Ukraine rebel towns in limbo as fighting calms

(5 Nov 2015) The fighting has subsided, but Donetsk is quickly sinking into the past - a shabby Soviet-like state of empty streets and deprivation, with huge portraits of Josef Stalin hanging in the city centre.
The wounds are raw in the capital of eastern Ukraine's pro-Russia insurgency and its future does not look bright, even without the artillery barrages that terrified the city during the height of fighting between separatists and Ukrainian forces.
Only three years ago, Donetsk was the proud host of the European football championships.
There was a brand-new international airport, luxury boutiques and expensive restaurants.
Now, the airport is a grotesque ruin, destroyed in one of the longest, most grisly sieges of the war. The shops and eateries are mostly closed - and even if someone were feeling flush, there are no working ATMs to feed them cash.
Donetsk's people today live in limbo.
Effectively, they're no longer part of Ukraine, but Moscow has refused the rebels' pleas to be incorporated into Russia.
Ukraine clamped down on the rebel-held parts of the Donetsk region and the neighbouring separatist Luhansk region with a choking economic blockade; pensions and social benefits were cut off and business contacts frozen.
Humanitarian convoys from Russia bring in food and medicine, and international groups also scramble to supply the region's people with medicine.
Russia is also paying pensions and benefits, and salaries are paid in rubles rather than the Ukrainian hryvna. But salaries and benefits are often months in arrears and tiny when they finally come.
"Pensions and salaries are very small, but prices are like in Russia. Life has become very hard," Natalia Markova, a saleswoman at Donetsk market said.
Along with the economic blockade imposed by Kiev, there are also laborious transit regulations for Donetsk residents who want to travel to government-held territory to scrape together a better life.
Painfully long and slow lines form at border crossings. Some people stand for two days or more at checkpoints, before they can cross into an area where the food is up to three times cheaper than in Donetsk.
For the officials of the Donetsk People's Republic, as the rebels call themselves, it is a tenuous existence.
They say they have no annual budget and they have to form a budget for a month.
Many Donetsk residents say there's only one way out - to become part of Russia.
"It will be hard to survive. Connections with Ukraine are broken. To set up trade and economic connections with other countries until we are officially recognised is not possible," Donetsk resident Natalia Polishuk said.
"We can't sell our goods, we can't buy. So it's better to be part of Russia," she added.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose economy took a severe blow from Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis, is showing no sign that he is willing to welcome absorption.
And the Ukraine crisis, which once topped Russian newscasts, now takes a back seat to Russia's airstrikes in Syria.
Many analysts think Putin has a different end-game in sight.
Volodymyr Fesenko of the Penta Analytical Centre said "Putin is interested in the following situation: de jure two separatist republics, DNR and LNR in Ukraine formally, but in reality, de facto, they will belong to Russia and be under the influence of Putin and the Kremlin."
In spirit, it is already Russia. There's little left of the Ukrainian past in Donetsk, aside from an outlet of the well-known Lviv Chocolate Studio, and here it doesn't sell one of its most famous products: comical chocolate figures of Putin.

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