Following the occupation of Crimea and parts of the Donbas, there is hardly any reliable data on the citizens who are currently living in those territories. This goes for even basic statistics: age and education, level of prosperity, the number of inhabitants in villages and cities, etc. It is known that migration in the Donbas and in Crimea has intensified considerably. However, it is impossible to track this accurately for obvious reasons: statistics are kept by the occupants. To take them into consideration would mean to some extent legitimising the occupation authorities, not to mention the dubious quality of their work.
Keeping tabs on public sentiment is a similar problem. Since 2014, Ukraine’s top sociological centres have ceased their activities in the occupied territories. The results of all public opinion polls contain the phrase "with the exception of Crimea and the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts". The rare exceptions to this rule have sometimes ended in scandal. In 2015, GfK Ukraine unveiled a survey on the socio-political attitudes of Crimeans. The research was commissioned by Berta Communication and conducted by political scientist Taras Berezovets with financial support from a Canadian foundation. Employees of GfK Ukraine interviewed Crimeans by phone. Within a few days, the Sociological Association of Ukraine (SAU) issued a sharp statement that criticised the telephone interview method itself and pointed out the risks: respondents are limited in freely expressing their opinion, as they may feel threatened by Russian authorities.
"Ukrainian centres should be very careful about polls in Crimea and occupied territories. A sociologist is responsible for the safety of the interviewer and respondent. Of course, commercial organisations can conduct such research, but at their own risk," Yevhen Holovakha, Chair of the SAU Professional Ethics Committee, said in an interview to The Ukrainian Week.
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SAU does not directly prohibit polling in the occupied territories. They simply point out that the results of such surveys should be carefully scrutinised and made public only if they are highly reliable. At the same time, there are barely any newsworthy events in this field. An exception worthy of attention occurred at the end of April, when a study on the sentiments of Donetsk Oblast inhabitants, including its occupied part, was published.
According to its organizers, the study entitled "Aspects of identity and identity awareness of the inhabitants in the Kyiv-controlled and occupied parts of Donetsk Oblast" was conducted by request of the Ministry of Information Policy with the assistance of the Donbas Think Tank and the US National Endowment for Democracy. Fieldwork was carried out in December 2017. This was the second such poll – the first took place in June 2016. Comparing the results allows us to see how the views of the population have changed.
Both polls were conducted by the Ukrainian division of German agency IFAK Institut. This organisation, including its Ukrainian office, is part of ESOMAR. The name says little to the general public, but it is one of the most influential associations of public opinion researchers in the world.
However, the reliability of the research company itself does not answer questions on whether it is possible to conduct high-quality surveys in occupied territory. The organizers explain that the polls can be conducted thanks to relationships preserved with groups of interviewers who still live on the other side of the conflict line. According to publicly available information, the management of the Ukrainian IFAK Institut office comes from Donetsk. The head of this organization, Serhiy Hovorukha, explains that although he has been working in Kyiv since 2006 and the company operates on the national level, many of its projects concerned the Donbas in particular.
"There are a lot of interviewers with experience in the occupied territories. We worked with them on different projects before. They're trained professionals, not volunteers," says Hovorukha. He adds that it was possible to bring about 90% of the original questionnaires back from the occupied territory and transfer them to the client. The surveys were conducted through personal interviews at respondents' homes. Households were chosen randomly.
The population data used to select a sample was taken from the pre-war period. Hovorukha says that it was precisely due to the lack of fresh statistics, including from territories controlled by Ukraine, that the sample was made based on the simplest possible parameters of age and sex.
"The margin of error for our research is around 4%, however it could be higher because we do not know the parameters of the community as a whole. But there is no other way at the moment," says the sociologist. Hovorukha replied to a question about his attitude towards conducting polls in the occupied territories in principle by saying that he would rather not have to do this, but there is no other tool for understanding the trends and nature of public opinion.
According to Dmytro Tkachenko, adviser at the Ministry of Information Policy and head of the Donbas Think Tank, surveys were not conducted near the front line, but otherwise covered small, medium and large towns and cities, including Donetsk. "We are still able to do such research without any problems – 600 questionnaires in big cities are not so noticeable," he says.
According to the research report, 600 people were actually interviewed in the occupied part of Donetsk Oblast. Another 705 respondents were in the area controlled by Ukraine. These numbers were almost the same during the first phase of the study in summer 2016. The questions covered various areas, including self-identification, attitude towards the war and emotional state.
The main positive change that the organizers of the study draw attention to is the growth of a civic identity compared to a territorial sense of belonging in the free part of Donetsk Oblast. At the end of 2017, 42% of those polled identified themselves primarily as citizens of Ukraine, compared to 32% a year earlier. The sense of territorial identity, i.e. self-identification as resident of the given region, fell from 61% to 45%. At the same time, the level of self-identification as a "citizen of the Donetsk People’s Republic" in the occupied part of the oblast decreased somewhat (from 18% to 13%). Accordingly, the territorial identity of the population is growing there (from 60% to 72%).
Serhiy Hovorukha notes that additional research is needed on these issues: "It is important to understand whether this [the growth of a civic identity – Ed.] is a situational fluctuation. Therefore, a third sampling is required. If the trend continues at this level, we will be able to talk about a positive tendency."
In the opinion of Dmytro Tkachenko, a second and negative tendency is that the “citizens of the DPR” are not very happy with the Russians, but Ukraine is rapidly losing the hearts and minds of people living in the occupied territories. This is evidenced by certain figures from the research. More than 40% of respondents believe that they are more like Russians than the rest of Ukraine in terms of their values and way of thinking. Only 7% have the opposite opinion. Another 34% separate themselves from both Russians and Ukrainians.
According to the inhabitants of the occupied territories, most of the factors mentioned in the questions are more likely to divide than unite them with inhabitants of other regions: the desire to change life in Ukraine for the better (35% – unites, 49% – divides), love for Ukraine (32%, 42%), belonging to the community of Ukrainian citizens irrespective of nationality (35%, 52%), disappointment with current changes (37%, 54%), values and way of thinking (29%, 62%) and even religion (35%, 51%). The only uniting factors are culture and traditions (57%, 34%) and mistrust of the current Ukrainian authorities (53%, 35%). It is important to note that in the free territories all these factors nevertheless unite citizens with residents of the rest of the country, with a sizeable margin to boot. In addition, the majority of the population both in the occupied and free territories of Donetsk Oblast continues to stay in touch with relatives and acquaintances in other oblasts – 72% and 68% respectively.
According to the study, two thirds of inhabitants in the occupied part of Donetsk Oblast have not heard the term "hybrid warfare". The results in the rest of the oblast are not much better: 45% of those polled were not familiar with the phrase. If we look at the awareness of society as a whole, the situation seems terrible. In the occupied territories, there were no respondents who fully trusted the Ukrainian media – only 3% partly trust them. The situation is not much better in the free parts of Donetsk Oblast. At the end of 2017, only 16% fully or partially trusted Ukrainian media. This is half of what it was a year earlier. However, over the last year the number of those who do not trust the Ukrainian media at all has indeed decreased (to 26% from 40%). The number of those who partially trust and partly do not has increased (to 39% from 25%). The Russian media does not have a lot of trust either, but here there is a certain tendency towards polarisation in the views of residents of the free part of the oblast: the number of those who trust these sources and the number of those who do not trust them are both growing. As a result, over the year the proportion of those who partially trust and partly do not decreased from 45% to 28%.
Another topic of the sociological study was the general emotional state of the oblast’s inhabitants. While a feeling of hope prevails in the occupied territories (51%), the free areas are uncertain about the future (50%). Nevertheless, the change in results over time shows some improvement in the emotional state of people in both parts of the oblast. In the occupied territories, there was also a decrease in fatigue and anxiety in addition to the growing sense of hope. The sense of fatigue and anxiety decline significantly in the free part of Donetsk Oblast (to 33% from 51%) and a sense of hope is growing there too (to 29% from 12%).
Almost half of respondents in the occupied territories (49%) do not feel a difference between the standard of living in the "DPR" and Ukraine. In the free territories, the majority still sees a difference, but their proportion has declined (to 55% from 64% in 2016). In general, the perception of Ukraine as a place with better opportunities has somewhat deteriorated for residents of Donetsk Oblast on both sides of the demarcation line. The figures for employment, prices, healthcare and even respect for rights and freedoms, in particular freedom of speech, have fallen. Perhaps the biggest outsider is the judicial system. The level of confidence in it has halved over the past year. The proportion of inhabitants in the occupied territories who believe that the "DPR" is better in this respect has increased to 17% from 12%.
The authors of the study state that the overall life quality in Ukraine negatively affects the sentiment of citizens in Donetsk Oblast. However, there are other problems, including communication and coverage of the oblast’s problems in the media. In addition, they mention the need for a strategy of reintegration and post-war recovery that is accessible and understandable to citizens. Ideally, everyone has to know what to expect when Ukraine returns to the whole of Donbas.
Translated by Jonathan Reilly