UKR140312OR001AVDIIVKA, East Ukraine – As Russia continues to exacerbate tensions with Ukraine with its expanded military presence on the border, analysts and locals say it has accelerated its internal efforts to destabilize and absorb the eastern part of the country – by turning locals into Russian nationals. 

To date, it's unclear how many passports Russia has issued to Ukrainian nationals in Donbas, as eastern Ukraine is called locally. But locals and analysts estimate nearly half a million Ukrainians have received the reddish book adorned with a two-headed eagle and the words, "Russian Federation" – some against their will. 
Stanislav Aseev, 31, an analyst with the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, a Kyiv-based think tank, says the pressure to become Russian is growing in the region as local authorities move to restrict the rights of non-Russian passport holders.
"In (the eastern town of) Donetsk, they are going to pass a law which restricts property rights for those who only hold Ukrainian passports – these people will not be able to sell or buy housing in that territory," he said.
It's possible the ministry of state security, the local equivalent of the KGB, has ordered officials to pay special attention to those who resist applying for locally issued passports from the Donetsk or Luhansk regions in the east issued by the separatists. These are a prerequisite to obtaining Russian nationality.
"Officials question why (some local residents) don't have local documents seven years after the war started," he said, adding that it is a question of loyalties.
"The so-called 'Donetsk Peoples Republic' and 'Luhansk People Republic' passports are mandatory for state employees," he added. "Meanwhile, the local authorities organize tours to Russia solely to obtain Russian passports."
The conflict in eastern Ukraine between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists began in the wake of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution and has killed thousands as cease-fire attempts have failed. Recently, Russia moved more troops to its border with Ukraine, sparking fears of an outbreak of war between the two countries.
Since the conflict within Ukraine broke out, the east has been increasingly operating as a separate country. For example, Ukrainians in the eastern regions are restricted from entering Kyiv-controlled territory: To travel, it's necessary to obtain a special permit from local authorities. Some, especially those in the government and the military, are forbidden from leaving.
Meanwhile, those restrictions make it very difficult for Ukrainians in the eastern part of the country to obtain or renew Ukrainian identity documents. Even so, analysts say that having those identity documents is putting eastern Ukrainians at a disadvantage, especially civil servants who are being threatened with salary cuts if they refuse to take Russian citizenship.
Anastasia, 29, a public school teacher and single mother with an infant in Makiivka, a town near Donetsk, says it's becoming increasingly difficult to resist.
"The local authorities are doing everything they can to make life uncomfortable for people with Ukrainian documents to ensure that everyone gets Russian passports as soon as possible," said Anastasia, whose last name has been withheld because she fears repercussions. "State employees often get calls from their jobs with hints of an ultimatum that they need to get a Donetsk People's Republic passport (so they can then) get Russian citizenship."
Anastasia says she will be forced to get a Russian passport once her child goes to kindergarten and she returns to work from maternity leave. "They won't get off my back," she said, referring to school administrators who have been pressuring her to get the Russian passport.
Still, some are jumping at the chance to get official Russian nationality.
Alexander, 32, from Donetsk, says that after the start of the war in the east, he began trying to get a Russian passport. While he grew up in Ukraine, he explains that all his life he has been told he is Russian – he was born there to Ukrainian parents and has worked in Russia over the past few years.
"A passport opens up new opportunities for life in Russia," he said.
Alexander was finally able to get a Russian passport after Russian President Vladimir Putin simplified the procedure for residents of Ukraine two years ago along with a few bribes and a short trip.
"I put seven US dollars' worth of Russian rubles under a box of chocolates – that's it," he said, smiling at recalling how easy it is to ease the process with a few rubles. "In Donetsk, the whole procedure usually takes about six months but I bought a place in line (with a bribe of around $70)."
He details how he and hundreds of others boarded seven Russian buses and drove about 150 miles to a military-like complex near Rostov-on-Don, Russia to pick up the passports – courtesy of the Russian and local authorities.
"There were soldiers with machine guns around the perimeter, and people were allowed into the area only through a checkpoint," he recalled. "We had to wait outside for an hour or so to get inside."
Russia has used this "passportization" scheme before, say analysts, in the breakaway republic of Transnistria, which is officially part of Moldova, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia, breakaway republics officially part of Georgia. And Russians began issuing passports in Crimea immediately after its annexation in 2014 – more than one and a half million passports over nine months.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian authorities, who do not recognize Russian passports issued to residents of east Ukraine, have underestimated the scale of Russia's "passportization" scheme, says Aseev, who calls that a mistake.
Aseev says Ukraine should counter Russia's move by recognizing the Russian passports the way Baltic countries such as Latvia with large Russian populations do and deciding upon their rights such as the right to vote.
"If Ukraine suddenly gets these territories back tomorrow, without a proper law, the new Russians with the old Ukrainian passports will be able to vote in elections," he said.
At the same time, he notes how difficult it has been for many residents of the east. For example, Ukrainians livings in the east weren't provided with help such as shelter or medical treatment, they saw their bank accounts restricted, and in general, they weren't treated as full Ukrainian citizens.
"Ukraine has offered them little over the past seven years," he said.
In the Ukrainian-controlled town of Avdiivka, a half-a-mile from the front lines where the sound of shelling has become as normal as a car horn, local authorities echo that sentiment and say that Ukrainian officials cannot force people in the east to love their country.
Mayor Vitaly Barabash, 43, says that part of the town's population supports Russia and these people need to see real changes that positively impact their lives to win them over.
"That's the only way to fight for the hearts and minds of these people," he said. "We're trying to convince them, not bend them over the knee."
Photo: March 12, 2014 - Locals at a pro-Russia demonstration in Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine hold a sign reading: "Ukraine and Russia are brother nations."
Credit: Olga Rudenko/ ARA Network Inc. (03/12/14)
Story/photo published date: 06/22/21

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.
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