Donbas Today and Tomorrow: Local and International Perspectives

On December 6 2018, the Ukrainian Think Tanks Liaison Office in Brussels together with the European Endowment for Democracy and in cooperation with the United Nations Ukraine organised a conference “Donbas Today and Tomorrow: Local, National and International Perspectives”. The conference was a unique opportunity to get insightful perspectives of Ukrainian people on the future of Donbas, as well as national and international actors involved in humanitarian aid and recovery assistance on the ground.

Opening the conference, Jerzy Pomianowski, Executive Director of the European Endowment for Democracy, highlighted EED’s substantial involvement in the eastern regions of Ukraine, where they focus on supporting civil activism and their input on the protection of human rights. He thanked the Ukrainian Think Tanks liaison Office in Brussels for being the main organiser of the event and an important partner of the EED.

Roman Waschuk, Ambassador of Canada to Ukraine, highlighted the implementation of projects in the Donbas region, supported by Canada, which seek to provide humanitarian, while trying to reduce the pain and frustrations at the crossings line of contact. He stressed, however, that even a small intervention could upset the equilibrium between people. This presents the difficulty of satisfying every side. He stressed the role of propaganda and media in shaping and framing the discussion for the people, where even the well-intentioned efforts to facilitate assistance, can be misinterpreted and perceived differently.

Waschuk: “We in our support programme need to be flexible enough, not to create new rigidities that further complicate the lives of people who are trying to improve the connectivity in Ukrainian Donbas”.

Iryna Bekeshkina, Director of the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, stressed that about 70% of Ukrainians think that the conflict in the Donbas region can be solved through compromise and not by military power. Yet the compromises should be selective and not come at every price demanded by the aggressor. She underlined the need for Minsk 3, as current Minsk agreement sees an increasing dissatisfaction of the Ukrainians but also international partners, considering that the main aim, peace in the region, has not been achieved. She stressed the need for European and international partners to step up their efforts in pressuring Russia to stop interfering in the region by expanding the sanctions.

Bekeshkina: “Successful restoration and reintegration of Donbas can be achieved by stopping Russian interference and by creating opportunities for prosperous life in the government-controlled regions, so people want to stay and live in Ukraine”.

Stan Veitsman, UN Peace & Development Advisor, Office of the UN Resident Coordinator in Ukraine, Kyiv, stressed that there is indeed a range of humanitarian issues in the region of Donbas, such as the need for basic food and services, which need to be tackled. He highlighted the recently signed contract by the UNDP and the EU, which provides 30 million for a new support programme directed towards the eastern regions of Ukraine. This represents the international community’s recognition of its commitment to the reconciliation and reintegration process of the Donbas region. He elaborated, that this support programme aims at fostering the development in three key areas: economic recovery, local governance, and social cohesion. In particular, he emphasised the importance of the last one, as he argued, there is no point in rebuilding the infrastructure if the social fabric is missing.

Veitsman: “Overall, in the Donbas region we see improved intergroup relations and readiness for dialogue in order to find an exclusively peaceful solution to the conflict”.

Peter Wagner, Head of the European Commission Support Group for Ukraine, followed up on the ideas of Waschuk and Veitsman highlighting the importance of economic recovery and further development in the region. Not losing sight of the individual people, challenges and suffering is important, but one must take a structured approach and supply economic stability, which will allow people to live independently and on their own means. The ambiguity of the situation was further highlighted by Mr Wagner, who emphasised the difficulty of achieving the recovery in the region where the constant the flow of weapons adds complex war-related dimensions.

Wagner: “We must help the country and notably that region to grow again, and get economically independent. It is important to achieve this with measures which do not increase the split”.

Anastasia Shybiko, Director of the Free Radio, Bakhmut (Donetsk region), offered significant insights on how the media and journalism can play a role in the reconciliation and reintegration of the Donbas region. She first, however, highlighted the negative attributes, of the continuous disinformation and propaganda, which are flooding the information sphere in the region. A large part of it is presented by the Russian television channels which are very accessible to the local communities. She elaborated, that it is incredibly challenging to resist the propaganda machine, especially when Ukraine doesn’t have a clear counter-strategy. Yet she remained optimistic, as she described the increasing demand for Ukrainian media content in the region. As she explained, the unprofessionalism of the local media outlets provides a better chance for the independent Ukrainian media to win over a big portion of the audience. This, however, can be done if, the focus of reporting is shifted towards local issues while obeying the international rules of conduct for journalism.

Shybiko: “When people start realising that they have rights, reversing this process of liberation and empowerments is difficult. People in the region appreciate and are craving independent, honest information”.

Closing the conference, Olena Carbou, Executive Director of the Ukrainian Think Tanks Liaison Office Brussels, and moderator of the event, underlined that Ukraine has been fighting an external aggressor, as well as tackling domestic consequences of the division line, which the war has created. She stressed the importance of listening to the voices from the Donbas region, as they present a much more elaborate image of the situation and needs on the ground. She highlighted that Ukraine and the international community should continue joining their forces to stop the aggression and concentrating attention and efforts on addressing humanitarian needs of the regions of the conflict area.

Carbou: “Sooner or later, the war will be over and Ukraine will fully restore its territorial integrity. We need to start to sew the country back together already now”.