AVDIIVKA, Ukraine – Tensions on the border with Ukraine are already staggering, but analysts and locals say Russia has adopted a powerful new strategy in its efforts to destabilize and potentially absorb part of its neighbor – by transforming the inhabitants of Russian nationals.
It is not known how many passports Russia has issued to Ukrainian nationals in Donbass, as the turbulent and culturally divided eastern region of Ukraine is locally known. But locals and analysts estimate that nearly half a million Ukrainians have received – some against their will – the little reddish diplomatic booklet adorned with a double-headed eagle and the words “Russian Federation”.
Stanislav Aseev, 31, an analyst at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, a Kiev-based think tank, said pressure to become Russian is increasing in the region as local authorities work to restrict the rights of holders of non-Russian passports.
“In [the eastern town of] Donetsk, they will pass a law that restricts property rights for those who only hold Ukrainian passports. These people will not be able to sell or buy housing in this territory, ”he said.
The bitter civil war in eastern Ukraine is one of the deadliest on the European continent. Russian-speaking, Russian-speaking separatist forces fought the West-backed government in Kiev for more than seven years. It is estimated that over 13,000 people have been killed. This includes more than 3,000 civilians trapped in the fighting. Ukraine and its allies accuse the Kremlin of wanting to annex parts of eastern Ukraine in the same way it seized Crimea in 2014.
Local authorities in the separatist-held Donbass regions are even beginning to consider the lack of an identity document issued by Russia as a cause for suspicion.
Mr Aseev said the Donbass State Security Ministry, the local equivalent of the KGB, reportedly ordered officials to pay special attention to those who resist requests for passports issued by separatists from Donetsk regions or from Luhansk. The passport is a prerequisite for obtaining Russian citizenship.
“Officials wonder why [some residents] have no local documents seven years after the start of the war… ”, he declared. “The so-called ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ and ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ passports are compulsory for state employees. Meanwhile, local authorities are organizing trips to Russia only to obtain Russian passports. “
Russia recently alarmed Europeans with a large build-up of troops near the Ukrainian border. Defense officials in Moscow said it was a training exercise. Russia has withdrawn many forces, but tensions persist.
A country apart
Since the conflict within Ukraine has broken up, the east – which has cultural, linguistic and economic ties to Russia – increasingly functions as a separate country. Ukrainians living in the eastern regions are not allowed to enter Kiev-controlled territory without special permission from local authorities. Some, especially those in the government and the military, are prohibited from leaving.
These restrictions make it difficult for Ukrainians in the east of the country to obtain or renew national identity documents, although analysts say the documents disadvantage Ukrainians in the east. Civil servants are threatened with pay cuts if they refuse to accept the offer of Russian citizenship.
Anastasia, 29, a public school teacher and single mother with a baby in Makiivka, a town near Donetsk, said it is getting harder to resist the pressure.
“Local authorities are doing everything they can to make life uncomfortable for people with Ukrainian papers to make sure everyone gets Russian passports as quickly as possible,” said Anastasia, who did not wanted to give her last name because she fears repercussions. “State employees often get calls from their jobs with hints of an ultimatum they need to get a passport from the Donetsk People’s Republic [so they can] obtain Russian citizenship.
Anastasia fears that she will be forced to get a Russian passport once her child goes to kindergarten and returns to work after maternity leave. School administrators, she said, “won’t let go of me.”
Others jump at the chance to obtain official Russian citizenship.
Alexander, 32, from Donetsk, said he started trying to get a Russian passport soon after the separatist clashes started in 2014. Although he grew up in Ukraine, he said , he was told all his life that he was Russian. He was born in Russia to Ukrainian parents and has worked in Russia in recent years.
“A passport opens up new opportunities for life in Russia,” he said.
Alexander was able to get a Russian passport after President Vladimir Putin simplified the process for Ukrainian residents two years ago. A few bribes, he admitted, accelerated the process.
“I put seven Russian rubles US dollars under a box of chocolates – that’s it,” he said with a smile. “In Donetsk, the whole process usually takes about six months, but I bought a seat online” with a bribe of around $ 70.
He said he and hundreds of others boarded seven Russian buses and traveled about 150 miles to a military-type complex near Rostov-on-Don, Russia, to collect passports – with courtesy of the Russian and local authorities.
“There were soldiers armed with machine guns around the perimeter, and people were only allowed to enter the area through a checkpoint,” he said. “We had to wait outside for about an hour to get inside. “
Mr Putin speaks openly about the plight of millions of Russians who he says were “trapped” outside their country with the collapse of the Soviet Union, with sizeable Russian minority populations in the newly independent countries , including Ukraine, along its long western and southern borders.
Analysts say Russia has also used this “passport” program in the breakaway republic of Transnistria, which is officially part of Moldova, and in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are separatist enclaves that are officially part of the Georgia. Less than nine months after the annexation of Crimea, the Russians issued more than 1.5 million passports there.
Ukrainian authorities, who do not recognize Russian passports issued to residents of eastern Ukraine, do not appreciate the scale and ambition of the Russian project, Aseev said.
Ukraine, he said, should counter Moscow’s power play by recognizing Russian passports as do the Baltic countries with a large ethnic Russian population. Latvians, for example, decide on their rights such as the right to vote.
“If Ukraine suddenly reclaims these territories tomorrow, without proper law, the new Russians with the old Ukrainian passports will be able to vote in the elections,” he said.
Still, he noted how difficult it has been for many residents of the east, where shelter and medical care have been denied, bank accounts have been restricted and people in general have not been treated the same. full Ukrainian citizens.
“Ukraine has offered them little over the past seven years,” he said.
In the Ukrainian-controlled town of Avdiivka, 800 meters from the front lines, the noise of bombing has become as normal as a car horn. Local authorities complain about Kiev’s lack of support and say the authorities cannot force people in the east to love their country.
Mayor Vitaly Barabash, 43, said that part of the city’s population supports Russia and that Kiev cannot win them over without real changes that improve their lives.
“This is the only way to fight for the hearts and minds of these people,” he said. “We’re trying to convince them, not bend them over the knee.”