’. There is a Russian trail everywhere. Do you support such an aggressive Russian policy?
– Well, I live in Russia, I am a citizen of Russia and I cannot help but support the authorities … You live in Ukraine, do you think that your authorities do everything right?
– Not always….
– But you don’t attend rallies?
– We do take part.
– Well, you should understand, if one has a family, children, then you cannot allow yourself to act as you wish…
– She is not answering for herself, but is answering for the children, the man replies, intervening. – I saw myself how this conflict began [in Abkhazia]. There were Russians there from the very start, and they started this war.
– But you still support Putin all the same?
– We cannot say that we support Putin, the man replies.
The woman decides, at last, to get involved:
“Russia is a big country, and it cannot but take part in such conflicts. But I’m from the generation of the Soviet Union. I cannot support these conflicts, as I support friendship. These conflicts reflect on all of us. This includes the sanctions imposed against us, we are boxed in, and rising prices. There is not enough money. We live poorly even in St. Petersburg. Of course, there are Putin fanatics around, but most people are afraid of him. I will tell you this: the mood is 50:50.”
What will prevail with the Russians? And will they be able to overcome fear? The presidential elections to be held on March 18, 2018 will provide the answer…