Thursday, January 29, 2015

Ukraine Clamps Down On Travel To And From Rebel Areas

DONETSK, Ukraine -- For Larisa Horlova, a cashier, making the trip from rebel-held territory to Ukraine proper had been a routine matter, despite the shells that sometimes pounded into fields near the road as she drove.


Waiting in Velikaya Novoselka, Ukraine, to apply for permits to cross the front line.

She did it every week or so to get money from her Ukrainian bank account, since A.T.M.s are no longer functioning in Donetsk.

But on Wednesday, when she made the often perilous dash over pavement slicked by melting snow to a Ukrainian border outpost, she found not safety but an order to turn around and drive back.

“They say I should live on the Ukrainian side, but I cannot travel back and forth,” Ms. Horlova said, standing on the shoulder of the road, amid a crowd of other bewildered residents.

Indeed, with a new offensive in full swing, the Ukrainian authorities are now doing all they can to halt cross-border movement, deploying the full force of a Byzantine bureaucracy on the more than three million people living in rebel-held areas.

After the Ukrainian government put in place new border restrictions in recent days — requiring a special pass that can be difficult, if not impossible, to obtain — a policy of isolating and frustrating rebel-held regions has taken a major and maddening turn.

Ostensibly, the measures are needed to cut down on smuggling and to keep “terrorists” and smugglers from entering Ukraine from the conflict zone.

But it is widely acknowledged that Ukraine’s policy of isolating rebel-held zones aims to thrust onto Russia, the separatists’ sponsor but a country now mired in its own economic woes, the burden of subsidizing the east, calling Russia’s bluff on seeking ownership of this rust-belt region with hopes of hastening a settlement.

Already, the government had cut off pensions for all those living inside the rebel-held zone, stopped paying public service salaries and sharply increased the inspection of shipments coming in and out of the area — to the point that humanitarian groups have complained that it was affecting crucial relief shipments.

Since there is no banking system in the rebel areas, it is an all-cash economy.

But with no functioning A.T.M.s, there is no source of cash, even for those who have money in Ukrainian banks.

Until last week, people with access to transportation could venture into areas under Ukrainian control, where banks are still operating.

Some were even able to apply for their pensions outside the rebel-held zone and collect their monthly stipends.

But with the new Ukrainian regulations, that is much more difficult.

Now, Donetsk residents must cross the dangerous area between the rebel and Ukrainian checkpoints and hand deliver paperwork to a shipping container at the Ukrainian checkpoint — then wait 10 days for a reply from officials behind the line.

Residents on the Ukrainian side who want to get into rebel areas must apply at one of a handful of remote police stations and then wait 10 days.

Until a decision is reached, applicants will not be allowed through Ukrainian checkpoints, said Roman Turhovets, head of the press center for Ukraine’s antiterrorism operations.

If applicants try to circumvent the official checkpoints, by using secondary roads, they will be treated as potentially hostile targets, he said.

Meanwhile, people hoping to exit — or enter — the war zone without the permit were being turned around.

Ukrainian soldiers let through only a trickle of traffic.

Queues of semi-trucks, passenger buses and cars snaked out along the road from the Kurakhovo checkpoint for hundreds of yards, parked on the shoulder beside the wintry stubble of fallow sunflower fields.

The road passes twitchy gunmen at a Ukrainian checkpoint where a car exploded on Monday, killing the driver and at least one soldier, in what a Ukrainian television station, Hromadske TV, reported might have been a rare if not unique instance of a suicide attack in the conflict.

Those dropping off their documents had to weave past a crater, scorched automotive parts, and shoes and bloody clothing on the road.

On Wednesday, rebels and the Ukrainian Army were fighting in the outlying Donetsk district of Marinka adjacent to the main road out of the city, and shells were exploding so near the road that car windows rattled.

At the checkpoint itself — an exposed and dangerous place to linger — an angry crowd of Donetsk residents gathered around one sandbagged position, complaining that they had already driven the dangerous section of road, did not want to return along it and could not wait for 10 days for the permit.

A soldier said he could make no exceptions.

As a result of all of this, traffic between the parts of Ukraine controlled by rebels and those controlled by Kiev has dropped by almost 90 percent since the new passes went into effect, according to the Donetsk regional administration’s Department of the Development of Basic Industries.

At the police station in Velikaya Novoselka, a small village on the Ukrainian side of the line, hundreds of people were lined up in the bitter cold last week to apply for the new passes.

Those who made their way through a crowded courtyard and up the steps into the station were able to file the papers they needed.

But that allowed them only to line up at yet another building nearby, where one by one they were called inside to finish the application process.

In a tiny room on the station’s second floor, a group of police officials and office workers sat surrounded by tall piles of handwritten applications, desperate pleas for help. 

One man — Anton, a 28-year-old owner of a small trucking business whose parents live in Donetsk and who declined to give his last name for fear of jeopardizing his application — said that even after navigating this bureaucratic labyrinth, he had been told that he did not have sufficient reason to receive a pass.

He said the woman taking applications told him: “Do you think you are the only one here like this? Every day many people come here, they cry and beg me that they need the pass. But I refuse all of them!” 

Source: The New York Times

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