The hotline rings 50 times a day in this remote outpost of eastern Ukraine’s breakaway rebel republics.
The angry queries pour forth: When will payments or salaries be paid? When will the self-declared, pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) restore normal food supplies and jobs? And can the new guard get factories and mines working at pre-war levels?
“People are desperate, we can hear them crying,” says Yevgenia Gorbinka, an official who works in the southern Novoazovsk regional administration building, which overlooks the blustery Sea of Azov and has a stark, Soviet-style sense of functionality. “Some people understand that it’s a new government, and a new country is being built. Some don’t."
“If we don’t have any help from Russia and this isn’t solved in March, there will be a social explosion here,” warns Olga Gregoriyeva, another local administrator. “People are fainting from hunger.”
That is the challenge in Ukraine’s two breakaway regions in the eastern industrial heartland, which have seen their declarations of independence devolve into a war that has killed 6,000 people, with Russian troops and hardware backing separatist militias.
But while a recent cease-fire appears to be holding, the sheer volume of unmet needs and expectations, as social and financial structures have collapsed, are making many here bitter, hungry, and afraid. In recent days, local officials have drafted a letter to Russian counterparts across the border, asking for 11,000 food packages with rice, oats, pasta, sugar, oil, and canned goods. The dream of building self-sufficient republics is now hostage to the war, making day-to-day survival the top priority for DPR administrators – and testing the viability of redrawing borders in the 21st century.
“Our people are very enduring,” says Ms. Gregoriyeva, "but everyone has their limit."
Running out of creative workarounds
Away from the front lines, schools still function, utilities work, and teams can even be found fixing war-damaged gas lines and electrical cables. But the Ukraine government stopped bank operations and pension payments in contested areas last November. Savings are dwindling, and officials are running out of creative ways to fill the gaps.
“It’s all about the cycle of money,” says Boris Litvinov, an economist and senior member of the DPR regional council in Donetsk.
The small amounts of cash on hand – he estimates just 20 percent of the DPR’s fiscal needs – are now being spent in three-month cycles, with the Russian-backed military the top priority. Pensioners and workers get paid only every three months. "The situation is critical now, to be honest," he says as he sits under a portrait of Soviet strongman Josef Stalin, whom he calls an "outstanding crisis manager."
The region, in fact, has a multitude of resources, Litvinov notes. Russia is temporarily providing free gas supplies, there is no shortage of coal to fire up power stations, and rail and road infrastructure is vast, if aged. But banks are in disarray, and many factories are crippled. Litvinov meets daily with people to convince them not to leave.
“Not everything has been ruined, and every day of peace we spend repairing things, so we are moving up,” says Litvinov. Investors from Israel to Hong Kong have been in town, too, offering everything from agricultural expertise and rail projects to $52 million specifically to pay people to stay put until the war is over.
DPR officials have managed to conjure some assistance for struggling residents. In the ravaged northeastern town of Debaltseve, for example, they gave pensioners – who stopped receiving payments last year – the equivalent of $72 after fighting ended there last month. But they have not won over everyone.
“I am not impressed, because it may be the first payment and the last,” says Anna Kompaniets, a Debaltseve resident now living as a refugee in a train carriage in the government-controlled city of Slavyansk, north of the DPR.
In Donetsk, one resident charges that the situation is not sustainable. “My impression is, it is totally fake. Everywhere it looks like they are sitting there in ministries to show that they exist, but they can’t solve anything.”
In Novoazovsk, on the south coast, the story is much the same. The “people’s republic” handed out 1,000 hryvnia (about $40) to the most needy individuals last November.
In the hallway of the administration building, notices list amounts to be paid monthly to pensioners ($40), single mothers ($20), caretakers of children younger than three years old ($20), orphans ($88), and many others. But even those small payments have only been sporadic, if they were paid at all. DPR officials have promised to make a single payment this month, but funds beyond that are uncertain.
Beside the hotline calls, Novoazovsk officials have also received 279 requests in 40 days for support in the form of cash or food. They are carefully logged in a thick file, by category: pensioners, Chernobyl nuclear disaster survivors, “invalids,” and more. Only 9 percent of the problems are resolved, they say.
At the top of the pile is a letter from Svetlana Lituk, a 75-year-old former librarian who qualifies for help as a “Child of War” – World War II. Ms. Lituk writes that she has nothing to eat and asks for only $8 to tide her over, “just to buy food for me.”
During a visit to Lituk’s apartment, a parakeet twitters as she explains how she has survived without her pension.
The one-time $40 DPR payment she got last December is now gone. She was able to stretch it because the DPR ordered that pensioners don’t have to pay utility bills or rent for now.
“I don’t buy any fats or any milk because I have no money, that’s why I made this request,” says Lituk, sitting beside a pile of rugs that she sews to keep busy. “I have macaroni and some porridge, but I would love to have some fat.”
Echoing many pro-Russian residents here, she says she “trusts Putin” and voted to break away. “Of course I voted for an independent republic, but I can see it’s very hard right now,” says Lituk. “It will get better. I have no intention to go back to Ukraine.”
'We will never go back'
Salaries have not stopped for everyone. One eight-man team doing welding repairs on a gas line near the village of Noorlivka, where fighting has destroyed villages in the northeast of the Donetsk region, is still getting paid for their work.
“We don’t know who pays, but they paid cash,” says Igor, whose team wears state gas company uniforms. Despite the fighting and extensive damage to some gas lines, “everything will be restored,” he says.
“We have very small salaries, so if we aren’t paid then who will be?” says Sergei.
But they may be the lucky ones.
“The main difficulty is to persuade the whole world that we want to be on our own,” says DPR official Litvinov. “We want the world to understand that we will never go back to Ukraine, that’s what the world needs to accept.”
“This war was artificially created; nobody wants it,” says Gregoriyeva. “People here say America is challenging Russia and we are just the battlefield. We understand, but how to explain to people: Yesterday they were healthy and wealthy, and today they have no legs and no house? All because Uncle Sam wants to challenge Uncle Putin.”