Trouble in the Donbas

Since the Maidan Revolution , most of Ukraine has tried to get the country back on track. The Donbas region, however – stronghold of deposed President Viktor Yanukovych – has taken up arms, making demands that range from more autonomy to becoming part of Russia. New “autonomous people’s republic” sprang up and on May 11 a dubious referendum was held in support of autonomy.
The Donets Basin, or Donbas, covers the easternmost regions of Ukraine, situated along the Donets River. Its principle cities are Donetsk and Luhansk.
For centuries the fertile land was inhabited by Cossacks, peasants and, before them, by various nomadic and marauding tribes. In 1721, vast coalfields were found, which started an industrial boom as the Donbas became colonized by Russia. The population grew significantly when the city of Donetsk was founded in 1869 by Welsh businessman, John Hughes, who constructed a steel plant and several coal mines. Today the region is Ukraine’s most densely populated, as well as the one with the highest concentration of ethnic Russians.
Such demographics were determined by an influx of workers from all over the Russian Empire. They came to work in the coal mines, which led to the urbanization of what had been a rich agricultural land. During Soviet times, collectivization devastated the peasantry. Some historians estimate that in many eastern regions, more than half of the rural population was starved to death in Stalin’s artificial famine of 1932-33. Those numbers were replaced with migrants from parts of the Soviet Union not as inherently hostile to communism, which explains why to this day the Donbas still retains a Soviet identity. In fact, during many of the recent protests, hammer-and-sickle flags as well as portraits of Stalin were on prominent display.
Despite the insurgency, which most believe is choreographed by Moscow, a Pew Research poll indicated that 70% of the population in eastern Ukraine prefer to remain in a unified country.
Included among those who support unity are the country’s most powerful oligarchs. Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, is from Donetsk. For years he helped finance Yanukovych’s political ambitions. Now with the ex-President in exile, Akhmetov has had to take a stand. The media-shy billionaire declared support for a unified Ukraine and also called on the employees of his Metalinvest steel plant in the port city of Mariupol to clear away the barricades erected by pro-Russian insurgents. Whether independent or annexed to Russia, Akhmetov explained, the Donbas “will end up subject to huge sanctions, we will be able to neither sell nor produce. This means a suspension in production, this means unemployment, this means poverty.”
In response, the separatist leaders called for nationalization of all the oligarch’s businesses.