Standing outside Donetsk’s coal mine, Igor Yefremov mused over the future of Ukraine’s heavy industry.
“If we join the European Union, our mines and factories will shut down,” he said. “Already the orders from Russia are drying up. Russia doesn’t want us because of the chaos in Kiev.”
Yefremov was waiting to meet his brother-in-law, who was working on the early shift at the city center mine. Above ground, the scene was tranquil: Off-duty workers sat on benches in a small, sunny rose garden, dwarfed by two giant pit frames.
It has been a tumultuous month for Ukraine. There has been a revolution in Kiev, the abrupt exit of the pro-Russian former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and military occupation. Russia has seized Crimea, denounced the new interim Ukrainian government as “fascist” and launched an all-out information war to justify the peninsular annexation.
The uprising against Yanukovych started in November last year when he dropped plans to sign an association agreement with the EU and instead announced a US$15 billion bailout from Moscow. On March 21 acting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk signed the original agreement in Brussels. In theory — at least, this puts Ukraine on a path toward European integration.
However, in the heavily industrialized Donbass area of eastern Ukraine, many are wondering what this geopolitical tug-of-war might mean for them. The Donets Basin — the political home of Yanukovych and his Party of Regions — hosts numerous Soviet-era factories: machine-building works, steel and chemical plants, mines and medium-sized businesses that make fridges.
At the pithead, Yefromov was gloomy about the mine’s prospects. Instead of the EU, Ukraine would be better off joining Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rival Eurasian Union, he said.
“It’s our only chance,” he added.
Lydia Popova, a mine employee for more than four decades and editor of its internal newspaper, disagreed.
“Joining Russia’s customs union is like going back to the USSR. Ukraine wants to be independent from Putin,” she said in Russian. “I’m a Ukrainian. The people who work hardest underground here are the Ukrainians.”
Popova conceded that many mines in the area had closed, including five in a nearby town named after Alexey Stakhanov, the Soviet coal miner made famous by the Russian Communist Party for his quota-busting records.
“We are still profitable,” she added.
Popova may be right. There is still a demand for coal in Ukraine, even though much of the industry has crumbled. Big factories use coal, as do villagers not connected to the electricity grid. Numerous illegal surface mines known as kopanki also exist amid the small, depressed towns of Donbass’ outer regions. New Donetsk Oblast (province) Governor Serhiy Taruta — a local oligarch — has pledged to shut the kopanki down.
Donetsk was founded in the 1860s by enterprising Welshman John Hughes, who constructed its first steel mill. In recent febrile weeks, some pro-Russian campaigners have been calling for Donetsk city to follow Crimea and join Russia. However, more than 7,000 Ukrainians voted in a spoof online referendum for the city of 1 million to become part of another state — the UK.
With bankruptcy looming and its currency enfeebled, Ukraine has received offers of help from the IMF, the US and the EU. The interim government says the country is on the brink of default and accuses Yanukovych and his entourage of stealing US$70 billion.