New Referendum in Donbass: The Republics Definitively Say Goodbye To Ukraine

The year 2020 was an important milestone in the process of the self-determination of the unrecognised republics of Donbass. In connection with the pandemic, the L/DPR significantly reduced communication with Ukraine, thereby gaining a chance to rethink the importance and necessity of such relations. Even more significant was the decision of Lugansk and Donetsk to abandon the study of the Ukrainian language and finally abolish the document flow in the Ukrainian language. Also in 2020, the DPR developed the “Russian Donbass” doctrine – a document that should explain to the whole world the essence of what is happening in the region. And already in January of this year, the head of the DPR Denis Pushilin made a loud statement: the Republic is ready to hold a new referendum on self-determination.

On January 20th, the DPR Foreign Minister Nataliya Nikonorova proposed to the UN Security Council members to hold a new referendum under the control of international observers. “The fact that we are talking about the Republic’s readiness to re-engage the mechanism of direct democracy was in fact our signal to the world community: we have not lost, but only strengthened our faith in freedom, humanism and human rights, we are ready to once again show our desire for those ideals and values for the protection of which the people took to the streets in 2014,” said the head of the republic D. Pushilin, commenting on this proposal to the republican media.

The need for a new referendum was discussed for a reason – Ukraine not only sabotages the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, but also openly declares the need for their revision. At the same time, the Ukrainian state authorities act as if there were no agreements at all. At the end of 2020, the Ukrainian Ministry of Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories published a draft law indicating its intention to completely abandon the letter of the Minsk Agreements. According to the draft law, if the L/DPR again becomes the territory of Ukraine, all civil servants and managers will be lustrated, and the militia and functionaries will be jailed. All documents (up to diplomas) will be declared invalid, and entry to the territory for another 25 years will be carried out through checkpoints.

The obvious unwillingness of Kiev to fulfill the commitments signed in Minsk forces the republican authorities to look for new recipes for integration with Russia and ways to finally get out of the shadow of Ukraine. To some extent, this process was facilitated by the coronavirus pandemic, in connection with which the L/DPR significantly limited communication with Ukraine. Despite the rapid reaction in social networks and some improvement in the epidemiological situation, it is not easy to cross the line of demarcation today.

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Unexpectedly, it turned out that, despite the ongoing military conflict for the seventh year, in addition to pensioners and citizens who are forced to visit the territory controlled by Kiev to see their relatives, many people cross the border who have very dubious grounds for such travel. For example, engaged in banal speculation of various goods. Not to mention not too sane people who go to Ukraine “to unwind” or for shopping, despite the very real chance to get nabbed or become a hostage of the Ukrainian intelligences agencies (there are hundreds of such cases).

“It happens that people who absolutely cannot go to Ukraine simply ignore the danger and go to their relatives or wander around Odessa… Then their relatives sell their cars to buy them back, or when they return, they have to turn themselves in to the MGB. Even if you work in the L/DPR in the civil service or, for example, as a school director, this is already a reason for the SBU to charge you. Well, in general, I can say one thing about the situation – we will not have any security as long as anyone can cross the border at any time. This should not be allowed, and I very much hope that the authorities will make appropriate decisions,” said Donetsk journalist Egor Makhov.

The unexpected experiment made it possible to draw certain conclusions, so that after the end of the pandemic, there will probably not be such a free order of crossing the line of demarcation as before. However, the authorities of the L/DPR did not limit themselves to tightening the rules of entry and exit. The decision taken in Lugansk and Donetsk to make the study of the Ukrainian language in schools exclusively optional and to limit the circulation of documents in the Ukrainian language can be called fateful.

As for the study of the Ukrainian language, there is nothing unexpected – teachers of the Ukrainian language and literature were warned about this for a long time, offered the possibility of retraining, so the teachers were overwhelmingly ready for the innovation. The general public reacted with approval, or at least calmly. Whatever it was, this academic year the number of classes electively studying the Ukrainian language is within the statistical margin of error, not because of any opposition from the authorities of the L/DPR, but purely because of the lack of applicants. Indirect proof of this can be considered the number of applicants from the LPR, DPR and Crimea who entered Ukrainian universities in 2020 – only about 1,600 people, despite the opportunity to enter without competition and entrance exams.

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“The situation with the study of the Ukrainian language in our region has always been ambiguous. On the one hand, living in Ukraine, of course, it was necessary to know the state language, but on the other hand, how to relate to the lack of classes with Russian as the language of instruction in Donbass, where the Russian-speaking population lives? As a teacher of Russian language and literature, I know very well and remember how we had to study Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky in Ukrainian… And the terminology in the lessons of chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics? Returning to the lessons of the Russian language, I remember with pain that the number of their hours was in the middle level – two, and in high school – one. Alas, we have raised an illiterate generation… What is happening in schools now? And now our children are learning their NATIVE language – the one in which they communicate with their family and friends. We did not fight with the Ukrainian language, but in the Russian-speaking environment it turned out to be unnecessary. And I consider the decision to exclude it from the school curriculum absolutely correct and logical,” says the editor-in-chief of the LPR almanac “Territory of the Word” Lyudmila Gontareva.

No less important is the refusal to use documents in the Ukrainian language. Of course, the document flow in the L/DPR has long been made exclusively in Russian, but since 2020, the authorities in Donetsk and Lugansk have adopted a number of significant amendments. Now Ukrainian passports need to be verified, and any documents signed by Ukrainian notaries are considered invalid. In the future, these decisions will become an additional incentive for a total exit from the Ukrainian legal field, for example, in resolving issues related to real estate, etc.

Against the background of all these achievements, the initiative of Donetsk to create the “Russian Donbass” doctrine looks interesting. The document is clearly too late, and it has clearly turned out to be crude and overly focused on historical aspects to the detriment of ideological ones. However, the very fact of the creation of the doctrine, the fact of the DPR government’s interest in such activities, indicates the development of new approaches to the issue of reintegration with Russia, as well as attempts to bring theoretical justifications under the quite logical and legitimate aspirations of the people of Donbass.

“The ideological doctrine of ‘Russian Donbass’ is of particular importance for the young republics of Novorossiya. Yes, you heard right – it is Novorossiya, despite all the statements of politicians, who at one time on all resources just announced the closure of this project. Contrary to all their statements, it turned out that Novorossiya is not a political project, but a historically formed region and an idea that cannot be killed. It is not for nothing that many soldiers of the DPR militia still, even in violation of the charter, wear chevrons bearing the flag of Novorossiya.

Succession and the desire to reunite with all the lands of Novorossiya are spelled out in this ideological doctrine. Another important aspect is that the doctrine also spelled out the succession from the Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic, and now we have the same support in the history of statehood as the rest of the post-Soviet states… In my opinion, it was necessary to start developing the doctrine at the end of the heroic 2014, the beginning of 2015, and with the joint efforts of public figures and politicians of the DPR and LPR, because we, despite the existing borders, are in fact a single space, temporarily divided into parts. But, back then, apparently, there was no time for ideology,” says one of the authors of the doctrine, Aleksandr Matyushin.

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Against the background of the gradual unification of legislation with Russian legislation, the introduction of Russian educational standards, university accreditation, and economic and social integration, the steps taken in 2020 may not seem too significant. And the very idea of holding a referendum 2.0 in certain circles was perceived as ridiculous. At the same time, all these developments indicate an active search for ways that would lead away from Ukraine, while not contradicting the Minsk Agreements. We should also not forget that the number of Russian citizens among the population of Donbass is steadily growing. Today we are talking about about 10-15%, but sooner or later the number of Russian passport holders may grow sufficiently to make the return of the region under Ukrainian jurisdiction completely impossible.

However, even if the idea of a referendum 2.0 will not be implemented (as often happens with the ideas and promises of the heads of the unrecognised republics of Donbass), the fact itself is important – behind the apathetic and baseless expectation that Kiev will suddenly come to its senses and begin to fulfil “Minsk”. And even if the steps that are being taken in Donetsk and Lugansk today are somewhat sporadic, and sometimes naive, they will certainly bear fruit in the near future.

Yury Kovalchuk

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