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Anti-Donbas Sentiment Growing in Ukraine

Is Ukrainian public opinion turning toward getting rid of the Russian-occupied Donbas enclave?

The evidence is beginning to look persuasive. A year ago, the suggestion that Ukraine would be better off without the Russian-occupied bits of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces provoked cries of treason. No more. The view has become legitimate, and it may even be winning the day.

A May 2015 public opinion survey by the Sofia Center for Social Research showed that 61.8 percent of Ukrainians would be willing to give up the occupied territories in exchange for peace. Only 22.9 percent supported continuing military operations until the region’s full liberation. (The survey was not conducted in Crimea or the occupied territories.)

My own conversations—with experts, family members, friends, and colleagues—in June and July in Ukraine revealed only one die-hard supporter of Ukraine’s holding on to the enclave at all costs: a young television journalist. Indeed, I was struck by the prevailing view: people were tired of war, shocked and saddened by the killing and dying, and repulsed by the Russian separatists and their many supporters within the enclave’s population. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the Ukrainians I spoke to felt zero loyalty to it.

Now two highly authoritative voices have joined the growing chorus of anti-enclave sentiments.

On August 3rd, Volodymyr Lanovyy, the liberal economist who served as vice prime minister and minister of the economy in 1992, argued that, by maintaining economic relations with the enclave, Kyiv was effectively financing the enemy that was daily killing its soldiers. According to Lanovyy: “At present, Crimea and the Donetsk-Luhansk enclave have de facto stopped being internal regions of Ukraine.” Given that Russia controls the border, the “occupied lands of Crimea and the Donbas have provisionally entered the political and economic space of the aggressor country”—Russia. Given also that the Ukrainian authorities hold no sway in the enclave, it follows that “all talk of trade, subsidies to the coal mines, salaries to state employees, state-funded pensions according to Ukraine’s norms are simply out of place.”

Then, on August 17th, independent Ukraine’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, stated the following:

We should finally make an important political decision. We should state that the line of demarcation in the Donbas is the provisional line of separation between the occupied territories of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces and Ukraine. We [should] sever all economic and political relations with these regions controlled by the militants and Russia. They seized power by force. I believe we should give them the opportunity to administer these territories, and life will then test their talents.

All talk of the fact that our people live there and that they should be helped must be removed from the order of the day. This humanism and tears in general give Ukraine nothing. Today, as a result of Russia’s influence, a cancerous growth has formed on this territory. This growth can be eliminated only by surgery and nothing else.

These are strong and unambiguous words. No less important, their author is Kravchuk. Is the architect of Ukraine’s independence and the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991 speaking only for himself? Could be. But nothing is ever quite that simple in Ukraine, especially as Lanovyy served as Kravchuk’s economy minister. Are the two coordinating their messages? Are they speaking for some faction in the government?

Their statements are either trial balloons or a harbinger of things to come. Either way, the enclave’s days as a cancer in Ukraine’s body may be limited.

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