Written by Nikolaus von Twickel
While the „unlimited ceasefire“ has been shaky, the warring sides moved closer to repairing the bridge in Stanytsia Luhanska – which would greatly improve the plight of civilians. In Donetsk, activists staged an unsanctioned protest against any return to Ukraine, while separatist leader Pushilin made Russia Day a national holiday. The issuing of Russian passports continues unabatedly, and separatist leaders announced that they would conduct a census of their population.
Demining begins at Stanytsia bridge
Ukrainian army sappers carried out their first demining activities at the bridge in Stanytsia Luhanska on 1 and 2 August, after this was agreed at the Minsk Trilateral Contact Group talks on 31 July. The separatists confirmed that the work had begun, but made no mention of complaints from the local Ukrainian administration that “LNR” forces did not let government troops enter the half of the bridge they control – Ukraine demands that its sappers demine the entire bridge because it was agreed that Ukrainains do the repair work, while the “LNR” does the pavement and fencing.
The heavily damaged bridge in Stanytsia is the only official crossing point between government- and non-government-controlled areas in the entire Luhansk region. Its missing middle part is fitted with makeshift wooden planks which the mostly elderly civilians have to climb. Its badly needed repair was agreed at the Contact Group talks together with pledges by both sides to implement a so-called disengagement agreement by withdrawing troops on each side from the frontline (see Newsletter 59). Once demining is completed, the repair works are likely to last several months. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which brokered the deal, has said that the checkpoint in Stanytsia will function uninterruptedly throughout the time of repairs, “although there may be temporary restrictions”.
Hopes that the sides could open an additional crossing point in the region were dashed by “LNR” chief negotiator Vladislav Deinego, who on 24 July insisted that this could only be done in Shchastia, while Ukraine wants to open such a crossing point in Zolote. Plans to open another crossing point have stalled for years because the sides could not agree on the location. Observers say that Ukraine insists on Zolote because it gives it a military advantage overlooking separatist positions from above, while the situation in Shchastia is the other way round, giving the “LNR” an advantage (see our annual report 2017, p4).
The breakthrough over Stanitsya came after the inauguration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and has been widely linked to a more pragmatic approach of the new presidential administration. The OSCE also said on 2 August that the unlimited ceasefire, which began on 21 July, has led to a considerable fall in violations – although shooting continued in a few hotspots.
Russian nationalists in Donetsk protest against “special status”
In a rare show of public dissent, a few dozen hardline nationalists staged a protest in central Donetsk against an official campaign to grant special status to Donbass. The demonstration on 27 July was not sanctioned by separatist authorities, promting organizers to call it a “People’s Assembly”. Participants were checked by police and also complained about the presence of plainclothes officers, presumably from the “State Security” Ministry. They reportedly only dispersed after authorities said that they received a bomb threat for the location on the city’s Lenin Square.
Despite its small size, the protest shows the rising level of frustration among more hardline Russian nationalists in Donetsk, who demand Union with Russia and reject the Minsk agreement, which stipulates a return to Ukraine. One of the participants, a woman called Yelena Korovkina, even filed a complaint to prosecutors afterwards, in which she asked to open criminal charges against Donetsk separatist-appointed mayor Alexei Kulemzin for suppressing the protest.
The protest, which was nowhere mentioned in separatist-controlled media, was a response to an online campaign launched by both “DNR” and “LNR” (https://vybordonbassa.com/) in which internet users could join a petition that calls upon Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to grant “special status” to Donbass according to the Minsk agreement.
“DNR” leader Pushilin has claimed that he sees no contradiction in seeking integration with Russia while upholding the Minsk agreement. In an interview with Russia’s Izvestia newspaper on 11 July he argued that doing both was “the art of achieving the possible”. However, he added that he had serious doubts that Minsk would be implemented. In a later interview, published by the Federal News Agency outlet on July 22, Pushilin argued that unification with Russia was his personal preference and that he hoped to achieve this when “a window of opportunity” opens.
Pushilin decrees “Russia Day” a national holiday in the “DNR”
In another step towards the much-touted “integration with Russia”, Pushilin signed a decree on 29 July making Russia Day, the national holiday of the Russian Federation, a public holiday in his “People’s Republic”. The holiday has been observed on 12 June in Russia since 1992 and officially commemorates Russia’s independence from the Soviet Union. The “People’s Republics” have held parades and public festivities on this day. In Luhansk this year, activists carried a giant copy of a Russian passport through the streets.
Issuing of Russian passports accelerates
Russian President Vladimir Putin made reintegration much harder this year when he introduced fast-track citizenship for holders of “DNR” and “LNR” passports this April. The governor of the Russian Rostov region, where the passports are issued, said on 23 July that some 7,000 Ukrainians have received Russian passports since their issuing began five weeks earlier, on 14 June, while another 30,000 had applied. These figures suggest a rate of 1,400 passports per week. However, the Donetsk “People’s Republic” said on 30 July that some 1,500 passports were issued to its “citizens” alone in the past week, suggesting that the overall pace has significantly increased.
A major problem facing the separatist authorities is that they have no reliable data about their population. No censuses have been carried out in Donbass since the war began in 2014, and separatist-controlled statistics offices continue to use pre-war figures as the basis for their work. As of 1 July 2019, the Donetsk “People’s Republic” claimed that it had 2.274 million inhabitants, while the Luhansk “People’s Republic” claimed to have 1.45 million. These figures do not account for the 1.5 million or more people who fled since 2014, and estimates put the “People’s Republics” real population at between 2 and 2.5 million.
Censuses announced in Donetsk and Luhansk
It is little surprising, then, that censuses have been announced by both “republics” to be held in the first two weeks of October. While the “LNR” made this announcement when it began processing Russian passport applications in April, the “DNR” said on 29 July that it would carry out a census during exactly the same time.
The results, expected to be published in April 2020, might be embarrassing for the separatists, who will have to explain the large exodus from their “republics.” However, the official figures already clearly say that the number of inhabitants is shrinking year on year in both “republics”. Thus, the reduction from 1 July to 1 July amounted to 18,714 in the “DNR” and 14,800 in the “LNR”.
Ukraine claims surrender of military prosecutor
Ukrainian media on 30 July reported that a “DNR” military prosecutor had turned himself in to the SBU security service and given evidence about the activities of Russian armed forces inside non-controlled areas. The man, identified as Serhiy Lukyanenko, also passed on information about Ukrainian captives held by the “People’s Republic”, the ICTV channel reported.
However, the “DNR” said already in March that Lukyanenko was in government-controlled territory and warned that he might be used for “propaganda purposes”. According to the Donetsk State Security “Ministry” (MGB), Lukyanenko was a member of the Prosecutor General’s protection service who had resigned and left for Ukraine after being faced with “unprecedented pressure” against his relatives living in government-controlled territories. After doing so, Lukyanenko did not inform the MGB or ombudsman “by mistake”, the ministry said.