Uncertainty in Ukraine's rebel east

(File, AP)
(File, AP)

Donetsk - The holiday market in the central square of Donetsk, the principal city of rebel-held eastern Ukraine, has all the trappings of a celebratory time - shiny ornaments, colourful toys and a cartoon-faced kiddie train on a meandering track. But the aura is more forced than festive, as the region's people face a new year that gives little promise.

While full-scale fighting in the war between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists died down in 2015, true peace appears a distant prospect. Shooting and shelling erupts sporadically despite repeated cease-fires called under an internationally mediated peace agreement.

Windows shattered

The latest truce was declared last week by the Contact Group negotiators from Ukraine, Russia and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, but the antagonists each have claimed violations by the other side since then.

It's an emotional whipsaw for Donetsk's residents.

"A feeling of peace? Sometimes there is. But when they start to shoot, you don't feel any kind of peace," said Alexandra Kirichenko, an 18-year-old student, walking down a street where apartment windows shattered by fighting were blocked off with plywood sheets.

Even if the fear abates for a few hours or days, the region's economic difficulties make life a constant grind. The Ukrainian government has halted payment of pensions and social stipends to the rebel-held areas and cut off business contacts. The isolation brings both high prices for scarce goods and high unemployment.

If the fighting is less intense than it was a year ago, the issues behind it remain just as passionate and resistant to resolution as ever.

The fighting began after separatists in the primarily Russian-speaking Donetsk and Luhansk regions seized government buildings, saying they wanted no part of the new government formed after Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych fled in the face of mass protests in the capital Kiev. The separatists alleged the new government was so Ukrainian nationalist that it was effectively fascist and would run roughshod over the east.

Angering nationalists

The Minsk peace agreement signed in February - the second try after the first agreement of five months earlier failed to get traction - calls for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to remain part of Ukraine, but with ill-defined "special status." That lack of clarity obstructs real resolution and the continuing fighting and economic suffering only reinforce the stalemate.

For Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, the situation is equally difficult. Granting amnesty to the separatists and giving them special status, as envisioned by Minsk, could be politically ruinous, angering nationalists who reject any concessions to the rebels.

Russia, which Kiev and the West allege is supplying troops and weapons to the rebels, has brushed off the separatists' drive to be annexed by Moscow and says it is committed to fulfilling the Minsk agreement.

Russia last week announced that a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, former parliament speaker Boris Gryzlov, had been named the new Russian representative to the Contact Group.

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