In April 2018-April 2019, the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation conducted a comprehensive study of public sentiments in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. The purpose of the study was to identify the trends and factors that shape public opinion and the attitude of citizens towards possible ways of ending the armed conflict.
Part 1. Public assessment of the socio-economic situation in the region
- Qualitative and quantitative research shows that most people do not trust presidential and government policies because the central government failed to solve the problems in Donbas. An absolute majority of residents believe that the government has completely stopped caring about the people and development of the Donbas region.
In general, residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (hereinafter – Donbas residents) perceive the war as a natural disaster that suddenly landed on their heads and gravely changed their lives for the worse.
Among the most widespread complaints were low salaries, the absence of work with decent pay, and the outflow of youth to other regions in Ukraine.
Citizens who live both on the government-controlled and non-controlled territories were confronted with the particularly critical issue of survival. 45% of those polled at the exit-entry crossing point in March 2019 acknowledged not having enough money for necessary products, whereas in the controlled territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, this percentage does not exceed 24%.. The perception that problems are not getting resolved was stronger in Luhansk oblast (60%) than in Donetsk oblast (47%).
Moreover, in 2017-2018, the share of those who were dissatisfied with the work of the government in solving specific local development problems significantly increased, from 27% to 39%. During the same period, the share of citizens in Donetsk oblast who felt inthis way sharply declined from 34% to 13%.
As of the end of 2018, no government action received approval from the majority of Donbas residents. In Donetsk oblast, 43% of residents said that the biggest government success was in repairing destroyed infrastructure (roads, bridges, and gas, thermal and power networks); only 18% appreciated government actions to maintain law and order. In Luhansk oblast, 23% were satisfied with infrastructural restoration and 4% with law and order.
Based on this data, it can be argued that in the Donbas, people do not feel that changes in the economy have been positive and do not see the restoration of pre-war levels of social protection. Accordingly, the decentralization process and the creation of new communities are unlikely to become an impetus for increasing public participation and the loyalty of citizens until more urgent issues are addressed.
- The negative assessment of the current situation is to a large extent attributable to a high level of uncertainty about the future and low levels of trust towards state authority.
A substantial share of Donbas residents (approximately 31%) expressed anxiety regarding illness, non-payment of salaries and pensions, cold in winter, and the resumption of hostilities. A significant portion of citizens (18% in each oblast) feared hunger and losing their jobs. People have mostly closed themselves off and trust only close friends and family members.
Trust towards volunteers and civil society organization was observed only in Donetsk. It was just as strong as trust in churches and much higher than trust in state authority and local self-government. The number of people who do not trust anybody was comparably higher in Donetsk (20%) than in Luhansk (12%) oblast.
At the same time, the constant threat of the return of war sharply decreases the willingness of local citizens to protest. More common ways of reacting to the depressive reality is a complete loss of interest in social life or passive expectations of receiving more state aid.
Thus, our observation of public consciousness in the Donbas between August 2017 and March 2019 indicates an increase in depressive moods among the citizenry. This increase in depression is aggravated by distrust of the government and drops in hope for state support.
Part 2. Pubic assessment in the Donbas of the causes and outcomes of the armed conflict
The main wish of Donbas residents is to see the end of war. Out of three options for the development of events – resumption of war, “freezing” in the current state, and negotiations and concessions - Donbas residents prefer negotiations and concessions. The main motivation behind this selection is to stop the loss of life.
- The desire for peace that is shared by most citizens runs counter to their perception of being helpless and certainty that the state neglects their interests. This creates a favorable environment for the dissemination of messages about “external management” of the war in the Donbas and helps Russia to conceal its active participation in the war.
Distrust of state authority is based on the widespread and dominant perception that the current and previous state leadership must be blamed for the beginning of the war. This opinion in Donbas is shared by 55% of residents (this is somewhat higher in Luhansk oblast, at61%). Focus groups found that citizens were convinced that representatives of authority (current president, government) were personally interested in prolonging the war for personal benefits.
In Donbas, the idea that the U.S. (NATO) and Russia are involved in stoking the armed conflict is quite widespread. Our surveys show that an approximately equal share of citizens (20% in each oblast) believe that the above-mentioned countries should be blamed for starting the war.
On the other hand, the majority of Donbas residents has no doubt that Russia is a part of the conflict (over 50% in Donetsk, at 57%, and 40% in Luhansk oblast). However, in both oblasts the idea that the war in Donbas is between Ukraine and Russia is split almost in half, at 40%. A significant share of citizens evaded giving a clear response (up to 20%).
In this area, the opinion of Donbas residents fundamentally differs with moods in the rest of the country. According to a December 2018 survey (DIF and Razumkov Center), 71% of Ukrainians believe that the war in Donbas is between Ukraine and Russia.
Additionally, during 2017-2018, the prevailing view in Donbas was that any concession should be made to achieve peace. This statement has been supported by 46% of respondents. Nearly a third (34%) was inclined to think that not all compromises are acceptable. Unchanged remains the number of people who favor a military solution – 10%. Those who are undecided are close to 10%.
In this regard, the public opinion of Donbas sharply contrasts with the attitudes in the rest of the country. Only 16% of Ukrainians support a path towards compromising at any price, whereas 51% are for compromises that are acceptable to Ukraine.
Such a state of public opinion in the Donbas in the fourth year of war can be considered a significant success of Russian propaganda.
In our opinion, Russia has managed to persuade a lot of Donbas inhabitants that the current conflict is domestic in nature and cannot be regarded as a war between Ukraine and Russia. Instead, the Kremlin wishes to be viewed as a mediator and peacemaker.
Another popular talking point of Russian propaganda is that Ukraine must hold direct negotiations with the separatists. This message is embraced by 59% of Donbas residents (50% in Donetsk and almost 68% in Luhansk oblasts).
According to the opinion of many Donbas residents, the subject of such negotiations should be the conditions for granting autonomy to certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts – this is acceptable to 43% of citizens (45% in Donetsk and 40% in Luhansk oblasts). In the rest of Ukraine, however, 45% do not support granting “special status”.
Unfortunately, Russia managed to a considerable extent to discredit the idea of introducing a U.N. peacekeeping mission.
Focus groups show a restrained attitude towards this idea and a regional survey conducted in November 2018 found that 47% of Donbas residents do not favor this solution. In this case, once again public sentiment in the Donbas considerably differs from the mood in the country; 54% of Ukrainians favor the deployment of peacekeeping forces in the occupied territories.
Consequently, there is the threat of alienating the residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts from the rest of the country on the issue of implementing state policy on liberating occupied territories. The most controversial political issue that divides the rest of Ukrainian society and Donbas residents is the demand to start direct negotiations with separatist leaders.
Since Ukraine practically holds negotiations with separatists within the Trilateral Contact Group, the idea of direct negotiations constantly remains the focus of mass media and is used by pro-Russian political forces to promote their peace initiatives.
At the same time, sociological monitoring of Donbas residents found that ineffectual negotiations in Minsk between the Ukrainian government and separatists, particularly the reaching and then disruption of agreements for a ceasefire, was perceived extremely negatively by the citizens. Donbas residents blame both sides for this and suspect that the military of both sides continue breaking the ceasefire in order to get monetary rewards.
As a result, citizens in the Donbas think that the Ukrainian government (under Petro Poroshenko) was incapable and not interested in successful peace negotiations. Meanwhile, citizens who support the Ukrainian government view the Minsk agreements as a sign of weakness and kowtowing before Moscow.
Given that sociological research indicates the negative impact of negotiations with separatists on state civil loyalty in the Donbas, it is necessary to examine scenarios in which Ukraine continues negotiations within the Trilateral Contact Group on the condition that the occupying armies completely stop firing.
Sociological data suggest that the social split will widen further if the ineffectual negotiations continue without achieving much success.
- At the same time, qualitative and quantitative research of public opinion in the Donbas in 2018 found that the majority of Russia’s demands of Ukraine do not have support in the Donbas. On this issue, the attitudes of Donbas residents do not differ from public opinion in the whole country.
The survey found that separate clauses of the Minsk Agreements, which are constantly discussed in public, do not have social support in the Donbas.
It is important to note that popular objections stem from the assumption that the implementation of certain clauses would limit the sovereignty of Ukraine in the occupied territories:
- 44% of Donbas residents oppose holding local elections based on the proposed conditions of separatists (in Luhansk oblast, only 33% respondents were against elections);
- 45% oppose giving amnesty to the militants (respondents in Donetsk oblast are split evenly on this issue, and in Luhansk oblast up to 52% oppose amnesty for all);
- 41% oppose forming the police, courts and prosecutor offices from among the militants (on this issue, respondents from Luhansk oblast are evenly divided while 51% of respondents in the Donetsk oblasts are against this clause);
50% wish that the occupied territories reintegrate on pre-war conditions; at the same time, 43% find it acceptable to include the special status of the ORDLO in the Constitution of Ukraine;
However, there are several issues that are not included in the Minsk Agreements but which are a mainstay of Russian propaganda related to Ukraine towards which public opinion in Donbas is particularly vulnerable:
- 56% of Donbas respondents find it acceptable to compromise on granting the Russian language official status; conversely, 52% nationwide do not favor this compromise;
- 52% favor the idea of amending the condition regarding non-alignment status, whereas 45% of all Ukrainians do not accept this concession;
Therefore, Russia will use the Russian language issue as a state language and demand of non-aligned status for Ukraine to alienate Donbas residents from the rest of Ukrainian society. In particular, they will likely say that Ukrainians don’t want to take “easy steps” to end the war and that the war is actually meant to suppress the linguistic rights and identity of “Russian-language speaking people” and draw Ukraine into NATO.
Another subversive area of Russian measures could be to stir up hostility between Donbas residents and citizens of other Ukrainian regions.
Focus groups found that people in the Donbas were concerned about how they are perceived given the negative stereotypes that are spread about them. This creates a basis for the deliberate dissemination of negative news and rumors of "discrimination" such as unconfirmed or exaggerated information on assaults on displaced people and an exaggeration of the "threat" of forced "Ukrainianization" of all types in the Donbas.
What can also be predicted is that Russia will be ready to back informational activities with special acts of terrorism and sabotage that are carried out by both militants and/or people from the occupied territories.
- Since Russia is taking advantage of the vulnerable expectations of Donbas residents, a serious security issue for the region is a lack of hope that the war ends in the nearest future. Only 25% expect that peace will be restored in the next 1-5 years.
Focus groups showed that people most often explained their contempt for the accumulation of hatred on both sides due to losses during the hostilities.
The bombardments of settlements in Donbas remain the main obstacle preventing the people’s belief in the possibility of peace. Inhabitants (regardless of their proximity to military action!) believe that shelling has become for both sides to make money . Even for settlements located far from the line of contact, there was a direct link between the prolongation of shelling and citizens’ mistrust of any peace initiatives.
Based on this, one can assume that in the near future Russia is ready to attribute the complete halt or decrease of shelling with “peacekeeping initiatives” proposed by pro-Russian politicians and other political forces before the elections Conversely, should pro-European forces win, one could expect the quantity of shelling to rise along with subversive actions in the Donbas. The purpose of these acts is to provoke the Ukrainian army into direct clashes and then blame the Ukrainian government after the election for prolonging the war.
Preserving the present security situation between war and peace will push citizens to think of “freezing” the conflict and transforming the occupied territories of ORDLO to a new “Transnistria”.
In this case, people mention specific obstacles standing in the way of a peaceful resolution:
- The desire of the leaders and population of ORDLO to join Russia;
- The desire of Russia to prolong the conflict in the Donbas to influence Ukraine;
- Ukraine rejecting the compromise due to the risk of war resuming;
- Serious socio-economic problems accumulating in the ORDLO that nobody would intend to resolve if peace is restored;
On the other hand, based on sociological research in the Donbas region, we can argue that Russia’s continued policy of aggression, support of separatists, and continued warmongering will lead to growing support for the uncompromising struggle to liberate the occupied territories.
Despite the lack of trust in government and awareness of a number of objective obstacles, the majority of Donbas residents place their hope on actions that relate to the competencies of the Ukrainian authorities and international allies:
- 47% of Donbas inhabitants are for the resumption of a normal, dignified life on the territories that Ukraine controls - that is, people hope if the socio-economic situation and rule of law improves in the liberated territories, the combatants in the occupied areas will lean towards laying down their arms;
- 18% endorse strengthening the imposition of sanctions against Russia;
- 8% call for regaining control over the occupied territories via military force;
In particular, the idea of rebuilding the liberated territories cements people’s belief that regular soldiers on both sides of the war front have grown tired and want it to end but can’t change anything.
Furthermore, residents are most concerned about the fate of the most socially vulnerable categories – children and pensioners, especially those who ended up in the zone of active military action. Improving their lives and thus demonstrating the state’s concern could become a strong counter-argument for those on the side of Russia and separatists.
Such expectations, recorded during focus groups, were confirmed by survey results. 63% of citizens believe that peace can be reachable if the restriction on movement is lifted in the territories. More support is found among proposals that allow the trade of produce and basic necessities (68%), provide assistance to those who can’t leave the occupied territories (71%), and reduce restrictions for receiving pensions and social payments for residents of occupied territories (73%).
Focus groups found that Donbas residents oppose the division of people between “us” and “them” based on the fact that they live in the occupied territories or generally hail from the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. This is due to the fact that half the citizens (54%) in the liberated territories have family or friends in the occupied territories and maintain close ties with them.
Accordingly, we can argue that people will supprt peace initiatives that enable the restoration of sustainable and safe connection between the divided territories.
Since such a development will undermine Russia’s interest in controlling Donbas, we should expect the continuation of Russian military provocations in violating any ceasefire agreements and completely sealing off inter-personal contacts and trips across the line of contact.
Part 3. The factor of political choice of Donbas residents
Dissatisfaction with socio-economic conditions is manifesting as political protest.
The people of Donbas express readiness to vote against everyone or damage their ballots. Fear is widespread that central authorities won’t allow for elections to be held in the Donbas, referring to the currently complicated and dangerous situation. The temporary introduction of martial law in November-December 2018 was used by the Russian mass media and pro-Russian politicians as “proof” of such government intentions.
For residents who said they were ready to vote, the main criteria of political choice was a platform for achieving peace and economic renewal in the land and a demonstration by the candidate of honesty and modesty. At the same time, there was also an intention to vote for those who helped them survive the hard times of 2014-2018 (for example, people on several occasions mentioned Rinat Akhmetov).
Thus, we can predict that in the first round of the presidential election a large majority of Donbas residents will vote for candidates who can promise the achievement of peace through negotiation with Russia and who can convince them that they are capable of making changes that improve the economy in the country and the region.
However, this group of voters is scattered between Yuriy Boiko, Volodymyr Zelensky and Yulia Tymoshenko, who may be joined by Oleksandr Vilkul and Serhiy Taruta. Should one of them advance into the second round, the flow of votes from the losing candidates is possible if the age and property characteristics of the voters coincide. In particular, it is unlikely that voters of Zelensky and Tymoshenko would switch over to Boiko and vice versa.
At the same time, the voters for whom military action against Russia and bringing order in the country is important will be split between the incumbent president, Oleh Lyashko and Anatoliy Hrytsenko. If one of them makes it into the second round, where most of the votes from the losers go will depend on public agreements to endorse the favorite.
Thus, there might be a significant drop in voter turnout in the Donbas between the first and second rounds. However, those who vote will likely do so for a contender who will emphasize the urgency of economic changes and offer compromises to end the war.
Part 4. Conclusions and Recommendations
Based on our research in Donbas, we argue that which peace plans or initiatives local people back will depend on their assessment of the impact they have on their well-being and the safety of their relatives who stay in the occupied territories.
This means that if the social protection of citizens improves in Donbas, then their support will grow for state policy toward the occupied territories. The only thing that citizens will not accept is the initiation of open warfare and the complete rejection of the occupied territories.
Correspondingly, the strongest area of subversive Russian activity in the region is to impose the idea that welfare improvement can only happen if the war stops, and the war will stop only if the entire system of national government changes.
Therefore, the most effective way to counteract this Russian policy is to improve the welfare of local residents. Accomplishing this task is possible only if economic growth resumes.
In this regard, the following recommendations can be provided that are related to promoting peace in the Donbas.
- The prospect of peace and the consciousness of residents in both oblasts are linked to a ceasefire and unrestricted movement between the divided territories.
In this manner, the threat is that a ceasefire or resumption of hostilities will be used by Russia to push for its version of achieving peace both in the international arena and during the elections in Ukraine. On the other hand, the continuation of shelling allows Russia to maintain control over social moods in the occupied territories.
In this context, the following difficult choices stand before Ukraine’s leadership:
Scenario 1. Accepting UN peacekeeping mission in the line of contact
The Ukrainian government may allow the deployment of UN peacekeepers on “Russia’s terms” in exchange for the guaranteed free movement of citizens between ORDLO and Ukraine. It may work in the long-term due to quality-of-life improvements which will convince the majority of people in the occupied territories to support the restoration of pre-war order.
However, this scenario is acceptable only if Russian soldiers and commanders withdraw and U.N. peacekeepers are also deployed along the state border, which was seized by separatists and Russian Special Forces. This scenario bears much risk since Ukraine loses the possibility of making decisions independently concerning the ORDLO. Still, if reforms are carried out successfully and economic growth resumes, this scenario could lead to regaining full control over the Donbas.
Scenario 2. Continuing the policy of repulsing Russian military aggression.
This alternative requires Ukraine to spend heavily on defense and social policy. In particular, the state will have to suspend all contact with the occupied territories and openly offer citizens who leave the ORDLO sustained state support to start a new life in the freed territories of the Donbas. In addition, according to sociological research findings, public demand for more state security policy will grow even more under these conditions. This will require the continuous improvement of the civil and antiterrorist defense system in the Donbas, the implementation of an effective early warning system for imminent military and terrorist threats towards the population, and the allocation of additional resources to provide passive and active protection to citizens from shelling and subversive activities.
In both cases, the Russian regime remains the main obstacle and threat for achieving peace in the Donbas. It will continue a policy that is aimed at regaining control over the entire Ukraine.
1. Thus, to properly prepare the state authority and society to identify the actions for achieving peace that will be acceptable and supported in the Donbas, the following is necessary:
- Hold a meeting of the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) of Ukraine to approve measures for the improvement of state policy that is aimed at restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine and post-conflict reconstruction of the liberated areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts;
Include in the meeting’s agenda the following items: 1) The implementation status of decisions made by the NSDC of Ukraine, presidential decrees and orders, Cabinet of Ministers’ acts on restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine and post-conflict reconstruction; 2) Areas for improving legislative support for the policy of de-ccupation and reintegration of the Donbas; 3) Formation of a mid-term Action Strategy in the Donbas in accordance with legislative norms of Ukraine “On National Security” and “On the Special Features of State Policy on Ensuring State Sovereignty of Ukraine in the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts”;
- Make the political decision of imposing requirements on Russia and separatists via the negotiation parties in the Trilateral Contact Group with the main condition being a complete ceasefire;
- Conduct special parliamentary hearings to form an action plan (indicative tasks for the new parliament) for the Verkhovna Rada regarding Russia and the ORDLO in the mid-term range, as well as define projected expenditures of the state budget to achieve the set goals and implementation of measures, additionally, identify a security legislation development program that should be included as a mandatory part of the coalition agreement;
- Conduct negotiations with partner countries of Ukraine, among whom are in the “Group of 20”,European Union, and NATO to probe what support can be obtained on measures to implement the Action Strategy in the Donbas, ensure protection from Russian aggression, and restore control over the occupied territories of the Donbas;
- Conduct negotiations with international financial institutions to reduce the debt burden based on the necessity of increasing government expenditure on defense and national security and wartime socio-economic restoration of the Donbas;
2. The level of allegiance and support to state policy on the part of Donbas residents depends to a great extent on solutions to local socio-economic issues and the absence of state policy related to the economic restoration of the Donbas.
Focus group participants often named specific examples of how the state evades fulfilling its direct duties of ensuring certain components of socio-economic welfare in these territories. Accordingly, this either indicates that there is an urgent need to change the leadership of the civil-military administrations that fail to carry out their responsibilities or the need to allocate a targeted budget line for addressing specific issues in settlements and communities.
For this to take place, the government must be entrusted to assess the effectiveness of the implementation of the relevant State Program for Reconstruction and Peace building in the Eastern Regions of Ukraine for 2018-2020 and to review the government's policy on expenditures and terms of restoring transportation and social infrastructure of the Donbas.
In turn, the renewal of small- and medium-sized business activity in the Donbas depends on the systemic decisions that the Verkhovna Rada and government must make to promote this activity throughout the country’s territories.
3. An important step to win the trust and support of Donbas residents on both sides of the front line could be lifting the blockade that was instated in March 2017.
Public opinion polls conducted in the Donbas during 2017-2018 found that the trade blockade is the main irritant for citizens and Russia uses it to ruin citizens’ trust and loyalty towards the Ukrainian state.
In the final analysis in particular, ordinary Donbas residents suffered the most from the economic blockade – as a result of it, they became even more reliant upon Russia for assistance. At the same time, the blockade has already demonstrated to the people who live in the liberated and occupied territories of Donbas that the separatists and Russia have no desire to establish a decent life in the ORDLO.
Lifting the blockade appears especially reasonable in the first half of 2019, when a significant deterioration of the domestic economic situation is expected in Russia and, in turn, the occupied territories of the Donbas may see reduced assistance.
Against this background, citizens will perceive the renewal of trade routes from Ukraine as a sign of peaceful goodwill, proof that the state cares about citizens, and refutation of Russian narratives about “plans to destroy Donbas”.
4. An immediate response is required to address the low motivation of citizens to participate in political life and elections.
In the absence of Donbas residents actively committed towards civic and political life, Donbas residents as a whole become an easy target for subversive propaganda or populist promises to achieve peace quickly and at all costs.
Taking this into consideration, the government’s main task is support local civil society organizations that actively work in the Donbas in the following areas:
- Formation of legal aid and human rights networks;
- Promotion and support for the process of decentralization, including holding local governments accountable for their actions (i.e. their heads and deputies of councils);
- Conduct of informational-awareness campaigns aimed at explaining the connection between conscious and sober-minded voting in the elections and the formation of a government that will implement the state policy of reintegrating the Donbas based on the interests of local residents and clarifying the priorities and benefits of a gradual transition to the Ukrainian language and the state’s guarantee of free choice in language communication;
5. An open discussion must start on adopting a new law in Ukraine that will create a mechanism to absolve the liability of ordinary people who joined illegally armed units and took part in the unrest in the Donbas starting from September 2014 (February 2015).
This distinction is explained foremost by the fact that people in the Donbas are not ready to give hypothetical amnesty to those who committed crimes during hostilities (in April 2014 - February 2015). However, citizens hope that the state can provide clemency to those who entered the ranks of the militants not by persuasion, but under the pressure of life circumstances, or and also to those who realized the fallacy of Russian military propaganda.
6. Establish in the Donbas, especially in the Donetsk oblast, military-civilian administrations that are allowed to maintain social and political stability and maintain overall control over the situation.
Currently, within the context of the 2019-2020 election cycle, giving local self-government expanded powers will only lead to a sharp increase in the mobilization of protests and legalize Russian agents of influence.
To prevent this development, it’s necessary in 2019-2020 to funnel the efforts of the military-civilian administrations and law enforcement agencies in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts towards bring to justice members of the local elite who supported the “Russian Spring” and abused power in 2015-2018.
Furthermore, if local councils are blocked or unable to make decisions (for example, Severodonetsk, as in a number of other cities), they should immediately be replaced by local military-civilian administrations and allowed their due functions of self-governance.