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Ukrainians in the Battered East Scramble in Darkness as Winter Nears

Andrew Roth
A woman stands in her destroyed home on October 26, 2014 near the Sergey Prokofiev international airport in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.
Dominique Faget | AFP | Getty Images

NOVOSVITLIVKA, Ukraine — On one of the last warm days of autumn, Father Vladimir shed his priest's robes and scaled a rickety wooden ladder to replace the shattered windows on the once-golden cupola of his village church.

From there he could hear a cacophony of hammering, scraping of shovels and the clattering of rubble against tin — the sounds of a village trying to pull itself back together.

For more than two months after a week of heated combat between Ukraine's army and rebel separatists, Novosvitlivka residents have lived without light, gas, water and now, with cold weather settling in, heat.

The village is one of the worst damaged in a constellation of towns and cities throughout separatist-held Ukraine that have begun, haltingly, the process of rebuilding since the signing of a cease-fire on Sept. 5.

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Even bigger cities like nearby Luhansk still have not fully restored basic services. There is little money available for major projects and almost no help or direction from the authorities — neither from those in Kiev nor from the rebels who have held sway here since the spring and want to establish their rule over the region.

On Sunday, the people of the rebel-held Luhansk and Donetsk regions will be asked to vote in local elections, which the Ukrainian government says are illegal, to elect a new government that Russia has promised to recognize. What remains to be seen is whether the Russian-backed rump state that is likely to emerge will be able to govern and restore a region torn by war.

It is not clear where the regions will get the money to rebuild. In the absence of a basic agreement on the degree of autonomy the eastern governments will exercise, Kiev has cut off pension payments and is withholding funds for reconstruction. Russia has shown little interest in underwriting the area, since it remains a part of Ukraine.

It is also unclear whom the regions' residents would choose to lead them, if they could vote freely. In Sunday's elections, however, there is little choice — all of the candidates are rebel leaders.

For many, like Nina Svetlova, a hospital worker, both sides seem to be losing in the battle for hearts and minds. She recounted how pro-Ukrainian paramilitaries terrorized the town for several days in late August. She calls them "Naziki," or little Nazis, and blames Kiev for what she said was a drunken orgy of violence in the town.

But when it comes to the Luhansk People's Republic, which now controls the town, she is just as critical.

"We need good leaders," Ms. Svetlova said. "When there is no control, you see what gets done? Nothing gets done."

The closest the village has to authority are two young separatist fighters in camouflage with automatic rifles standing at a checkpoint. Ms. Svetlova has known them since grade school.

"They were never the brightest ones," she sniffed.

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The scale of destruction throughout the region is often breathtaking. Residential apartments bear craters from tank shells. Many places, especially smaller towns, lack basic utilities, like water and electricity. Power lines have been downed, mines flooded, substations incinerated and rail service halted.

In Novosvitlivka, no one expects electricity until around the new year, Ms. Svetlova said. The destroyed wing of the hospital will have to wait until spring, if not longer, for repairs. She said she had eaten nothing but buckwheat for days.

"If Russia has decided to come help us, then we should have Russian leaders to keep an eye on things," she said. "Look around you. This is anarchy, boys."

It is less a scene of lawless violence out of "Mad Max" than one of general desperation repeated across Donetsk and Luhansk: unpaid city workers and locals engaged in increasingly frantic efforts to prepare for winter in towns with no help from any government.

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The task of restoring power to Luhansk has fallen to Sergey V. Dubrovsky, a goateed, barrel-chested man with a pistol on his hip who is the new minister of building, architecture and utilities. Like many other new government officials, he was plucked "from the trenches," as he put it in an interview in his office.

There he presides over a committee of former city workers trying to repair infrastructure — damages are estimated at about $270 million. He has pilfered electric wire from a factory in Alchevsk to repair electric lines. Asked where he would find the money to rebuild the infrastructure, he said, "You're not the only one asking me that question."

Russia will supply some electricity, he said, but the bulk of the town's power must come from a plant in the city of Schastye, which is on the Ukrainian side of the front lines. Mr. Dubrovsky said the separatists might have to capture the town to ensure long-term supplies of power.

"It is too soon to evaluate anything," he said, when asked how the government was coping with its work. "This is still a war government. We are not close to peace yet."

Sunday's elections offer voters few choices. Aleksandr Zakharchenko, a military leader and the unelected prime minister of the rebel Donetsk People's Republic, is a runaway favorite to win.

"We all believe in the same things, the same platform, if you want to call it that," said Andrey Malkov, a former economist and separatist lawmaker, during a funeral in Donetsk. "People are voting for the most effective managers."

For the vast majority of people, that has less to do with ideology than basic utilities.

For two long months, the vast Soviet-era tower blocks of the Mirny suburb of Luhansk were nightly plunged into darkness, the only source of light emanating from a neighborhood bar with homemade beer.

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Anatoly and Lyudmilla Lungul, both in their 70s, live on the third floor of an 11-story building. On the day when a reporter visited, a chandelier suddenly lit up, the first electric light in the apartment blocks for two months.

"We have many young, patriotic men," Mr. Lungul, a former trucker, said with pride. "What we don't have is experience. Nobody visits us. No one is in charge."

"No, no," his wife interjected. "They are trying."

While propaganda and arms from Russia played an important part in the separatist movement here, poverty and criminality in many cities also swelled the separatist ranks.

Nikolay Pesotsky, once a member of the national Parliament, runs a small hotel in Luhansk. He said he had counted 67 days since he last had electricity. Guests are infrequent these days, and that may be just as well. Mr. Pesotsky says he is slowly running out of rooms — because he can no longer wash the sheets and blankets, he cannot use the same room twice.

"They did not see what was happening here," said Mr. Pesotsky, who is also a science-fiction author. (In one of his books, "The Disunited States," he predicts that America will dissolve by the year 2027.) "It was the poverty, this was brewing for a long time. Now it will be like Somalia. There will be 20 Ukraines."

In some places, rebels seem to have recognized the importance of governing.

In the village of Ilovaysk, where separatist forces with Russian support launched a strong counterattack during the war that sent the Ukrainian Army reeling, the local military commandant, Aleksandr Vasiliyevich, on a recent day resembled a harried building contractor.

Teams removing land mines came by for instructions. He yelled at the town's new mayor to prosecute several undertakers overcharging for funerals. Asked whether those were repairmen from Kiev repairing electrical lines in the uniforms of a national power company, he responded sharply.

"If they are from Kiev, I'll shoot them myself," he said.

But even where governance is effective, there remains the question of where to find the money.

Mr. Zakharchenko, the prime minister, has said Russia is helping to repair Donetsk's infrastructure, but he has been vague on the specifics.

Mr. Dubrovsky, the utilities minister, said there were rumors that Russia would send electric cable, but none had arrived yet.

Asked whether he preferred fighting in the trenches or running the city's electricity services, Mr. Dubrovsky stared pensively for several moments at a walnut he rolled slowly between his index and middle finger.

"Much less," he said finally. "I like this much less."