Check point of insurgents in Luhansk Oblast.
When the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) sent monitors to Ukraine’s southeast in late April, nobody could have predicted how hard and dangerous their mission would be.
Since then dozens of OSCE observers have faced threats and abductions. Eight of them are currently being kept as hostages in Luhansk region after they were captured more than three weeks ago by armed Russian-backed separatists without any promise of when they could be released.
They are being kept in much harsher conditions than a previous group of seven members of an OSCE military observation mission who were captured in Sloviansk, Donetsk Oblast on April 25 and released after a week of negotiations.
“In Sloviansk we had daily contact with our people as well as (Vyacheslav) Ponomarev (then local leader of separatists), we saw the hostages and were able to bring some food for them,” said Michael Bociurkiw, an OSCE spokesman in Kyiv. “But now it’s different.”
No separatist group has claimed responsibility for abducting and holding the OSCE observers, nor has any publicly declared any demands in return for their release, complicating the efforts to rescue them.
But mounting evidence and sources show they are being kept by Russian-backed paramilitary Cossacks, and most likely being used as human shields to prevent airstrikes by Ukrainian military forces.
The first group of four monitors, including Swiss, Danish, Turkish and Estonian nationals, was detained on May 26 in the mining town of Torez, near the border between Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. The group was immediately taken east to Atratsyt and is now believed to be kept in nearby Perevalsk, a suburb of Alchevsk, Luhansk Oblast. The OSCE says it believes this is where they are being held because a white OSCE vehicle driven by insurgents that has been seen on the streets of Perevalsk.
The second group of monitors, including a Spanish, Dutch, Russian and German national (a woman), and one local translator were captured on May 29 at a separatist checkpoint in Sievierodonetsk, where the monitors are still being kept, according to Kyiv Post sources. The translator was later released.
On May 17, the OSCE office managed to establish contact with all the captured monitors, confirming that they are “alive and unharmed,” Botsiurkiv said, adding that many of the monitors used to work in military or law enforcement, or have years of experience in international missions with the UN or OSCE.
Various media and security sources indicate that both groups were abducted and now kept under the orders of Nikolay Kozitsyn, ataman of Army of the Don and a Russian national.
Cossack ataman Nikolay Kozitsyn.
In early June Ukraine’s State Security Service (SBU) released an intercepted phone conversation of Kozitsyn, in which he orders his subversives to hold captive the OSCE representatives, saying he received commands from above to do so.
“Comrade General! My guys stopped a column of OSCE observers. What should we do with them?” an insurgent asks Kozitsyn in the call.
Kozitsyn reponds: “Lyosha, here’s the command: gather all their documents, find them a room, but without any sharp objects and setup guards. Hide the car in some kind of garage so that no one can see it. Got it?”
“This command came from above. From far-far away,” he adds.
Another conversation indicated that an insurgent leader named Igor (most likely Igor Girkin, commander of insurgents in Sloviansk) was sending a request to Kozitsyn to release the OSCE representatives. Kozitsyn, however, refused to do so.
“Even the ‘top’ knows about it and you do not have to do anything. Tell me that they are aware in Belokamennaya (historical epithet meaning Moscow),” a voice purported to be Kozitsyn can be heard saying, referring to a commander above him.
In a phone conversation with the Kyiv Post on June 18, Kozitsyn confirmed that his people were keeping foreign hostages, but denied they were from the OSCE.
“They are our guests. They are being fed and given water and are allowed to use the bathroom. They will stay with us until we push ‘Ukrops’ (Ukrainian forces) back to Kyiv,” Kozitsyn said.
“We are keeping them here so that they see what it means, the bombing (by Ukrainian forces),” he added.
According to information available on the internet, Kozitsyn participated in military conflicts in Transnistria and negotiations on behalf of Russian Cossacks with Jokhar Dudayev in Chechnya and Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia. He is reported to have been rewarded by the FSB Russian State Security Service.
Kozitsyn is said to have arrived in eastern Ukraine together with his Cossacks in early May to fight against Ukrainian forces. His group, comprised of several thousand fighters, managed to seize control of a large part of Luhansk Oblast but has butted-heads with the leader of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, according to Oleksiy Svetikov, journalists and activists from Sievierodonetsk.
“There are reasons to consider that the aim of keeping (the OSCE representatives) is to use the international observers as human shields in order to prevent the Ukrainian army from shooting the building,” Svetikov said in an interview with the Ukrinform news agency.
OSCE officials say they appealed to all possible government and security bodies in Ukraine and Russia, and even asked the Orthodox Church, which has close links to the Cossacks, to help with the release of its observers. Despite the efforts, they have been unsuccessful so far.
For now, the OSCE mission continues its work in the east, but is keeping a much lower profile than a month ago. It is also planning to cut its number of monitors in the eastern regions.
“When they (OSCE monitors) are released, it’s a big question if we will go on this way,” Bociurkiw said.
The long-running political crisis in Ukraine has had a negative impact on the country’s economy overall.
The armed conflict is taking a heavy toll on the economy in Donbas, Ukraine’s industrial heartland. Infrastructure has been damaged, fewer product orders are coming in, and exports to Russia have slumped.
The long-running political crisis in Ukraine has had a negative impact on the country’s economy overall. But out of all of Ukraine, the Donbas region in the southeast of the country has been affected the most. And the situation is only deteriorating as pro-Russian separatists continue to destabilize the region.
According to the Donetsk office of the Ukrainian Statistics Bureau, in the first quarter of 2014, losses by companies in the region were 37 percent higher than the national average. Losses in the Donbas region in the first three months of this year alone were estimated to amount to the equivalent of 1.8 billion euros ($2.4 billion) – more than the reported losses in all of 2013 (1.3 billion euros). Compared to the same period in 2013, industrial production dropped by 13 percent. That’s due to a decline in export orders as well as weakening domestic demand.
Large companies are still producing
Managers of large factories in the eastern Ukrainian crisis region said their production is still running normally. But the forecasts for the next two months are disappointing. “We’re still doing normal operation for now. But the order situation has of course deteriorated,” Volodymyr Shooliy, head of marketing for the Novo-Kramatorsk machine factory, told Deutsche Welle.
A road block in Kramatorsk after fighting
The city of Kramatorsk is situated in the area where Ukraine’s government forces are involved in an anti-terror operation. Since April, they have been fighting against pro-Russian separatists in the southeastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk who have proclaimed “people’s republics” there. Shooliy blamed the companies’ dire economic forecasts on the separatists. “Which foreigners will come to us if they have to pass 13 road blocks first?”
Massive slump in trade with Russia
Several orders have been cancelled because of the unstable political situation in the country, Yury Makohon from the Ukrainian National Institute for Strategic Studies told DW. New orders will be difficult to procure in Donbas in the near future, he added. “The most important heavy industry firms are still producing, but they’re no longer used to capacity.”
Factories in eastern Ukraine have focused on the Russian market, he said. But they’ve now lost access. “Trade volume between Russia and the Donetsk region has seen a massive slump since the beginning of this year,” Makohon said. Industry and freight traffic were experiencing extreme differences because the railway system has been damaged in the areas of the fighting.
Air traffic has come to a complete halt, incurring major losses for the region’s economy. The airport of Donetsk, a city of several million inhabitants, is to remain closed until June 30th, according to Ukrainian authorities. Travel operators have said all flights for the entire summer have been cancelled. “Our staff can’t access the airport safely at the moment,” Dmitry Kosinov, the airport’ spokesman, told DW, adding that shots are still being fired regularly near the airport.
Many small business owners have taken flight
Small and medium-sized companies have been worst affected by the crisis in the Donbas region. Makohon said they make up some 10 percent of the region’s economy. One in two has shut down over recent weeks due to increasing tension, leading to a considerable rise in unemployment.
Separatists raiding a bank in Donetsk
There are reports that separatists have pressed business owners for money, raided shops and kidnapped people. Many small business owners have left the region as a result- to avoid assaults by militants from the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, social scientist Yaroslav Pasko told DW.
Developments in Donbas have seen a negative trend since 2008, economic expert Makohon pointed out. “But, of course, the political crisis and the fighting make the situation more difficult,” he said. Even if there is a swift and peaceful solution, Makohon said it may take years before the economy in the Donbas region can return to its 2013 level.