Sometimes, people in Donetsk hear a heavy rumbling in the distance, other times, the windowpanes tremble in the buildings downtown. But people in eastern Ukraine have become accustomed to the sounds of war.
Pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army have fought in a standoff at the airport for months. Repeated and protracted nighttime shoot-outs reduced it to rubble long ago.
Now, the story of Donbass can be seen in the continuing fight amid the remains of the terminals and runways. The town's three million residents live in limbo as the people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk split from Ukraine – but unlike Crimea, Russia has not annexed them, nor shown signs of wanting to do so.
The country is united, according to the Ukrainian government. But at the same time, pensions are no longer paid to the retirees living in separatist-controlled areas following an order by President Petro Poroshenko. Wages for doctors and teachers have been stopped; public institutions and branches of the last Ukrainian bank are being shut down.
It’s very easy to starve us out. Boris Litvinov, separatist leader, Donetsk
Officially, these orders took effect this week but Kiev started asserting its power some time back. The only things still flowing are gas and electricity. If those supplies were cut, it might have led to catastrophe: Temperatures have fallen well below zero in Donetsk already.
Boris Litvinov, a leading separatist, insists that the Donetsk People’s Republic is on the verge of becoming a functioning state. “The engine is running,” said Mr. Livinov.
Mr. Litvinov is preparing local government elections scheduled for April 2015. He proudly reports that the people’s republic is slowly gaining international recognition – from separatist regions in Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
But he understands the severity of the blow that Kiev just dealt.
“It’s very easy to starve us out,” he said. “They try to impose the logic on people that if only we hadn’t gone to war, we now would have food. Many people will scratch their heads and think that might be true.”
Most of Donetsk’s residents watched Mr. Poroshenko’s speech during the October election campaign – on Russian TV of course, because no other channels are available any more. The viewers got the message. “We will have work – and they won’t,” the Ukrainian president said. “We will receive pensions – and they won’t. Our children will go to school and kindergarten – and theirs will sit in cellars. And that’s how we’ll win this war.”
The young republic will now need to build a functioning financial system fast. Otherwise it will not be able to collect taxes, the only way to pay wages and pensions.
Mr. Litvinov is even calling for a separate currency. He is convinced that the republic can survive on its own because of its coalmines, and steel and chemical plants.
The separatists have already built their own administration. Many entrepreneurs have re-registered their businesses and are soon due to pay taxes for the first time.
In schools, history lessons have been rewritten. And in geography, Ukraine is now treated as a neighboring country.
But according to a Kremlin analysis recently published by German media, the region’s backbone is weak.
Industrial production in the Donetsk region alone has plummeted 59 percent from last year. All chemical plants and 69 of 93 coalmines have been shut down.
Without Moscow, the people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk could not survive in the medium or long term. “We have received two interest-free loans from Russia of 250 to 300 million hryvnia,” said Mr. Litvinov, the separatist leader. At the current exchange rate, that’s about €15 million, or $18.6 million – not much considering the Donetsk region has nearly two million inhabitants.
Apart from supplying military equipment, Russia has also assisted in reconstruction and provided medical equipment. The senior physician at a large local hospital said 90 percent of his supplies come from Russia.
Cautious negotiations with Kiev have started over coal deliveries from Donetsk; Ukraine needs to fuel its thermal power plants after all. But otherwise, all roads now lead to Moscow for Mr. Litvinov and his fellow separatists.
For most of the region's residents, life is returning to a kind of normality, compared to August, when hundreds of thousands of people left Donetsk and bombs were exploding in the city center.
Near the airport, grenades are still flying, houses go up flames and people are dying almost every day.
But in the rest of the city, people can travel by bus or streetcar to work or go shopping; only at nighttime do they stay home because a curfew is in place at 10 p.m.
Despite the fighting, schools in the people’s republics reopened for the current term – in October, a month later than usual.
Alla Velitshko, the principal at one of Donetsk’s schools in the city center, reports that 275 students returned, of 420 who attended last year. Another 70 new pupils have joined from schools located in dangerous areas on the city’s outskirts. Most of her teachers have remained loyal to her and the school, Ms. Velitshko said.
She does not want to talk about politics.
“We do whatever the municipal school board prescribes,” she said. That includes a new syllabus. The school has always been Russian and now the number of Ukrainian classes has been reduced even further. History lessons have been rewritten. And in geography, Ukraine is now treated as a neighboring country.
This article originally appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected].