“The danger is that many civil society leaders may not return to Donetsk”
In his interview to the Human Rights Centre “Viasna” Serhiy Tkachenko, head of the Donetsk regional organization of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, one of the most respected NGOs in the region, told how the civil field was cleared-up in the region, why separatism mastered the minds of the population and what steps should be taken by the civil society while returning the region to normal life.
- Serhiy, the protests in Independence Square in Kyiv became the starting point in the modern history of Ukraine, putting new challenges before everyone. Tell us what your organization dealt with before these events.
- Our organization has worked in the Donetsk region since 1996. Before 2000, our main goal was to observe the elections and conduct activities related to the election campaign. Since 2002 our strategies include activities connected to the development of local self-government and other democratic processes, work with the media (we created an editorial board for socio-political news), etc. That is, the elections remained one of the main priorities, but not the only one. Of course, over the years we have become active participants in all the processes that have been developing in the Donetsk region, both before and after all these events.
Here it must be said that the Donetsk region is very specific, and its peculiarities are reflected in the period of the Maidan and resulted in the processes that we are observing in the east of Ukraine at the moment. First of all, this specificity is due to the fact that in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions there formed a conglomerate of local elites, a symbiosis of local governments, public authorities, the police, the prosecutor's office (I'm talking about the period before the Maidan) and political parties which have supported this process. Ordinary citizens and many non-governmental organizations were unable to resist to the system of pressurization. This system simply squeezed many people out of the region, or just suppressed their activities, decreased their motivation to change anything and struggle for their rights.
- How has your work changed since the beginning of the Maidan and what have these events brought to your work?
- The peculiarity of our work was that over the past few years all programs related to election observation, democratic processes have faced tough opposition, we had constant conflicts with the public authorities in the Donetsk region. Even before these events, we had programs that had strong support at the level of local governments of cities and districts of the region, we held competitions for mini-grants to community organizations and citizens' initiatives. That is, the social projects which had nothing to do with confrontation, did not disclose any corruption schemes and the like, were welcomed by the local governments and public authorities. That's why the first thing that happened was the cessation of all these social programs.
The society was abruptly divided into strict categories, the relations with the state agencies became tougher. They returned to the old positioning us as grant-eaters, agents of foreign intelligence services. This rhetoric was developed and implemented in the media. We could no longer speak of having some common approaches, mutual understanding. If you weren't a pro-government public organization – you were the enemy. There was a sharp division into friends and foes. The were no more talks of social programs, our main focus was on the struggle against the regime. Maidan, then the February laws that recognize us as spies, foreign agents, and so on – it was already an open confrontation.
- How did it affect the attitude of the population towards your organization?
- This categorization on the part of the public authorities had a strong impact on the attitude of the population to us. There was also a certain division. The people who supported the current government, held on to Yanukovych and the Party of Regions as an external support, were frightened about the situation. Again, the Donetsk region differs from the others in this respect: the inhabitants of the region are very much used to relying on external support. After the Soviet Union and the Communist Party, the role of such support was played by managers of industrial enterprises at which they worked, and by the local mayors. That is, the people stopped thinking for themselves and waited for someone to tell them who to love and who to listen to. The existing system constantly propagated such stereotypes, and people took their course, knew that everything would be explained to them and they would be told how to behave in a given situation. When Yanukovych fled and the Party of Regions collapsed, the external support disappeared – and the population could no longer understand who to trust, whose orders to follow, and couldn't find support in itself could not, because it has never done it before. Thus, there appeared some black hole, which was then occupied by the separatist movement that we are seeing in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. To a large extent this is due to the fact that a part of the population accepted the ideas of separatism.
- There were street actions in Donetsk during the Maidan as well...
- Unfortunately, they were not as numerous as in other regions. During Kyiv Maidan local elites were still in the prime of life - they prevailed, they determined the agenda, they made every possible effort (in particular, the regional administration and the governor Shyshatsky) to discredit members of social movements participating in the Donetsk actions in support of the Maidan. It was quite difficult to oppose to this system at that time. The local elites are a union of criminals, public authorities, local governments and law enforcement agencies. The persecution of the participants of pro-Ukrainian actions in the Donetsk region was conducted by the Security Service of Ukraine, the Prosecutor's Office, with participation of criminals who beat activists, poured green paint on them, and so on. Of course, it was a hard psychological pressure, when one understands that he cannot rely on anyone but on himself, friends and colleagues.
- How has the situation changed in the region after the victory of the Kyiv Maidan?
- If we talk about some crucial moments, the situation in March demonstrated that the state repressive machine which seemed to be very strong, monolithic, with license to devour free space, Was ephemeral. Everything collapsed very quickly. And there started mimicry. Representatives of government agencies and local governments that have stifled all dissent, rapidly started to adapt to the situation. Pressure on civil society activists on their part has fallen dramatically. But there started another fuss. Many leaders of local governments have begun to try to manipulate the crowd, speaking of “Kyiv junta”. Psychosis about the "Right Sector" who will come and occupy the bodies of the public authority, the regional administration, lasted several weeks. The police and activists stood in the cordon in front of the regional administration, and were constantly fed information in the style of “eight buses of “Right Sector” are going from Kyiv and will take over the administration". Mass psychosis was escalated on and on, but eventually burst like a soap bubble. And the ideas of separatism began to germinate on the basis of these fearful expectations, moral and psychological exhaustion. A part of the local elites started spreading messages about federalization.
What concerns pro-Ukrainian forces – they consolidated quite well in February-March. Quite populous pro-Ukrainian rallies started taking place all over the Donetsk region. If we take directly Donetsk, in early March there was a bloom of consolidation of pro-Ukrainian forces. 10,000 people gathered on Lenin Square in the centre of Donetsk with Ukrainian symbols, which was unheard of for Donetsk since the independence of the Ukraine. At this point, businessmen and members of the Party of Regions, and public organizations - all who understand what was the threat to the Donbas, were taking part in the actions with Ukrainian symbols. So it was before the tragic events, when the direct confrontation with pro-Russian activists (many of whom came from the territory of Russia) started.
- How did the NGOs operate in the Donetsk region before the announcement of the Donetsk People's Republic? Under what circumstances did you have to stop your activities?
- As I have already said, the Donetsk region is very difficult to compare with the whole Ukraine. There weren't hundreds of human rights organizations which dealt with issues of democratization (as in other parts of the Ukraine) – there were just dozens of them on the whole territory of the region. At the time when most of the social activists focused on the conduct of street events, pickets and rallies, the aggression has already started, and many of them began to suffer physically. March 13, Dmotro Chernyavsky was killed in clashes with pro-Russian forces after the rally in Lenin Square. More than 35 people were injured. And from that moment people started to leave. At first there were few of them, because the level of psychological security differs among individuals.
Deconcentration of civil society activists in the Donetsk region happened in several stages. The first of them took place in mid-March – most of those who left had been injured on Lenin Square standing in the cordon of people's self-defence. Many activists went away during April and May, because they were no longer feeling safe and were afraid for their families.
To be continued