Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk keeps humming amid insurgency


A pro-Russian rebel from the Vostok Battalion stands guard at checkpoint in Donetsk June 1, 2014. Despite the presence of militant separatists in the city, many aspects of life there have continued normally as the municipal government continues to function. (Gleb Garanich/REUTERS)

The roses are blooming in Donetsk, fragrant and bright in meticulously tended public parks where lovers stroll.

Streetcars clack their way through the city’s wide and graceful avenues, hitting all their stops. Hospitals carry ample supplies of medication. Pension checks go out without a hitch.

For two months, this city of 1 million people has been occupied by pro-Russian insurgents who have declared the Donetsk region a sovereign republic, independent of Ukraine . They have vowed a radical transformation of the established order and, backed by a considerable arsenal, they have overtaken dozens of government buildings.

But the insurgents, as it turns out, don’t have much time or inclination for the daily drudgery of governing. Rather than risk the ire of residents by disrupting public services, they have left the business of running this city to the same people who were doing it all along: Donetsk’s 13,500 municipal employees, who have kept the metropolis humming even as battles rage all around.

“Our workers haven’t missed a day,” said Konstantin Savinov, the city administrator. “But it’s not easy to work under the threat of weapons.”

For a month, that threat was apparent every time Savinov and other employees walked through the doors of city hall. There in the lobby, where watercolors depicting Donetsk street scenes hang on the walls, was a contingent of heavily armed men wearing combat fatigues and balaclavas. It seemed they would take over city hall entirely any day and make it an insurgent nerve center, just as they have the nearby regional administration building.

But instead they withdrew — an acknowledgment, according to city officials, that the rebels need the local government to keep things running so that residents don’t turn against the insurgency.

“I warned them that if they ruined city hall, it would stop the life of the city,” said Alexander Lukyanchenko, the wily and popular mayor, who has been Donetsk’s elected leader for 13 years.

Lukyanchenko and the rebels worked out an accommodation: He would keep the trains running on time, and they would largely leave him alone.

Eye of the storm

Even with the deal, managing an occupied city when you’re not the occupier is no easy task.

Every few days, new checkpoints go up, making a nightmare of traffic control. The police and prosecutors, who work independently of city government, have either been forced or have chosen to stay home, meaning the mysterious bands of gunmen who roam the streets are the only law in town. And then there’s the fact that the various rebel groups never seem to agree with each other.

“It’s impossible to negotiate with all of them. They all have different views, and make different decisions,” said Savinov.

Lately, city officials have added a new responsibility to an already long list: readying bomb shelters in case the army, which has positioned itself all around Donetsk, storms in to try to regain control. Savinov, dressed sharply in a shirt and tie, said there aren’t nearly enough shelters for all the city’s residents.

In other places in the region, notably the insurgent stronghold of Slovyansk, basic city services have already broken down amid intense combat. But here in Donetsk, the relatively affluent center of commerce for this deeply industrial area, an odd normality reigns.

Even at the rebel-occupied regional administrative building, the separatists have been doing their best recently to project an air of business as usual.

The building, which was seized by rebels in early April, had taken on the feel of a military barracks crossed with a fraternity house, as dozens of young men with assault rifles used the 11-story office tower to sleep, eat, smoke, drink and play rowdy games of cards late into the night. Vermin began to peek out from behind the smashed-up furniture.

A tidy rebellion

But last week, a more disciplined contingent of fighters took over and insisted on an urgently needed clean-up. Mops suddenly appeared and were put to use for the first time in weeks. The unsightly tire-and-sandbag barricades in front of the building came down.

From his 11th floor office, where the wood floor shone from its latest scrubbing, Denis Pushilin, speaker of the Donetsk People’s Republic, said the clean-up was but the first step in an effort by the rebels to start acting like a real government. They had recently set up ministries, he said, and would hold elections in September following a referendum on sovereignty last month.

But in the meantime, he acknowledged, governing was not their top priority.

“The first thing we have to do is to drive the occupiers from our land,” he said, referring to Ukrainian security forces. “Then we can work on social and economic matters.”

In the meantime, he praised the work of Lukyanchenko’s administration, as do residents and city employees.

In one of Donetsk’s many parks one afternoon this week, a team of city workers was out cutting the grass beneath a copse of birch trees and pulling weeds from a bed of the city’s famous roses.

For Artyom, one of the workers, the past two months have been disorienting — he said he knows neither what country he’s in nor who’s in charge. But, he said, he is sure of two things.

“We continue to work,” said the 35-year-old, “and we continue to get paid.”

Griff Witte is The Post’s London bureau chief. He previously served as the paper’s deputy foreign editor and as the bureau chief in Kabul, Islamabad and Jerusalem.
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