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Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko delivers a speech as he visits the Khortytsia Island near the Dnieper River to meet with servicemen, who take part in the military conflict in eastern regions of the country, while marking the Day of Ukraine’s Defenders in Zaporizhzhia region, Oct. 14, 2014.
Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Mikhail Palinchak/Handout via Reuters.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has signed a law granting three-year limited self-rule status to certain territories in the separatist-minded Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
According to a statement posted Thursday on the presidential website, the law was signed to create the “conditions for the prompt normalization of the situation, restoration of legal order, constitutional rights and freedoms of citizens.”
Ukrainian legislation will still be applicable in these territories “with consideration of peculiarities,” the statement said. People’s militias will be created to maintain order on the ground, while local government bodies will govern these territories after local elections scheduled for Dec. 7, the statement added.
After the ouster of former President Viktor Yanukovych in March, rebels in the east of Ukraine refused to acknowledge Kiev’s pro-Western government and established self-proclaimed republics in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
In accordance with the law signed Thursday, insurgents who participated in the eastern conflict against Ukrainian army forces will be immune to criminal prosecution.
Alexander Zakharchenko, the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, told state-run news agency RIA Novosti on Friday that its government would not recognize the new law, as it was signed by a foreign state.
“Kiev is still under illusion that it governs us, but in reality this is not the case,” he said.
In addition, Zakharchenko said Donetsk’s insurgents, who lost ground following a Ukrainian army offensive in July, were planning to return to the rest of the Donetsk region, which is “currently occupied” by Ukraine.
A first-grade pupil looks back at her mother while walking to a school building after a festive ceremony to mark the beginning of another academic year in Makiivka, eastern Ukraine, in this Oct. 1 file photo. Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters
MAKIYIVKA, Ukraine — On the first day of school outside the east Ukrainian rebel stronghold of Donetsk, 11th-grade teacher Yelena Sepik tells her class to get out of their seats to clap and sing along to the Soviet military music playing over the speakers.
“Louder!” she yells, theatrically clapping in rhythm to the music coming from a classroom CD player in front of about 30 unamused 15- and 16-year-olds in the town of Makiyivka.
“We have witnessed the formation of a new state,” she says. “The Donetsk People’s Republic, New Russia.”
Half a year into the republic, proclaimed on territory held by pro-Russian separatists since April, the region’s new rulers are trying to create a sense of normality and the trappings of a functioning state, not least in the education system.
But there is much that is not “normal.”
For one thing, there has been an exodus of Ukrainian-speakers and others reluctant to live in Russia’s orbit under an armed rebel administration. Schoolteachers say their classes have shrunk to as little as a third of their pre-insurgency sizes.
Shelling in the city, which has killed scores of civilians, delayed the opening of schools from Sept. 1, the traditional start of term across the former Soviet Union, to Oct. 1.
Although a cease-fire has been agreed between Kiev and the separatists, the crash of distant artillery fire still carries as far as Sepik’s third-floor classroom, where three classes have been combined into one, making seating scarce.
For the children who have stayed, a new curriculum awaits, with mentions of Ukraine carefully avoided, and a new focus on the history of Russia and the separatist regions.
Moscow vehemently denies accusations from Kiev and the West that it has backed the separatists with weapons and soldiers, but its influence is never far away from the classrooms, where teachers openly praise Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Much of the former Soviet Union shares the same school traditions, including a first lesson of the school year devoted to broad morals or civic values.
In communist times, this might have meant lessons on Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, or international Socialism; more recently perhaps on peace, or social skills.
But in this school year, children in the rest of Ukraine are focusing on “national unity” for the first period of their year, and those in the secessionist east are learning about the history they share with Russia.
In the Matviyivka class, that means World War II, known in Russia and Ukraine as the Great Patriotic War.
The students watch a black-and-white documentary about the region’s battles, with a voiceover that drifts between the city’s current name of Donetsk and its Soviet name of Stalino, after wartime leader Josef Stalin.
History teacher Natalia Kudoyar expects more changes to her curriculum.
“World history will be studied in depth, Russian history,” she says. “But our priority is the history of Donbass [the industrial region around Donetsk]. Because it is our region; we are proud of our region.”
The idea that this region is at the very least culturally part of Russia, and far removed from a Ukraine whose rulers are routinely labelled fascists, is as pervasive in the classroom as it is in the rebel administration’s public statements.
Irina, a teacher in a Ukrainian-language school who declined to give her last name, said all Ukrainian national symbols had been removed from the classrooms.
“We still use the old curriculum, but the school principal said that, in my 9th-grade class, the number of hours for Ukrainian language and literature will be reduced,” she said.
On Putin’s birthday on Tuesday, a video was posted on YouTube showing children in another school in Donetsk being asked who had done the most for peace in their region. “Putin,” said the teacher. “Putin!” the children repeated.
Pressure to Use Russian
Unsurprisingly, language is a central part of that cultural struggle. While everyone in the region is fluent in Russian, some speak Ukrainian as their first language.
Before Donetsk’s municipal administration building was occupied by protesters in mid-April, the Donetsk region had a roughly equal number of Russian- and Ukrainian-language schools, and parents decided which to send their children to.
On Monday, Kirill Baryshnikov, spokesman for the Donetsk People’s Republic’s Ministry of Education, said: “We don’t make anyone study in Russian or in Ukrainian. We have two state languages.”
But the pressure on everyone to speak Russian rather than Ukrainian is growing. On Thursday, the same ministry issued an order making Russian the official language for all education.
It said the only exception would be primary or secondary schools where 90 percent of parents requested teaching in “another language” — there was no direct mention of Ukrainian. Schoolbooks written in Ukrainian would continue to be used until new Russian-language ones could be issued.
A teacher of Ukrainian named Marina, who also declined to give her surname, said she saw “no future” for Ukrainian-language schools in Donetsk. “It hurts so much,” she said.
Maria Ivanitskaya, a mother who has left Donetsk for Kiev with her 12-year-old son, said she feared that Ukrainian-language schools could attract violence from people sympathetic to the rebels, and had no desire to return.
“I got a call from my son’s teacher. She asked if we were going to attend school this year,” she said.
“But our school is Ukrainian, and I’m scared of provocations. I called my husband in Donetsk, and he said: ‘Whatever you do, don’t come back.'”
A woman holds the hand of Prime Minister of the rebels’ self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic”, Alexander Zakharchenko during a ceremony to honour the World War II defenders of Donetsk from Nazi forces Sept. 8. Marko Djurica / Reuters
Allison Quinn reporting,
Infamous former rebel commander Igor Girkin, a Russian better known by his nom de guerre “Strelkov,” alienated his troops while fighting in eastern Ukraine through a ruthless disregard for the local area and unrealistically lofty goals for the battlefield, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic said in an interview published Wednesday with Russian Reporter.
“He was a person who fought alongside us. But 90 percent of his troops did not support his views on how to conduct military activities,” Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the rebel republic, said in the interview.
Strelkov, a former colonel for Russia’s Federal Security Service shot to fame in mid-May when he began leading rebel fighters in Donetsk. He eventually took on the role of defense minister of the makeshift republic, but resigned from that position in mid-August and moved to Moscow. Upon his arrival, he declared Moscow the new front line in a battle being waged against President Vladimir Putin by the West.
Despite Strelkov’s prominence as one of the top fighters in the Ukraine conflict, however, Zakharchenko implied he was generally not regarded highly by his fellow fighters.
An example of Strelkov’s ruthlessness involved a plan to destroy nine-story buildings in Slovyansk, a strategy that Zakharchenko said triggered a “wild scandal.”
“For me, destroying nine-story buildings on the outskirts of Donetsk is insane,” Zakharchenko said, noting that Strelkov had proposed such a plan during a battle there.
In response to the interviewer’s question on whether Strelkov had wanted to destroy buildings due to his own dabbling in historical military re-enactments — a hobby that many have said motivated his activities in Ukraine — Zakharchenko said Strelkov simply viewed war differently.
“In his opinion, it would have been more convenient to defend ourselves from among ruins. Because he doesn’t live here,” Zakharchenko said, adding that Strelkov had focused on “tactical moves aimed at strikes and fierce defense” that weren’t suitable to the situation in Ukraine.
For what Strelkov wanted to do, he said, “we would have needed a minimum of 20,000 fighters. But since he only had 6,000, we had to arrange it differently.”
While Strelkov’s fellow fighters respected him, Zakharchenko said, “we would have done things differently when it came to trying to resolve certain issues at the expense of the lives of our fellow countrymen.”
Signs of a rift between pro-Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine were apparent throughout the summer, with several Russian commanders resigning. In August, documents surfaced purportedly showing orders given by Strelkov to execute his own fighters for looting, Reuters reported at the time.
Strelkov stepped down around the time reports broke of the alleged execution orders, though his representatives said he was quitting because he had found a new job.
Ukrainian armored personnel carriers (APC) patrol along a road leading to the town of Debaltseve in the Donetsk Oblast, on Oct. 6, 2014. © AFP
The man in the black T-shirt had a broken arm in a cast, but he still had an air of ruthless professionalism.
He was the commander of the separatist checkpoint on the road into Horlivka, and he was busy, relaying a constant stream of orders.
He carried an assault rifle, and ordered our driver to park our van by the side of the road.
“Get out of your car, turn your phones off, don’t film anything, and wait here,” he said.
There was no discussion. But Black T-shirt was already busy with other matters, jabbing his fingers at his phone.
“If you see [xxx] trying to leave, shoot him,” he said to someone at the other end of the line.
On the opposite side of the road there was a long stream of vehicles heading out of Horlivka buses, taxis, and ordinary cars, full of frightened people.
No wonder, the town was under bombardment.
Succession of dull thuds
Government forces were closing in, trying to take Horlivka as they push south in the direction of Donetsk.
We heard a rapid succession of dull thuds, the earth vibrated beneath our feet and we saw plumes of smoke around buildings in the town centre. Probably the notorious Grad rockets, which both sides accuse each other of using in eastern Ukraine’s war, and which kill and maim over a wide area.
The men on the checkpoint waved most of the vehicles through. But not all. A 4×4 was pulled over. A man and a woman got out, shouting and imploring.
A separatist gunman fired over their heads several times. The woman was on her knees, sobbing. It appeared that the gunman was trying to take their car. The argument carried on under some nearby trees, where the couple made several frantic phone calls.
They seemed to be in luck, because half an hour later they were abruptly waved on.
We, on the other hand, were going nowhere.
Black T-shirt brushed our inquiries away. The men and women under his command at the checkpoint were a rag-tag bunch. They wore fragments of khaki and camouflage uniforms, and carried a variety of weapons. Some looked painfully young while others were well into their sixties.
A burly man with a pistol, a handshake like a bear, and the whiff of vodka on his breath introduced himself as Aleksander. He said he was a native of Horlivka, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and ready to defend his town “like Stalingrad”.
Why, wondered Aleksander, did the rest of the world not tell the truth about this “fight against the Kiev fascists?”
It was, he said, just like the Great Patriotic War all over again, except that “today’s fascists are even worse because they bomb their own cities”.
Aleksander had taken a shine to one of my colleagues. “So beautiful”, he said, stroking his hand along her face. She smiled uncomfortably, and stiffened. He wandered off, promising to fetch us some coffee.
I asked if I could visit the toilet. I was led into the trees.
The American flag had been deliberately spread over the path, so I had to trample over the stars and stripes.
To my side, I could see unarmed men and boys in civilian clothes preparing defences digging earth ramparts and laying down wooden planks.
One man had a black eye, but all of these unfortunate people had a far away, glazed look. They did not look as if they wanted to be there.
I came back to the car. We sat and waited, and watched as Black T-shirt suddenly drove off, leaving us with an increasingly drunken Aleksander and his friends. They allowed us to make a phone call, and we spoke to a separatist official in Donetsk.
We handed the phone to another gunman. He listened to the official and then said: “Go back to Donetsk”.
We didn’t need much encouragement to pile into the car and head back the way we came down the near-deserted highway.
The delicate truce between Kyiv and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine was broken again on Sunday. New NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is optimistic that the situation can be resolved.
There was fresh shelling in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on Sunday, the one-month anniversary of the ceasefire between Ukrainian forces and the pro-Russian rebels.
“There is no ceasefire,” a resident of the city said, gesturing to the firefight and destruction in the distance.
Ukraine’s military blames the separatists for the outbreak of violence near Donetsk’s government-held airport, where at least three civilians and three separatists were killed and dozens were wounded, according to senior rebel official Eduard Basulin.
Ukrainian military spokesman Volodymyr Polyovy gave a different account, telling a press conference that two service staff were killed on Sunday and about six people were wounded. “The terrorists are violating the terms of the ceasefire,” he added.
Clashes around the airport have been going on for weeks, as the facility, which has a modernized runway capable of handling heavy transporters, is of great strategic value. And while the separatists have been able to take several other important buildings in Donetsk, the airport remains in Kyiv’s hands.
Both sides blame each other for the civilian deaths.
“The airport is a springboard for the city…our main task is to push them (government forces) away from the city so that they can no longer shell residential districts,” Basulin said.
Clinging to a fragile truce
Despite the ongoing violence, neither Kyiv nor Moscow seems willing to proclaim the truce invalid.
Russian and Ukrainian soldiers have come together to create a monitoring contact group, which together with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) patrols the frontline. Berlin has also considered sending troops to support the patrols.
The Ukrainian government has a large interest in maintaining some form of peace ahead of October 26 parliamentary polls called by President Petro Poroshenko. Europe, for its part, would also rather maintain the status quo as opposed to widening its impasse with Russia and its gas supplies as winter approaches.
NATO secretary general optimistic
There is great interest into how newly-minted NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will approach the issue. Speaking on his first day in office on Wednesday, Stoltenberg told journalists that he saw no contradiction between his pro-US, stronger-NATO stance and improved ties with Russia.
Jens Stoltenberg took the helm of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on October 1.
“We see opportunity in the ceasefire…but we also see violations of the ceasefire and it’s a fragile situation,” the former Norwegian prime minister said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin cautiously approved of Stoltenberg’s ascension, saying “we have very good relations, including personal relations.” The new NATO chief promised to react with an “open mind” if Russia sought to restart the NATO-Russia council, which has ceased operations since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March.
Some 75 people are reported to have died since the Ukrainian-Separatist truce, which was backed by Kyiv and the Kremlin, went into effect on September 5.
es/nm (AP, AFP, Reuters)