Arina, could you please introduce yourself?
I am Arina Kozlova. I am 18 years old and I come from Luhansk. The military conflict in the Donbas region forced me to leave my city, and, subsequently, the country, as with many other locals. I am currently living in Wrocław, Poland, and am in the process of obtaining my Bachelor’s degree in International Relations at the University of Wrocław.
Could you describe the lifestyle in Donbas region? How it differs from the everyday lives of people in other regions of Ukraine, for example, in the usage of Russian and Ukrainian languages?
I think that it is not strange that the lifestyle of people from Ukraine’s west can differ from the east. We should not forget that these regions are separated by 1,300 kilometres. It is true that the mother tongue of Donbas residents is Russian, while the population of western Ukraine is mostly Ukrainian-speaking. There is also some contention between Ukrainians based on the language. As for my experience, the question I am asked most is why I speak Russian instead of Ukrainian. Well, I grew up with this language – as my family and my friends did. However, the fact that I speak Russian does not say anything about my attitude to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. I try to stay out of politics.
Did you see any problems in Donbas before 2013?
Well, not at all. To be honest, the biggest problem I had at that time was receiving a “D” in maths. Seriously, however, the Ukrainian government did not fulfil its obligations to us in good faith. Corruption in any case can affect the further destiny of the state.
What were peoples’ attitudes towards Euromaidan?
As I remember, the Euromaidan movement started on November 30, and since that day every evening we were watching the TV trying to understand what was happening in Kyiv. When you see thousands of people gathering and fighting for their freedom, you feel proud of your country, feel proud that you are a Ukrainian. It is well known that Euromaidan served as a central goal around which the population rallied. Actually, I have some friends from Luhansk that went to Maidan square to support the movements. If we would not fight, then who would?
Can you explain your feelings when the DPR and LPR republics were forming? Did you and people you know perceive it seriously from the beginning?
The representative bodies of Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics declared their independence from Ukraine in May 2014, in the course of the armed conflict with the post-revolutionary Ukrainian authorities. Some referenda were held to form the separate republics on the territories under their control. Most countries did not recognize these referenda. My parents did not participate in the referendum, but we have friends who participated. At that time, the situation was gaining momentum, and circumstances were changing with lighting speed. Many people did not realize what was happening and continued to live their normal lives. Although this was quite difficult to do, because the centre of the city and its surroundings were constantly subject to building being seized with the use of firearms. For this reason, schools were closed in April, and residents tried to limit their stay outside the home. We just could not believe that it was happening to us, but in any case, we all expected that it would come a quick end. We were unaware that this was only the beginning.
To the best of your knowledge, and based on contacts with your friends or family, what is the situation in Luhansk now?
Well, stable. After the signature of the Minsk Protocol on 5 September 2014, I have gone home five times. It takes a day or more to travel the distance of 350 km – I am not exaggerating. Roads, damaged by shelling, are still not repaired, which interferes with safe driving. The boundary was constructed between the republics and Ukraine, and entry-exit checkpoints were built. You can cross the border on foot or by car, but the number of people willing to do so make you doubt that you will get home the same day. Hundreds of pensioners and mothers with small children come to the border by 4 am to take a place in the queue, regardless of weather, temperature, or state of health. There have also been deaths on these borders. Do not forget that military actions are continuing, particularly near the borders.
Every time I visit Luhansko, the city becomes more alive. Schools, kindergartens, shopping centres, and even roads are being repaired. In our country, we have an expression: “Home is better”. That is why more and more residents are returning home. You are probably wondering why. By coincidence, my family lives in Luhansk now, so I will quote one of my lovely witnesses: “Nobody needs immigrants. Most people live by the principle ’It is not my headache’. Also, when you are over 40, it is hard to change where you live. The only people driving away from Donbas have nothing to leave: their house was destroyed, they have no surviving relatives, or they just have the money to move to another city. But do not forget that some are returning because of their political beliefs.”
Current lifestyles in Donbas slightly differ from lifestyles before the war. Food supplies and household goods are imported from Russia, and the monetary unit of the republics is the Russian rubble. TV channels are only Russian, but there are no restrictions on the use of the Internet. Residents can therefore watch different channels’ online broadcasts, including Ukrainian ones. The water supply is hourly and centralized, but gas and electricity are supplied without interruption. Because of the war, a curfew was imposed between 11pm and 4 am. Hospitals work as usual, and schools and universities are open. However, educational programs have been changed a bit: for example: instead of studying the history of Ukraine, children are learning the “history of the fatherland”. After school graduation, high school students receive diplomas accredited to the unrecognized republics, preventing them from getting higher education in countries all over the world. The only exceptions are the universities in the republics, and some Russian ones. In the LPR, there are lots of workplaces, but people earn only the minimum salaries. In other words, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. If somebody told me that my life was destined to be like this, I would have never believed it.
What is your opinion about the resolution of the conflict in Donbas?
The conflict in the Donbas is the main challenge to Ukraine’s national security. The lack of a national strategy for the reintegration of individual districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions (IDDLR) complicates the conflict’s peaceful settlement, due to disagreements among the political elite. As a result, Ukrainian society and foreign partners do not understand whether the government has plans to resolve the conflict in the east. As international practice shows, Ukraine should pay attention to four models of possible solution: Bosnian, Croatian, Pakistani, and German, although each comparison is hypothetical and does not completely take into account the realities of Ukraine.
The Bosnian model is based on the preservation of the territorial integrity of the state in terms of federalization. There are a number of parallels between the Minsk political process that provides for the settlement of the conflict in the Donbas through the introduction of a “special order of local government in certain districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions”, and the Dayton agreements, by which Bosnia and Herzegovina–divided by three years of war–were “glued” together. The Bosnian model can protect Ukraine from further Russian aggression, but at the cost of limitating Ukraine’s sovereignty.
The Croatian model provides an alternative conflict resolution to the Minsk process, which is based on unilateral actions and the power advantage of government. The return of IDDLR to Ukraine under the Croatian model is a difficult task, because of Ukraine’s internal weaknesses, Russia’s military presence in Donbas, and international players’ moderate position.
The Pakistani model arose as the result of protracted and bloody conflicts and the state’s realization that it is unable to defeat separatist forces using military methods. This option is associated with separation warrant for these republics, but acceptance of such a proposal would be a risky step at the official level, taking into consideration the security concerns.
The German model provides for the return of lost territories to pre-war conditions through negotiations with the involvement of external players. This implies the recognition by the first party of the benefits of political and economic power of the second party. At the same time, the reintegration of the uncontrolled territories on their own terms is possible only in the long term.
Why did you decide to move for study to Poland and what do your friends think about your decision?
I had decided to study in Poland before the war started. Since the early 2000s, Poland has attracted its eastern neighbours by offering countless advantages. First, the similarity of the Polish and Ukrainian languages facilitates the process of assimilation. The second advantage is a mentality and affinity. Indeed, at that moment there are some historical disputes regarding the period of the First and Second World Wars, but is not it a proof of our similarities? The third is the right for free movement between countries in the Schengen area and access to the single European market. As for my friends, they supported me during my admission exams, helping me not to lose my heart. When I received my acceptance letter, my friends were genuinely pleased that I would able to realize my dream. Later, however, you realize that it is difficult to maintain a long-distance relationship, and only time will show us who our real friends are.
This article was edited by Nathan Stormont.