Current Ukrainian Premier League champions and former Europa League victors FC Shakhtar Donetsk is one of Ukraine’s leading Football clubs. The vivid black and orange colours that adorn their kits are perhaps appropriately symbolic of the dark and fiery political struggle that threatens the future of those living in the Eastern Donbas region that the club calls home, and possibly even the club itself.
Two oblasts comprise what is known as “The Donbas”; Luhansk and Donestk, names that may be familiar to you thanks to their respective Football clubs, Zorya Luhansk and Shakhtar. The region is known predominantly for heavy industry; coal, steel and chemical manufacturing dominate the local economy and employ a vast number of its population. This is reflected in the evolution of the region’s leading Football club; the word “Shakhtar” means miner in Ukrainian. The Donbas region sits between the Ukrainian heartlands and the Russian border. Logically, this border region boasts the highest proportion of Russian speakers in the whole of Ukraine (excluding Crimea, which is now questionably Ukrainian anyway). Russian is the native language of 72% of Donbas residents.
Ukraine is a young concept. The regions of Europe’s largest country by landmass have historically shared little political, ethnic, religious and linguistic unity, a fact that undermines the strength of public institutions that preside over modern Ukraine. It is therefore easy for separatists in any part of the country to question Kievan rule over their territory, and in no place is this more evident than the Donbas. Even in modern times, this area has been largely self-governing, with central authority consistently absent as local oligarchs and business leaders effectively ruled over shifting territories as their interests rubbed up against each other. In the absence of tax authorities and an trustworthy police forces, the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts have unsurprisingly been breeding grounds for mafias. The richest man in the region, a certain Rinat Akhmetov with strong ties to former President Yanukovych, just happens to be the owner of the region’s most famous sports team, FC Shakhtar Donetsk.
To the residents of the Donbas, the guiding yet firm hand of Kiev on their internal affairs feels alien and an inconvenience to those who see their quasi-legitimate commercial interests threatened by the bureaucracy and accountability that is to be expected with strong statehood. The business wilderness and dog-eat-dog rule that have become synonymous with the Donbas have been difficult habits to break, evident in the locals’ reluctance to integrate with Europe and the Wider West; a poll in 2013 found that only 13.2% of participants in the Donbas had traveled to “The West”, defined as the EU, USA and Canada, lower than the national average. This makes the argument that these two oblasts do not belong to Ukraine very powerful, but it also makes Moscow’s claim to rule over the region refutable, in spite of arguably closer linguistic ties and Mr Vladimir Putin’s insistence on referring to it as part of “Novorossiya”. In a poll in April 2014, only 27.5% of people in Donetsk and 30.3% of respondents in Luhansk supported union with Russia. The happiest compromise for the Donbas in a modern Europe has been to exist under nominal Kievan rule while maintaining a great degree of autonomy.
This delicate balance was tipped in 2014, with devastating consequences. The ousting of Russophilic President Viktor Yanukovych by the 2014 Maidan Demonstrations in Kiev prompted reactions from those inside and outside the country with vested interests in undermining the potential for increased economic integration between Ukraine and the European Union that Yanukovych had worked to prevent. In a matter of days, armed men stormed the parliament of the Crimea Peninsula and forced its governors to sign a motion declaring the transfer of Crimea from Kiev to Moscow at gunpoint. Shortly afterward, citizens of the Donbas who were empathetic to the separatist movement took inspiration and took up arms. Luhansk and Donetsk erupted in violence as Moscow sent several thousand soldiers to the border to discourage military intervention from either the EU or Kiev, whilst also funding and arming militia groups in the Donbas.
However, the Russian-backed separatists failed to cooperate, and their zeal at the chance to stir up trouble quickly descended into in-fighting as local oligarchs saw the opportunity to win influence and power away from others, including Rinat Akhmetov. The Donbas has become a war zone, with underfunded but resolute Ukrainian soldiers fighting to push back resource-endowed but divided separatists. Far from being a quick win in the way that the Russian annexation of the Crimea was, the conflict has dragged on, resulting in over 10,000 casualties and testing Moscow’s patience.
After the outbreak of conflict in 2014, FC Shakhtar Donetsk was effectively relocated from the Donbass Arena to play all home fixtures in Lviv, a West Ukrainian city some 1,000 kilometres away from Donetsk. The club did later relocate to Kharkiv, a measly 150km away from the club’s eponymous city of origin, but Shakhtar fans have no doubt been hung out to dry in this episode. The huge irony of the situation is that Rinat Akhmetov has been a major agent in the conflict.
The Donbas oligarch allegedly paid off around two thirds of the region’s “activists” in 2014. His motives were straightforward; Akhmetov benefited from a distant Kiev that subsidised much of his regional business empire yet failed to collect taxes from him. The removal of his buddy, Viktor Yanukovych, threatened the status quo and the privilege that he very much enjoyed, but ongoing conflict in the region has come back to bite him. Much of the local infrastructure has been damaged, but more critically and in typical Donbas fashion, rival oligarchs are closing in on his dominance, using the violence and anarchy to capture and control formerly-Akhmetov territory piece by piece.
FC Shakhtar Donetsk continues to be a force to be reckoned with in Ukrainian and international Football, but Shakhtar fans’ current inability to watch home fixtures in their own city thanks to the conflict has done little to endear the politically ambitious oligarch to citizens in the Donbas. Yet if the separatist cause prevails and either unites the Donbas with the Russian Federation or creates an entirely separate state, Shakhtar will surely be dragged away from the Ukrainian Premier League. One could and many would argue that admission of FC Shakhtar Donetsk to the Russian Premier League, where competition is probably of a higher standard, would prove beneficial to the club. An independent Donbas region may be popular in the eyes of some, but the small region could not realistically support a functioning and attractive Football league system.
Rinat Akhmetov definitely doesn’t want to see Shakhtar dominate a tiny pond that investors would be reluctant to fish in. The fate of the Miners rests entirely on the outcome of the mess that he helped create.