The future of Ukrainian Donbas: the vision of government, business and civil society representatives

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Discussion panel "The Future of Ukrainian Donbas" was held in Kyiv on 28 September, as part of the special project of and EFI Group "New Country", where representatives of the government, business and the public shared their views on what processes to expect in Donetsk and Luhansk Regions after de-occupation.

From left to right: Ihor Liski, Serhiy Taruta, Artem Lysohor, Oleksiy Kuleba, Serhiy Hayday and Denys Kazanskyy
Photo: Max Trebukhov
From left to right: Ihor Liski, Serhiy Taruta, Artem Lysohor, Oleksiy Kuleba, Serhiy Hayday and Denys Kazanskyy

De-occupation and restoration of Ukrainian power

According to Oleksiy Kuleba, Deputy Head of the Presidential Office, a unified de-occupation strategy is being developed that will include mechanisms and tools for different territories. They will take into account the duration of the occupation, economic and infrastructural consequences, etc. It will be based on the successful experience of de-occupation, which should be improved and turned into a methodology.

There are no plans to hold elections immediately after the liberation - a gradual transition from military administration to civil-military, civilian administration is envisaged, and only then democratic elections will be held. The Presidential Administration does not talk about specific deadlines - it all depends on "what we see after the liberation."

According to the former head of the Luhansk Regional Military Administration, Serhiy Hayday, the military administration should stay in the region for at least five years. At one time, Ukraine completely lost the information war in these territories, he says, and it will take at least five to seven years to influence the minds of people who have been consuming Russian propaganda for so long.

Decentralisation reform can become the foundation for the reintegration of Donetsk and Luhansk Regions at the stage of transition from military to civilian administration, said Oleksiy Kuleba.

"It is still under development, but we have a very good reform. The decentralisation reform is one of the main reforms that has been implemented by the whole of Ukraine. I want to remind you that neither Donetsk nor Luhansk Regions are affected by it. Therefore, I think that decentralisation reform can be among the main factors of civilised development of society, which should be implemented in the context of a parallel transition from military to civil-military and civilian administration," he said.

Security component

According to Ihor Liski, chairman of the supervisory board of the EFI Group investment company, security in this region - given the peculiar geography and proximity to the Russian border - can be guaranteed by the deployment of military corps of 20,000-50,000 troops in each region. And possibly, additionally, a foreign military base.

"On the one hand, this is a factor of security and faith in the future," he says, adding, "On the other hand, the military in such numbers are large employers. And this will contribute to the economic revival.

Commenting on this vision, Oleksiy Kuleba, deputy head of the Presidential Administration, noted that there is no decision yet. However, the state is working on implementing a security philosophy and will invest primarily in this component in Donetsk and Luhansk Regions. In the context of reconstruction, "certain agglomerations or outposts" may indeed appear.

"Our military is well aware of the science and philosophy of this war. The war of 2014-2015 and the war of 2022 are completely different in terms of intensity and use of weapons. And the active use of UAVs on both sides indicates that we may have to consider certain agglomerations and outposts in this area in the context of reconstruction," noted Oleksiy Kuleba.

And businessman Serhiy Taruta reminded us that at one time, the Donetsk Topaz plant [now operating in Zaporizhzhya Region] was one of the largest producers of shells; it is also known for the production of the Kolchuga radio reconnaissance station.

What and where to rebuild

Almost all the speakers agreed that it was inappropriate to rebuild the old industrial infrastructure, but there were different opinions about cities.

Journalist and blogger Denis Kazanskyy believes that cities such as Maryinka and Popasna, which were completely destroyed by Russian troops, are too expensive to rebuild - "it is cheaper to build a new city in a field than to remove all the garbage."

In his opinion, most towns in the region were founded as mining towns - around mines and for the sake of miners. And now, when Russians are closing mines en masse, they are losing their raison d'être.

"This is a war that cannot be predicted now. It's not even worth restoring anything. If you look at the region, it is returning to the state of the Wild Fields, which it may have subconsciously wanted. It emerged from the Wild Fields and is now returning to the state of the Wild Fields because of this war," said Denis Kazanskyy

"We don't know the future, but it seems that the number of people, the Donbas that grew due to industry, due to the economic growth into a region where 7 million people lived together in Donetsk and Luhansk Regions, will no longer exist. It will be equal to the population of other regions, where an average of one and a half million people live or even less.

We may have to decide not how to rebuild some cities, but how to resettle them, because it will be more profitable to resettle people somewhere else, give them jobs in another city, housing, than to rebuild Popasna or Lysychansk, where you physically rebuild housing, and then what? Where to work there, what will develop in these cities, what kind of business, who will come there? There are a lot of questions that I don't see any answers to at the moment," Kazanskyy summarised.

In response, Artem Lysohor, head of the Luhansk Regional Military Administration, reminded that Popasna is an important waterway, it fed most of the Luhansk Region, so it will have to be restored in some form.

Lysogor was supported by his predecessor, Serhiy Hayday. He is convinced that reconstruction should be approached "with common sense" - to leave the old Soviet infrastructure and industry behind, to move from large cities to small ones, and then it will be clear what needs to be restored.

According to businessman Ihor Liski, the plan for building new cities must take into account three factors: people (it is necessary to focus on the local population, it is too expensive to bring people from other cities, as they will need much higher salaries and living conditions); infrastructure (at least a kindergarten, school, park); and competitive production (the bet should be on what Ukraine can compete in at the European, American, and global level).

Economic recovery

Despite significant destruction, Donetsk and Luhansk Regions have a solid foundation for economic development, says Serhiy Taruta, former head of the Donetsk Regional State Administration. In his opinion, the machine-building industry and related enterprises in Kramatorsk, Druzhkivka, Kostiantynivka, Slovyiansk, Pokrovsk, Dobropillya, etc. have potential.

There is a potential for restoration of the agricultural sector - agricultural land in the region amounts to 1.5 million hectares. (The farmers, assures Artem Lysohor, head of the Luhansk Regional Military Administration, are ready to return and work, they only ask for help with demining.)

The logistics infrastructure, such as the port and railroad, also provides a good opportunity for development, Taruta adds. And the problem of human resources, according to the businessman, can be solved by using technologies that allow fewer people to work in large industries, as well as programs that will encourage Ukrainians to return.

The latest technologies are what should distinguish the new Ukrainian Donbas, says Ihor Liski, Chairman of the Supervisory Board of EFI Group.

"We need to create modern jobs so that people have a place to work. We should already be thinking about green metallurgy and modern energy. There is a lot of agriculture in the north of Luhansk and Donetsk Regions. It needs to be modernised, given new technologies and a new logistics outlet through the Ukrainian Black Sea ports. This will be the beginning," the businessman believes.

In his opinion, it is worth building technology companies that will employ people with higher education, engineers. And next to them, educational institutions that would strengthen the business with personnel.

How to bring people back

Regarding human potential, Artem Lysohor, head of the Luhansk Regional Military Administration, notes that residents of the Region who left to escape the war declare their intention to return. And most importantly, young people are talking about it.

"We have two relocated universities from Luhansk Region - in Kyiv and Sumy. After our visit in June, we conducted an anonymous survey among the students there - 76% (out of 476 people) definitely declared their intention to return. Doctors and teachers who had to leave and are now working in other regions say the same," emphasises Lysogor.

He is supported by Serhiy Hayday in this matter: "There are a lot of people who are ready to return. Plus, let's not forget that Europe will be cutting all social programs. There is a small percentage of people who have found themselves there, businessmen, who may stay. But a huge number of people without European social packages will return."

People need to be presented with a clear vision of their future life, and then they will return, adds Taruta.

"People need to be given a dream. A dream that unites. If the state shows the pace, high standards of safety, society, ecology, and future employment opportunities, we can bring people back. People will come back from Canada, America, and Germany. Children will come back. It is not so easy to survive abroad. Especially for those who have encountered local medicine or education. People need to be given a clear picture of what it will be like, and they will come," he is convinced.

Punishment for those who worked with the occupiers

The most controversial issue was the responsibility for those who somehow cooperated with the enemy during the occupation.

According to Denys Kazanskyy, punishment for crimes will not be as urgent as it seems now, as the real criminals will flee to Russia. Instead, the degree of responsibility of small functionaries and employees of municipal structures should be envisaged.

Petro Andriushchenko, an advisor to the mayor of Mariupol, calls for a more radical approach, as people who fled the occupation demand fair punishment for those who implemented it or deliberately returned to it.

"Those who have lived under occupation for 9 years, are they really citizens of Ukraine? I'll tell you: those who have lived under occupation in Mariupol for almost a year and a half and had average views on the future are already saying that things are not so bad. In another six months, they will say otherwise. Another six months - differently. So maybe it's time we raised the question of revising Ukrainian citizenship for people under occupation? Believe me, this will not be a problem for the pro-Ukrainian population. Not at all. On the contrary. Maybe we should really talk out loud about the responsibility of people who deliberately return to the occupation or earn money there?" Andriushchenko said.

Nevertheless, Artem Lysohor calls for a balanced approach, as those who could not leave the occupation remain in the occupation: not only people with limited mobility, but also politicians, people who worked in local authorities, activists, public figures, ATO participants, etc.

Serhiy Taruta believes that in these matters we should turn to the international experience of transitional justice. However, at the national level, we will have to deal with the problem of forced mass passportisation of the population in the temporarily occupied territories.

Denys Kazanskyy suggests that responsibility should be determined simply by looking at who took passports out of desperation because they could not get medicine, food, or humanitarian aid without them, and who took them on their own initiative.

According to Oleksiy Kuleba, Deputy Head of the Presidential Office, the law should put an end to all these issues. The relevant ministry and lawmakers are already working on it. They plan to involve the public and society in the discussion.

"There must be legislation that will regulate many different sensitive issues, narratives imposed by the terrorist neighbor over the past 30 years," says the deputy head of the Office of the President.

A just law should punish all those who tortured Ukrainians, who abused and killed people, says businessman Ihor Liski. "With the law, faith in the state and the future returns," he believes. "When justice is done, we must move into the future through forgiveness. This is a very difficult issue, but we must remember that we are a European civilisation, and mercy is an inherent value."


According to Ihor Liski, the future of Ukraine lies with the Ukrainian Donbas, with Crimea as part of the European Union, NATO, with new projects, with a new quality of life, with new education. All the issues raised during the panel discussion involve extremely complex implementation processes, and before that, design at the level of the state, business, society, and foreign partners. But understanding what kind of Ukraine we want to see will unite us.

"I am sure that those who have been under occupation for eight to nine years also want a different future for their children. Not the one we have now - with lawlessness, injustice and hopelessness," the businessman summarised.

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