Battling for Hearts and Minds Kiev Fights for Loyalty in Eastern Ukraine
The Minsk agreement, designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine, turned two this week. But it hasn't stopped the violence -- in part because Kiev has done little to promote reconciliation. If that doesn't change, unifying the country will prove impossible.
An icy wind blows across Karachun Hill, but the view is amazing. It spreads out for kilometers, almost as far as the cease-fire line between the Ukrainian army and the separatists.
The hilly and almost treeless landscape of the Donetsk region unfurls beneath it, blanketed in a layer of snow. To the south, the first thing you see are the chimneys in the industrial city of Kramatorsk. It's controlled by the Ukrainian army and is the site of the command that is leading the "Anti-Terror Operation" against the separatists. Further beyond lies the heavily contested Avdiivka, which has been subject to a constant barrage of rocket shelling and where both water and power supplies were cut off in recent days. On the edge of Avdiivka lies the front between government territory and the separatist-held "Donetsk Peoples' Republic." Right after that is the city of Donetsk itself.
Karachun is the Tatar word for "black death." It rises on the outskirts of Slovyansk, a city of 120,000 inhabitants. The war in eastern Ukraine began in Slovyansk in April 2014.
So far, 10,000 people have been killed in the fighting. And the Minsk cease-fire agreement, which had its second anniversary last Sunday, has failed to stop the carnage. In 2016, 225 more Ukrainian soldiers died in addition to many civilian deaths. The number of victims among the rebels is unknown. For a few days on the week before last, fighting grew fiercer than it had been in a long time.
The Minsk deal, negotiated by Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine in February 2015, lays out 13 criteria. Most have never been fulfilled. The heavy weapons that were to be removed outside the lines of demarcation are largely back in place and only some prisoners have been freed. The elections that had been called for in the rebel-held areas still haven't taken place. And the Ukrainian national border in the east is still controlled by Russia. The Minsk deal has, however, prevented the war from spreading further.
Talks Stalled Since 2015
That, though, is about it. There are two pro-Russian "People's Republics" within 90 kilometers of Slovyansk -- the republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Russia is insisting that these regions be granted a special status inside Ukraine, a demand that has stalled any further negotiations since 2015. Kiev doesn't want to succumb to the Russian demand because it would shatter the country's unity. Separatists, meanwhile, see Russian support as carte blanche for fresh adventures.
In January, Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the puppet government in Donetsk, said his republic was a "full-fledged, self-sufficient state." "The war won't be over until after our victory -- meaning after we have the entire Donetsk region under control," he threatened. By that, he also meant the retaking of Slovyansk.
Slovyansk was the first city occupied by pro-Russian rebels as a kind of test run. It is here where the first barricades were erected and the Church of the Holy Spirit in Slovyansk was where the first dead were collected. That was back in Easter of 2014.
The mayor of Slovyansk at the time was a sleazy soap factory owner who claimed to have been given the order to take the city "from above," meaning from Russia. He assembled a militia that also included local fighters and declared war against the "Kiev fascists." He said he would turn the city into a second Stalingrad.
But in July 2014, the Ukrainian army liberated Slovyansk and the mayor disappeared into Russia.
Since then, the city has had a reputation of being a place within the Donetsk region whose population tends to sympathize with the separatists. Most have relatives in the rebel republic on the other side of the front. If you walk down the streets here today, you quickly sense that although this city may no longer be at war, it isn't truly at peace, either. It's a city where the government in Kiev will have to work hard to win the people over. But what has it done so far?
Not much -- or, more precisely, nothing at all -- claims Vadim Lyakh. "None of the close to 500 destroyed or damaged buildings have been rebuilt -- nor the major building complex of the psychiatric hospital, which has lay in ruin since the battles."
Lyakh is the current mayor of Slovyansk and successor to the Russia-backed soap-maker. There are no longer men carrying Kalashnikovs in front of City Hall; now, a sign hangs there urging that people "Pray for Ukraine."
'Kiev Has Never Done Anything for Us'
The mayor says residents didn't receive any assistance from the government and that such support has only been given to those who have fled from the separatists in Donetsk or Luhansk. "That doesn't exactly help with the mood here," says Lyakh. "In the 25 years of Ukrainian independence, since 1991, Kiev has never done anything for us. The government hasn't built a single building in Slovyansk. Everything here is from the 1970s."
The water supply is poor, he says, and the streets are in a complete state of disrepair after three years of tank and artillery traffic. There is only one new piece of construction in the city, the mayor says: the radio tower on Karachun Hill. The government in Kiev wants to use it to win over the hearts and minds of the local population.
The small hill southwest of the city was hotly contested during the war. A chapel has been erected on the hilltop and dedicated to six elite fighters who fell here during the fighting. Next to it is a memorial to several generals whose helicopter got shot down by the rebels here. Then there's a massive scrap heap -- the remains of the old radio and television tower, destroyed by artillery shells on July 1, 2014. The new tower was christened in December. It is narrow, painted red and white and stands 183 meters (600 feet) tall. National broadcasters covered the event when it went into operation and even President Petro Poroshenko attended.
The Ukrainian leader wanted to turn the tower into a symbol -- but more for the people in the rest of the country than those in Slovyansk. He wanted to present himself as the father of the nation, focused on uniting a contested part of Ukraine. Indeed, it's not just military battles that are being fought in the eastern part of the country -- it's also a psychological war. After the shelling of the tower in Slovyansk, many in the area could no longer tune into Ukrainian radio.
The separatists in Donetsk, by contrast, control the second-highest radio and TV tower in the entire country along with a major television broadcasting center in Donetsk. They use it to broadcast into the non-rebel parts of Ukraine. The signal quality of their television channel Oplot, or "The Bulwark," is as good as that of Russian state television, which has been officially blocked in the rest of Ukraine. But Ukrainian officials are hoping to change the situation now with the new tower in Slovyansk.
Radio engineer Serhey Udovishenko, deputy head of the broadcasting facilities on Karachun Hill, has worked here for years. When the separatists seized the tower in April 2014, he acted on orders from Kiev to cut off the power. Now he is restoring broadcasting operations with a team of 18 people. Of the 13 radio programs that used to be broadcast here, eight are back on air, along with most Ukrainian television stations.
But has the tone of the broadcasts changed? Since the start of the war, they have been extremely disparaging of eastern Ukrainians. Only recently, the popular channel 112.ua described them as "degenerate zombies."
'We're Not Even Reaching Donetsk'
Udovishenko doesn't want to comment on what's being broadcast. He has relatives on the other side, in the Donetsk separatist republic, and it's better to keep quiet. But he does say that he believes Poroshenko's appearance at the tower's christening had merely been for "show." Before the president's visit, he says, he was asked to purchase 15 flat-screen TVs so that Poroshenko could demonstrate live how he turned each TV station on.
More critically, Udovishenko notes that the hill prevents the tower from even broadcasting the signal further than 68 kilometers. "With that, we're not even reaching Donetsk," he says. If you drive along the war-ravaged roads in the region, your radio will at times pick up independent Hromadske Radio from Kiev and at times the separatists' station. They are on the same frequency.
During their broadcasts, the Ukrainian stations explain how people can legally fight for property they had to leave behind in Donetsk or they present stories to listeners in the east of nationalists in Ukrainian history who became martyrs in the battle against Russia. The separatists, meanwhile, tend to focus in broadcasts on the alleged everyday fascism in Ukraine.
The intent is not to spread propaganda, they say at the National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting in Kiev. "We just give people the chance to hear alternative opinions." But is that really the case? Is the government serious about its intent to win back the hearts and minds of people in eastern Ukraine?
The doubts aren't limited to Karachun. They are also harbored in the studio of Do-TB ("all the way to you"), a television station for the Donetsk region. It's a kind of Donetsk broadcaster in exile. Because the Donetsk broadcasting center has fallen into separatist hands, this replacement broadcaster has been set up to reach the population of the Ukrainian-controlled areas of the Donetsk region. Do-TB broadcasts from a 200-square-meter (2,150-square-foot) book store in Kramatorsk, a city which neighbors Slovyansk. Initially, they didn't have even a single camera, the teleprompter is homemade and the editing desks were donated by Japan. And most of those who work there aren't journalists. The broadcaster is only able to fill four hours of airtime a day, making it unsurprising that most people have never heard of it.
The 5 p.m. news is playing on the monitor. One of the Ukrainian army commanders holding positions near Mariupol, south of Donetsk, is on screen. He complains that separatists are constantly using their heavy weaponry to trigger skirmishes.
He doesn't mention the fact that it was the Ukrainians who recently advanced into the area between the fronts to take back territory they had lost -- likely because the operation would represent a violation of the Minsk agreement. The news report also doesn't mention that men belonging to the volunteer battalions have been blocking the train line into the separatist areas for days, preventing coal deliveries from being made.
The old men sitting in front of their houses in Slovyansk resent the incomplete information. They know that the reality on the front is often different than the reports delivered by the Ukrainian broadcaster and they also don't understand why Do-TB only broadcasts in Ukrainian, since the people of the region mostly spoke Russian. Of the 120,000 residents, 45,000 of them are retirees and many of them once served in the Soviet military. In their apartments, they often watch channels from Moscow, received via satellite.
They also haven't forgotten that once the separatists were driven out, the first thing the Ukrainians did was to rename the streets rather than provide jobs for the locals. They still demonstratively use the old name Rosa Luxemburg Street instead of the new name, Post Street, and refer to Karl Marx Street instead of Central Street. The furtive removal of the Lenin statue in front of city hall also remains fresh in their memories. Lenin is now lying in the city depot, next to kennels for stray dogs.
Almost two-thirds of the seats in the Slovyansk city council are occupied by the Opposition Bloc, the political coalition which succeeded the party of toppled pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. Mayor Vadim Lyakh is also a member. He says that the mood in the city is no longer as hostile to Kiev as it used to be and that residents are searching for a new direction. For the most part, they are supportive of those who provide them the minimum necessary for survival, which, Lyakh says, represents an opportunity for Kiev leadership.
But 80 percent of the businesses in the city have closed, the mayor adds. "For as long as the war continues, no investors will be coming to Slovyansk, nobody will risk their money here." When asked if the Ukrainian president made any promises to the city when he came to dedicate the radio tower, the mayor laughs before saying that he hadn't even been invited to the ceremony himself. Poroshenko, Lyakh says, didn't want him there.
Locals Resent Arrogance in Kiev
It's not just the nearby war, the dire living conditions and the lack of money that is making life difficult for the residents of Slovyansk. It is also the arrogance of the government in Kiev, which considers everyone in eastern Ukraine to be disloyal, regardless of which side of the border to the separatist areas they live on. The country's leadership is uninterested in dialogue and is doing far too little to reconcile the different camps and unite the country. Infrastructure projects would be another way to win back popular support for the new government. But they first must be passed.
Two years after the Minsk agreements, the situation is not an encouraging one. And the future doesn't look particularly rosy either. Russia is doing nothing to bring the conflict to an end and radicals are on the rise in Kiev.
Heorhiy Tuka is one of the few politicians in the Ukrainian capital who speaks openly about the problems in eastern Ukraine. Following the war, Tuka was governor of the Ukrainian-controlled area of Luhansk. Now, he is "deputy minister for the temporarily occupied territories."
There is a large number of populists in Kiev, Tuka says, who have never set foot in the eastern part of the country. He says they have no understanding of the problems facing the people there and are currently doing all they can to tighten the blockade of the east. "Relying on emotions rather than expertise, that is dangerous," he says, adding that not even 1 percent of the population had taken up arms against Kiev.
"Earlier, I was in favor of a strict blockade of separatist areas," says Tuka. "But now I think the blockade is a mistake. We should have extended our hand to the people there early on. Now they eat Russian sausage, drink Russian water and pay with rubles." People like those in Slovyansk are also frequently branded as separatists, despite the radio tower, he says.
"We are way behind in working with these people," Tuka says in closing. "If we refuse to understand that, we will never have a unified Ukrainian nation."