The Donetsk and Luhansk regions are difficult territories for European integration. There is low support among the population, consistent involvement of mostly anti-European political forces during, apparently, the entire period of Ukraine’s independence. And since 2014, Russian aggression has effectively divided Donbas into two parts ‒ the western (controlled by the Ukrainian government) and the occupied eastern one. How do we talk about European integration in Eastern Ukraine so that this topic does not divide, but unites it? What does “being a European” mean to the inhabitants of these territories? How has the attitude towards the European Union changed after 2014? A “New Europe” Centre’s new study answered these questions.
The main findings
Despite the low level of European integration support in eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk are not anti-European. “Europe” and the EU have significant soft power and attractiveness in the region as the keepers of standards and values that are inaccessible and (or) desirable to its inhabitants (even if they oppose the membership there).
Support for entering the EU and integration with Russia for some Donbas‘ residents is not mutually exclusive. A category of people does not see a contradiction between the two integration projects. Although the majority of Donbas residents do not support European integration, this topic is not capable of provoking public confrontation or protests.
After 2014, there was a civic activism “explosion” in the region. The number of social movements and institutions increased. Although they do not usually deal with European integration directly, they are, in fact, promoters of European practices of interaction between citizens and the state.
To perceive the Donetsk and Luhansk regions as a monolithic region means to ignore their peculiarities and make a generalisation. After all, they have many differences, in particular, regarding the European integration implementation.
The “New Europe” Centre’s study of 2020 indicators showed significant differences between Donetsk and Luhansk regions on different dimensions of European integration. Thus, the Luhansk region not only lags behind Donetsk in terms of the most indicators but is also the last in the overall ranking of Ukrainian regions in the fields of education, science, culture, health care, environmental, and energy policy.
In terms of the perception of European integration, Donetsk and Luhansk differ not so much on the “proximity” extent (as far as the two regions support Ukraine’s European integration) but in the “distancing” extent from the EU, though, there are also some differences within administrative borders. In such cities as Kramatorsk, Mariupol, and Severodonetsk, there is an influx of foreign missions and donor funds. The cities such as Kostiantynivka suffer more from business closures and job losses, and there is a more depressed mood, which affects attitudes towards European integration.
In the political talk in Donbas, European integration is presented only among “anti-thems.” No political force in Donbas actively uses the pro-European idea in the election campaign, as there is no demand for such rhetoric among the electorate of the eastern regions. However, focus groups have shown that low support for EU membership does not mean that Donbas is “anti-European.”
Attitudes towards the EU turns around
According to SCORE, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions have almost the same attitude to the prospect of Ukraine’s membership in the EU (4.2 points in Donetsk and 4.3 points in the Luhansk region). What distinguishes them is not how (dis)supportive they are of European integration, but rather how much these territories tend to support integration into the Eurasian Economic Union.
It is also worth noting that for a number of residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions the support for entering the EU and the EEC is not mutually exclusive: they can simultaneously support integration into both associations. At the same time, according to interviewees, supporters of integration with Russia are not the “protest electorate” that can, for example, riot against European integration. In other words, even if they do not like European integration, they will “disagree silently” rather than actively oppose it.
Focus groups and interviews showed that attitudes towards the EU in the region have been turning around since 2014. There are several reasons for this. First, Russian aggression, which, as noted above, has undermined Russia’s soft power in the region and increased the European integration attractiveness.
Second is the appearance in the region of many Western projects, in particular, European ones, after the conflict beginning. We can say that if Donbas did not go to the EU, and the EU came to Donbas in the form of projects and funds.
Third, a new generation has appeared. They have “tasted” European values via study exchanges and travelling to European countries, using the visa-free regime, and so on. Some of our interlocutors noted that some shift in perception began occurring in 2016-2017 when the hostilities at the frontline got restricted and Donbas became the object of Western donors’ attention.
The main conclusions
The highest impact of European integration for the citizens of Ukraine is the services’ improvement by social infrastructure institutions, transport infrastructure, and the creation of new jobs. Given that unemployment is the main concern for all Donetsk and Luhansk residents, the creation of new jobs with EU aid (and this assistance declaring) would be the best promotion for European integration.
An example of such assistance is the “FinancEast” program, developed within the project of Ukraine and the European Commission, aimed at helping micro, small and medium-sized businesses in Donbas with loans and compensation. Tellingly, on the one hand, rising unemployment, in particular, due to mine closures, is a problem for the local population. But on the other hand, it means the end of political and industrial dominance in the region and opening new opportunities for a new labour structure and policies.
EU assistance, especially in the field of business and industry, should be promoted aggressively, since the most common fear of the population about the EU is the de-industrialisation risk. And it is actively spread by anti-European forces.
Currently, the best potential (or actual) promoters of European integration are new public organisations and movements that engage in civic education and promote healthy governance. They should be included in the communication of European integration also because the information on political issues is more trusted in Donbas if provided by residents.
Besides young people and entrepreneurs, who are an obvious audience open to the European integration promotion, older people should also be involved in European integration communication. Although this age category of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions is traditionally considered pro-Russian, the focus groups included at least three people over 55, who could be considered “pro-European.”
In this way, one can reach the audiences not covered by the communication channels used by younger people and Western partners. In the European integration communication process, the emphasis should be placed on the reforms and the changes they mean rather than on the formal membership. If the membership issue can be a cause for concern even for pro-European citizens, the changes in standards and life quality in connection with the European integration will get wider support among Donbas residents with any political sentiments.
Kateryna Zarembo, the research author “New Europe” Centre