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Attitudes to European integration in Donbas: countering the myth of a ‘pro-Russian’ region

Data on the attitudes of the population in Donbas to integration with the West or East, reveals a choice that is not viewed as mutually exclusive.

February 12, 2021 - Alexander Guest Christoforos Pissarides Kateryna Zarembo Oksana Lemishka - Analysis

May 19, 2016: Celebrating the Day of Europe in the Ukrainian city of Pokrovsk, Donetsk region. Children are holding the flag of the European Union.

While Ukraine’s easternmost region, comprised of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (currently war-torn in the aftermath of Russian hybrid aggression), has earned a reputation as one of the country’s most Eurosceptic areas, its anti-EU outlook should not be taken for granted. Data collected by the Center for Sustainable Peace and Democratic Development (SeeD) suggests that important changes and fluctuations have occurred over the past few years. Based on research from 2018 and 2019, this article discusses two important findings.[1] For example, it is now clear that a part of Donbas residents do not view the choice between the EU and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) as mutually exclusive. At the same time, the data has revealed that these policy choices among the local population can change dramatically in a very short period of time.

Traditionally, Ukrainian pollsters have divided respondents into three distinct groups. These include people who support EU integration, those who support closer integration with Russia, and a neutral camp. This third group believes that Ukraine should be self-sufficient and forge its own path. Despite this, SCORE data has demonstrated that these categories are not mutually exclusive. In fact, there are people who are open to Ukraine joining either union. Whilst this group is not very numerous, its presence is an important factor to take into account when discussing the country.

Based on their support for EU and EAEU membership, the SCORE data has grouped respondents into five categories. These include those who support accession to both unions, people who support EU integration, those who support joining the EAEU, respondents who do not support either union, and those who refused to answer the questions.

As one can see from the first graph, those who support the EAEU make up the biggest group. However, this only represents 30 per cent of respondents. Around 22 per cent of participants support European integration and a similar number do not support Ukraine’s membership in either of the organisations. Those who support moving towards membership of either union represent 11 per cent of respondents. Finally, 16 per cent did not provide an answer to these questions.

The Social Cohesion and Reconciliation (SCORE) Index was developed through a partnership between UNDP-ACT and the Centre for Sustainable Peace and Democratic Development (SeeD)

What do we know about the people who belong to each group? In general terms, while women and older people are more likely to support the EAEU, younger and wealthier people tend to be more pro-European.

Beyond that, the data provides a number of interesting insights. The ‘both unions’ group is similar to the ‘EU only group’ on a number of issues. For instance, these two groups expressed the highest levels of trust in the institutions of the Ukrainian state (the President, Verkhovna Rada, the Cabinet of Ministers, the police, etc.).[2] They also feel the most secure personally and more free to express their political beliefs compared to the other two groups. Interestingly, the ‘both unions’ group is manifestly closer to the ‘EAEU only’ and ‘neither union’ groups (although not identical to them in attitude) when it comes to the occupied territories of Donbas potentially receiving a “special status”. In this study, the meaning of “special status” was decided by the respondent.

In contrast, the ‘EAEU only’ group possesses the lowest level of trust in Ukrainian state institutions. These respondents also have the lowest sense of personal and political security. In other words, they feel vulnerable within the Ukrainian state. If this group is to be accommodated within a future Ukraine oriented towards the EU, this issue needs to be addressed. The institutions this group finds most untrustworthy are those responsible for the provision of justice, such as the police, the courts and the Cabinet of Ministers.

Moreover, the foreign policy preferences of the region’s population are often subject to change. ‘Graph Two’ shows the opinions of the four groups as they stood in 2018 and 2019, as well as how the popularity of these outlooks changed between the two years. The findings make it clear that people’s attitudes tend to change over time, with members of all groups capable of changing their geopolitical preferences. This can even result in changes as drastic as becoming a supporter of the EU or EAEU after previously supporting the other organisation.

Graph Two. Foreign policy orientation in Donbas: mood change (2018 (left) vs 2019 (right))

The Social Cohesion and Reconciliation (SCORE) Index was developed through a partnership between UNDP-ACT and the Centre for Sustainable Peace and Democratic Development (SeeD)

Whilst it is difficult to fully understand the complex factors behind these results, the data makes it clear that people’s preferences are subject to change. It also shows that the population’s geopolitical preferences are volatile and depend on circumstances rather than rigid political beliefs. Overall, support for the EU increased by 6.4 per cent in 2019 to 36 per cent of respondents. Simultaneously, support for the EAEU dropped by 4.9 per cent to 44 per cent overall.

In practical terms, the findings suggest that a return to a more pro-Russian outlook in the region is possible. However, it appears that European integration is unlikely to become a divisive issue for the local population of the government-controlled territories. This will remain true as long as the government properly discusses the implications of integration with residents.

Kateryna Zarembo is an associate fellow at the New Europe Center (Kyiv, Ukraine) and a senior lecturer at the National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy” (Ukraine).

Oksana Lemishka is an associate at the Center of Sustainable Peace and Democratic Development, researcher into media and culture. 

Christoforos Pissarides is a data analyst, part of the Data team of Center of Sustainable Peace and Democratic Development, currently residing in Cyprus.  

Alexander Guest is a Social Cohesion expert at the Centre for Sustainable Peace and Democratic Development, who studies citizens’ social and political behaviours in conflict contexts including Ukraine, South Sudan, Cyprus and Afghanistan.  

For more analysis on attitudes towards European integration among the population of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts please see the discussion paper “European Donbas: How to Talk about European Integration in Donetsk and Luhansk regions”. This study was produced by the New Europe Center and was supported by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation Representation in Ukraine and the Center for Sustainable Peace and Democratic Development (SeeD).

[1] Data on the government-controlled areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts was collected in 2018 and 2019. The GCA polling for the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts was conducted by the Kantar Ukraine polling company and was based on population data from 2018. The data includes information on the participants’ age, gender and the type of settlement in which they live in each oblast. The sample of 3325 respondents (70 per cent in Donetsk Oblast and 30 per cent in Luhansk Oblast) in 311 settlements was collected through the use of the computer-assisted personal interview (CAPI) method. The interviews were conducted from September 16th to November 10th 2019.

‘SCORE Eastern Ukraine 2018’, also known as ‘UN SCORE for Eastern Ukraine (USE)’, was completed in partnership with IoM, SeeD, UNDP and UNICEF. It was based on a survey of 5344 face-to-face interviews with residents of the five oblasts in the East of Ukraine (1407 in Luhansk Oblast and 2127 in Donetsk Oblast, with an additional 600 interviews in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, 610 in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast and 600 in Kharkiv Oblast). It also included a ‘booster sample’ for the contact line in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. An additional 700 interviews were conducted with respondents along the contact line.

[2] Rather than objectively high or low scores, the use of ‘high’ and ‘low’ here indicates the levels of support in one group in comparison to the others.

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