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Alexander J. Motyl
The Underdevelopment of the Donbas

A just-released study by the International Center for Future Research has some bad news for southeastern Ukraine. According to the center’s calculations, the quality of life is lowest in a coherent swath of territory running from south to east. Of Ukraine’s 27 provinces, Zaporizhzhya is 22nd, Mykolaiv is 23rd, Kherson is 24th, Luhansk is 25th, Donetsk is 26th, and Dnipropetrovsk is dead last. The two outliers are Kharkiv in the northeast, which is 2nd, and Chernihiv in the north, which is 21st.

As you’d expect, Kyiv City is at the top, while the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, with its tourism, comes in 3rd. Visitors to western Ukraine won’t be surprised to learn that it does quite well in the rankings: Ternopil Province is 4th, Lviv is 5th, Chernivtsi is 6th, Ivano-Frankivsk is 8th, Volyn is 10th, Zakarpattya is 11th, and Rivne is 13th.

Since the rankings were based on five criteria—material well-being, education, health, security, and environment—there are some interesting variations. Kyiv City, Crimea, and Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhya, and Donetsk Provinces score well on both well-being and education. In contrast, the western Ukrainian provinces, and just above everyone else in the country, do far better than the southeastern provinces in terms of health, security, and environment. To put it somewhat crudely, the Donbas is an ecological disaster and dangerous slum populated by smart and prosperous folks.

Note that the most unlivable part of Ukraine—the southeast in general and the Donbas in particular—is the heart of Viktor Yanukovych country and has the highest concentration of oligarchs and Regionnaires. Coincidence?

The Donbas was once the jewel in the Stalinist crown of Soviet socioeconomic development—the showcase of Soviet central planning. Twenty years ago, when Ukraine became independent, the industrial southeast was past its prime, but neither had it yet become a slum. That transformation took place in the last two decades—partly as a result of the collapse of central planning, partly as a result of the collapse of the Ukrainian economy in the 1990s, and, last but not least, partly as a result of the region’s political mismanagement and economic exploitation by post-Communist functionaries, corrupt Regionnaires, organized criminals, and rapacious oligarchs.

Those nefarious groups have effectively conspired to promote the Ukrainian industrial heartland’s progressive development into an economic wasteland, ecological nightmare, and social disaster. They’ve done that by appropriating worthwhile assets for themselves, neglecting everything else, and distracting the people with red flags, bogus claims of language discrimination, culture wars, and the like.

The puzzle is not that venal Regionnaires and oligarchs managed to suck the southeast dry, but that the people let them. After all, they’re relatively affluent and well-educated, and relatively affluent and well-educated people are supposed to be capable of recognizing a crook when they see one. So what happened?

First, the population of the southeast is and remains highly Sovietized, with cultural values and political aspirations that are fundamentally at odds with modernity—and that means, among other things, effective market relations, rule of law, and democracy. Second, the population is isolated and has difficulty imagining itself in the context of a globalized world, a changing Europe, or, for that matter, even a stagnant Ukraine. And third, the population still regards the Donbas as the apex of civilization and takes umbrage at suggestions that their self-perceptions may be a tad off the mark. In these respects, the Ukrainian southeast is not unlike the American Jim Crow South: wedded to beliefs, practices, and institutions that are outmoded and downright deleterious—to everybody.

But there is also good news, potentially. It’s hard to imagine that smart people won’t eventually decide they can do better than live in a slum run by thugs. Public opinion polls show that southeastern Ukrainians are rapidly losing faith in Yanukovych and the Regionnaires. With any luck, that trend will continue. It should, if only because the long-term well-being of the southeast will be unsustainable if the region does not become livable again—soon.

In a word, time is running out for southeastern Ukrainians. If the Regionnaires and oligarchs transform the southeast into Ukraine’s outpost in the third world, locals will face an unenviable choice: accept grinding poverty or get the hell out. Unless, of course, they realize that there’s a third way: kick the Regionnaires out.

Oct 07, 2011