Ukraine's Donbas, economic treasure, political nettle

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Ukraine's Donbas, economic treasure, political nettle

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“Donbas — heart of Ukraine,” reads a sign entering the eastern region’s capital Donetsk — complete with monuments to workers and to Lenin. The pro-Russian population increasingly have been asking to join Russia, identifying with it like many in eastern Ukraine.

This was pro-Moscow former president Viktor Yanukovych’s power base.

People in Donetsk, capital of the Donbas region, and towns around it began to demonstrate from the outset of tensions in the Crimea region which Russia has now annexed.

Pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine demonstrators clashed.

More than half the people in the Donets basin (or Donbas) speak Russian, like in Crimea. The Ukrainian language is the norm in the country’s western half. But divisions are based on more than language.

The Donbas is rich in natural resources, far more than the west. In the 20th century, these were coveted by Hitler’s Germany, but were clearly also the priority of the Soviets: coal, iron, manganese for steel. Much of the region is industrialised, and urbanised.

Donbas has an estimated 109 billion tonnes of coal, Europe’s fourth-largest concentration, in a territory that makes up five percent of Ukraine’s total, has ten percent of the country’s population living in it, producing 20 percent of its GDP and accounting for a quarter of all Ukraine’s resource exports.

Thanks to industry, the salary average here is double that of the rest of Ukraine. That hasn’t spared it from the effects of the crisis. Production had already dived by 30 percent before that started, and people were complaining about living standards.

There is speculation over whether Moscow would have a real economic interest in taking over the Donbas, or whether it is more a political terrain, presenting Moscow with a potential for destabilising Ukraine as it approaches presidential elections.