Ukraine’s East: ‘The people have nowhere to work — it’s like Detroit’

n13-iconBloomberg reports: Along the road that stretches east from the regional capital of Donetsk toward Ukraine’s border with Russia, crumbling Soviet apartment complexes quickly give way to shabby villages of squat houses with aluminum-sheet roofs and shuttered windows. Settlements clustered around the remnants of coal mines that fed the former Soviet Union and minted the eastern province now stand mostly in disrepair.

In Snizhne, 50 miles east of Donetsk and roughly a dozen miles from the Russian border, privatization and restructuring have closed all but two of the 17 government-run coal mines that fed the town in the 1990s. “The people have nowhere to work—it’s like Detroit in America,” says Sergey Vasilivich, who used to own a business transporting and sorting coal from small local mines to private buyers. “There’s a real depression in this city.” Today, small, semilegal mine shafts operate on the fringes of the economy with a blatant lack of regard for safety and workers’ rights. Many miners have lost their jobs, and young people have left for greener pastures. Many in Snizhne see themselves as ethnic Russians and would have no problem joining with Russia, especially because they think it would help the stunted local economy.

As pro-Russian tensions continue to simmer in the east, the interim government in Kiev is trying to keep a lid on separatist rhetoric in the industrial heartland, where small but vocal protests in Donetsk against the new government continue to rage. In an effort to pacify the local population, the central authorities on March 2 appointed Sergei Taruta, an oligarch with roots in the east, governor of the Donetsk region. With about 5 million people, it’s Ukraine’s most densely populated province.

Taruta faces not only the loud chants of pro-Russian protesters in front of government headquarters, but also a depressed economy, a legacy of corruption, lack of popularity, and the institutional stasis of a local government authority composed of members from ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, which could thwart Taruta’s attempts at reform at any turn.

“His decision [to accept the position] is a risky one,” says Oleksandr Kliuzhev, a political analyst and program coordinator of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, a nongovernmental organization in Donetsk. “There are real pro-Russian tendencies here—they don’t hide them. These emotions were held in check before by the Party of Regions. … Our politicians played the Russia card, but the new risk is that there are politicians promising union with Russia and we haven’t had this risk before.” [Continue reading…]

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