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Kiev's Grocery Blockade Is Winning the Hearts and Minds Battle for Donbass Rebels

A broadly pro-Kiev commentator takes Ukraine interior minister to task for blockade of rebel-held Donbass

  • A pro-Kiev position is a hard sell in Donbass when Kiev officials refer to people in rebel-held territory as "plague and filth"

Article below was first published on May 30th but it's good and is on a subject that can not be emphasized enough.

This article originally appeared at Milakovsky.Liverjournal

It became very obvious to me in the Donbas how wide the gap in understanding is between people who live there and the Kyiv government regarding the movement of goods and people.

Eastern Ukrainians usually speak out for the free movement of goods and people across the line of demarcation because they recognize that many people cannot utterly cut themselves off from their homes in separatist-held territory. If they stay there, or if they cross back and forth with some frequency, that does not clearly demonstrate their support for separatism.

Many pro-unity Ukrainians live in this way, and the government should be interested in supporting them, like strands that bind the breakaway territories to the rest of the country. It should not try to drive people out of the "Peoples Republics" by making life there unbearable, since the first to leave will be the pro-unity residents, leaving a population dominated more and more by its irreconcilable opponents.

Many government officials, unfortunately, think otherwise. Here's a recent example from Minister of the Interior Arsen Avakov:

“Three days ago the Prime Minister held a meeting on the problem of contraband in the zone of the Anti-terror operation [ATO]. The temptation is great, for one tractor trailer truck enormous sums are paid, we need to do something about this. I have the following position: we need to seal off the line of demarcation entirely.

Seal it off to everything. That's my radical point of view, ‘junta’ style, our style. Just close the line. You can cross it on foot, in civilian compact cars, go ahead, but no goods. Let them get their goods from Russia.”

Ah yes. Let "them" get their goods from Russia. That is, Ukrainians. They are Ukrainians, aren't they? You could forget it when reading the Minister's comments. He speaks as if everyone who lives on the other side of the line is irrevocably lost to Ukraine and deserves to be taught a tough lesson.

This is a logical position only if his first priority is to look maximally tough. It is not logical if Avakov were to recongize that there are many people on the other side of the line who are not "them" but "us" (that is, who consider themselves Ukrainians; to be semantic, I don't belong to the "us" in this case). Does he really wish for all of these people to abandon their homes? And does he not realize that trying to starve the Donbas and force it under Russia's sponsorship is a major factor in turning "us" into "them?"

And if he really believes there are no 'no Ukrainians' left there, then what's the point of spending so much blood and treasure on dragging the Donbas back? For the black earth? For the factories that are being bombed to ruins in this war? Or just for revenge's sake?

And something approaching Avakov's desired shut-down of the border is already coming into effect. Recently a ranking officer of the Ukrainian Security Council (SBU) confirmed what many have long suspected: there is an official "grocery blockade" imposed against separatist held territories.

The Donetsk journalist Anna Khripunkova wrote about how the remaining pro-unity Ukrainians in Donetsk received the news:

"It demoralizes them: they can and want to work for their country and earn their living, but they have been placed in conditions in which realizing their potential is impossible.

It's impossible to work for Ukraine, impossibe to be useful and needed, impossible to feed you family." 

Yet if Avakov's comments seem like a tour de force of alienating public discourse, he was quickly outdone by the vice-head of the Interior Ministry police in Donetska Province, Ilya Kiva, who wrote on Facebook:

“I call on public organizations and activists in Kyiv to block the movement of busses between Donetsk and Kyiv, which allow for the spread of the terrorist plague and filth across the territory of Ukraine.

If I had my way I’d just shoot these tourists to the DNR [Donetsk Peoples Republic], these lovers of referenda and parades of Ukrainian prisoners of war… Only a harsh public position will force the Donbas to sober up!

There are no more nuances! There’s only ‘ours’ and the enemy! That’s the only way we’ll defeat this plague.”

The mind boggles. It isn't even that there are no more Ukrainians left in the Donbas in Kiva's understanding. There are no more people there. Just "plague and filth." Who must be quarantined from Ukrainians, and if need be shot for trying to infect the commonwealth.

Pro-unity Ukrainians in Donetsk responded to Kiva's rabid post on Facebook:

Journalist Veronika Medvedeva: They [politicians] can talk so much about "Unified Ukraine," but just one sentence from this man in epaulettes tears off the mask. 

Businessman and activist Enrique Menendez (I know it's an unexpected name for Donetsk, but he does live there):

I thought we had already experienced the maximum of humiliation and insult at the roadblocks. When they address everyone as a potential criminal, despite the presumption of innocence (what about that, anyway? They haven't repealed it yet?)...But no. That's not all. Now it's straight to shooting. And this isn't written by some delerious junkie, but by the vice-head of the Donetsk Police.

Reading Kiva's scree, I thought about one of my new acquaintances from the Donbas, one of the occupants of those busses that cross the demarcation line. That is, one of the "plague and filth" crowd, in his understanding.

She is a dedicated pro-unity Ukrainian, who worked diligently in an 'evacuated' government agency on Ukrainian territory to develop a more conciliatory information policy, which would highlight the bonds that connect Donbas residents on both sides of the line.

She recently quit, partially because she realized that her bosses always prefered the "tough" position, and partially because she was hounded by rivals who accused her of aiding the separatists. You see, she travels every weekend to see her husband on the other side of the demarcation line. She is a human being, not capable of regarding everyone on the other side of the barricade as "plague and filth."

An extraordinarily resilient love for her homeland keeps her pro-unity, despite the humiliation and the realization of what many government officials think of people like her. But how long will the Avakovs and Kivas test that resilience? Eastern Ukrainians like her are Kyiv's to lose. And if it does, then any hope of a unified Ukraine is lost as well.

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