July, 21

Ecological disaster, inevitable punishment for collaborators, and entrepreneurs’ challenges: Artem Lysohor discussed the sore points of the Luhansk oblast

06/18/2024 06:27:00 pm
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The number of residents in the Ukraine-controlled part of the Luhansk oblast is dwindling. As of June 3, when we spoke with the head of the Luhansk Oblast Military Administration, Artem Lysohor, there were 55 residents. In the following days, as reported by OstroV, several people were evacuated, and a few agreed to evacuation and were waiting for it. Thus, by the time this interview was released, there were fewer than 50 residents left.

Fewer than 50 — NOT thousands, but INDIVIDUALS.

It's difficult to explain even to fellow journalists from other partially occupied regions of Ukraine that the number of residents in the free territory of the Luhansk oblast is counted not in thousands but in individuals. This is hard to believe even considering the scale of occupation in the Donetsk or Zaporizhzhia oblasts.

Under this sign, fewer than 50 people live in the Ukraine-controlled territory

The problems of the Luhansk oblast, both in the occupied areas and in the combat zone, worsen day by day, making it extremely difficult to find anything optimistic in this topic. Therefore, in our conversation with Artem Lysohor, we sought constructive and sensible discussion rather than optimism.

On ecology: mines, groundwater flooding and forest fires

– Considering the number and depth of problems in the Luhansk oblast, it's hard to know where to start. Let's begin with a topic that has recently been frequently mentioned in news from the occupied territories: the environment. Forest fires continue unabated, they are not being extinguished, and they are spreading further. Groundwater flooding is occurring even in areas where it never happened before, such as the village of Rozkishne or the settlement of Bile in the Lutuhyne district, occupied since 2014. In cities occupied and destroyed since 2022—Sievierodonetsk, Rubizhne, Lysychansk—there is an overrun of rodents, unauthorized landfills, and complete unsanitary conditions. Popasna has turned into a minefield of large construction debris. So, tell us: how is the current environmental situation in the region being monitored? What do you personally consider the biggest environmental problems of the region? What is the plan of action to combat the environmental catastrophe?

– Ecology is indeed the biggest and most painful issue for me personally. All the information we receive on this topic comes either from monitoring open sources, satellite images, or data from our guys obtained through UAVs. In the case of UAVs, we are talking about a very limited distance into the region from the front line—up to 60 kilometers, sometimes a maximum of 100 kilometers. In addition, there is constant work with local residents who remain in the occupied territories, and the information we get from them varies greatly. It is clear that this information is not one hundred percent complete. In any case, data on the environmental damage caused to the oblast needs to be collected. We calculate the environmental impact using special formulas because Ukraine is addressing the International Court to confirm these consequences.

Recently, we have primarily been gathering information about forest fires. As we see, it did not stop at the Kreminna forestry—the forests of Sievierodonetsk have also started burning. We also see the futile attempts of the occupiers to extinguish the forests in the Stanytsia Luhanska district.

Regarding the flooding of areas—during the fighting, the enemy constantly destroyed dams. We see this with both the Kakhovka HPP and in the Luhansk oblast. It is clear that in some places, water levels fall, while in others, they rise. Nature is indeed a very dynamic force, including water. It finds the paths where it flowed hundreds of years ago, before the construction of locks and dams, and begins to flood these areas. If no water drainage work is carried out, which was always done before, then these results will occur.

– As for flooding—let’s talk separately about the mines. While the settlements in Sievierodonetsk and Shchastia districts, occupied in 2022, are mainly flooded due to precipitation, destruction of dams, and forests, the coal regions occupied since 2014 are also flooded due to improper mine closures, which is a completely different problem. Considering this, please tell me, have you personally been to that part of the Luhansk oblast before 2014, do you know it?

– Yes.

– So you must be aware that in the early 2000s, for example, in Pervomaisk and the village of Kalynove in the Popasna district, due to inadequate cleaning of the Luhan River's channel, groundwater from the mines literally flooded yards and filled wells, making the water undrinkable even for animals. Then 2014, sorry for the term, "masked" these problems with the occupation, but over the years, the issues only worsened. Until 2022, in the controlled part of Zolote, four mines were operating, one of which was solely for pumping water from the already occupied Pervomaisk mines. This helped prevent an ecological disaster. Now, Zolote is also occupied and destroyed, with heavy fighting taking place there... It's very difficult to imagine how it will be possible to clean this up after de-occupation. Can you say anything optimistic about this? Because when you think about it, it seems like the entire region is beyond saving.

– Regarding the mines: water is flooding areas where fighting took place after the full-scale invasion. There are destructions and collapses. You've seen the number of incoming shells... As for the territories occupied since 2014, the enemy hasn't done any work to preserve the integrity of the mines' property complexes all this time.

Besides collecting information about this, we are now holding meetings with representatives from some European countries with experience in closing and conserving mines. But we can't fully adopt this experience because their mines were conserved immediately after ceasing operations, with immediate work on water diversion.

However, we are establishing cooperation with a region in Slovakia on mine conservation. They offer a water diversion technology. They have an excellent processing complex that not only pumps out groundwater but also purifies it, then uses it as non-potable household water—for sewerage, etc. It's a very interesting project. But we understand, and our partners have told us: we need to physically get to our mines, examine the chemical compounds, and determine if the complex can handle the purification. Once we get there after de-occupation and see everything with our own eyes, the full picture will become clear.

In general, the problem with the mines and groundwater is one of the biggest for us.

On those at the front: "We monitor the fate of each of our fellow countrymen"

– Do you know how many residents of the Luhansk oblast serve in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and how many have died?

– Currently, this question is not very appropriate because mobilization data, including losses, is classified information of the Ministry of Defense. However, we are aware of it because we try to track and monitor the military path of each of our fellow countrymen. There is an issue that most of our guys are now being mobilized from their places of temporary residence—from where they are re-registered. But we cooperate with our military commissariat and the leaders of our communities, who constantly monitor this situation. The communities financially support the soldiers of the Armed Forces, find out about material needs through the brigades, and also support the families of servicemen.

Unfortunately, there are many tragic situations... Just last weekend, we were burying some of our guys. Our soldiers are dying, and their families are often either in the occupied territories or there are no families at all... All administrations join in these efforts. This past weekend, the Svatove administration tried to handle this and organized the funerals. We also try to help with the funerals of our soldiers. In the Luhansk Oblast Military Administration (OMA), there are employees responsible for communication with both the communities and the military brigades where our guys serve, in order to provide as much help as possible in this regard.

– How does the OMA interact with the Luhansk Territorial Defense units?

– I wouldn't separate the Territorial Defense Forces (TDF) from the rest. There are many of our Luhansk units—this includes the TDF, the National Guard, police special forces who have now joined the "Lut" brigade, the Luhansk border detachment... Furthermore, our work continues with all those in our defense zone, not just the Luhansk units. This includes the Azov regiment, the "Rubizh" brigade, the 60th brigade... I can't name all the brigades because the information about their locations is classified. The work is ongoing, we constantly receive requests from units, and we try to address them as quickly as possible through subsidies as permitted by the law. That is, we process direct requests from military brigades regarding their needs for fortifying positions or striking the enemy, these requests are coordinated with the Operational and Strategic Group of Forces "Khortytsia", and we try to provide assistance almost immediately—within the timeframes provided by the legislation.

Overall, last year we supported our Armed Forces and the Defense Forces of Ukraine with 400 million hryvnias through subsidies and purchases, and this year already with 115 million. For instance, our 111th TDF brigade needed help when moving into military positions—regarding FPV drones and transport. We purchased 16 SUVs just last week.

On collaborators: "...there might be vigilante justice"

– How would you personally explain that the main categories of collaborators are so-called public sector workers and law enforcement officers? Is there any statistical data on collaborators, broken down by industry and communities in the region?

– If I understand correctly, you are drawing this conclusion about public sector workers and law enforcement officers from the information presented in the media?

– Primarily from websites and social media of law enforcement agencies. Essentially, these are the only sources of such information available to the public.

– These are official and institutional channels showing work related to law enforcement and public sector workers. But the work of law enforcement doesn't end there. There is a large amount of work involved in gathering information about collaborators, and I don't see the point in categorizing them. I can say that our law enforcement agencies release information to the public about those individuals who are recognizable in their communities. This is to remind everyone about the inevitability of punishment and that Ukrainian law enforcement is aware of their activities.

It's clear that the enemy intentionally makes such people the "faces of the project", as they are more recognizable to the local community. By doing so, the occupiers show that these people "continue to serve Donbas, not the Banderite regime" – as they say literally. And that "russia does not punish but gives a chance".

However, we remember how all the "LNR" officials who engaged in significant cooperation with the enemy, held "positions", and headed certain bodies eventually ended up. It doesn't matter whether their fate caught up with them from Ukrainian units or their russian curators. We don't have to look far; the latest example is Manolis Pilavov, who had been the unchanging occupation "mayor" of Luhansk since 2014 and simply disappeared last year. Now, no one knows where he is now.

– And what happened to him?

– I think something interesting must have happened... Either he was arrested or eliminated. In any case, he disappeared a year ago, and there has been no information since. I believe law enforcement and intelligence knows exactly what happened, but we do not.

One of the last videos on occupation resources where Manolis Pilavov appeared as the "mayor" of Luhansk is dated August 2, 2023.

– My colleagues and I once had a discussion about the large number of collaborators reported by our law enforcement through the media. To explain what we meant, I'll draw a parallel. In Ivan Bahrianyi's novel "The Garden of Gethsemane", there is an opinion that when a country has such a multitude of "enemies of the people", as in the 1930s, then, probably, "these are not enemies of the people, but the people". So, doesn't the large number of reports about collaborators in the media create the effect that "these are not traitors, but the people"? Maybe there shouldn't be so many mentions of them in the media?

– Personally, I believe there should be. All this needs to be documented and made public so that people can see it. It's important that this information is not only presented by us but also appears on occupation resources. Collaborators must understand that the consequences of their actions are inevitable and will definitely come.

I'll explain why this is important. After de-occupation, the primary concern for people returning to the region will be the accountability of traitors. If, upon our arrival in the region, there is no information on some of them and no legal action has been taken, there could be instances of vigilante justice. Therefore, law enforcement is doing the right thing by collecting and registering all information. Law enforcement agencies— and I am a law enforcement officer myself— have many ways to access information. There are, so to speak, latent traitors, who avoid photos and videos. But if someone thinks we don't know they are supporting the enemy, they are gravely mistaken. And if any traitor believes they are unnoticed because they don't appear in photos or videos, they are also deeply wrong.

In this matter, everything is easily and clearly delineated. There are people who have not betrayed their country; they have come out and continued to work. Some people have not betrayed their state, even while being on that territory. They categorically refused to do so, even under the threat of their lives. We know of people who were detained but refused to cooperate with the occupiers. This primarily concerns some teachers and principals. So, it's simple here: there are traitors, and there are patriots.

On the interests of Luhansk businesses: "For now, it seems the government is hearing us… We'll see their decisions"

– How does the OMA help defend the interests of small and medium-sized businesses in the region?

– We are continuously working with the government and the ministries on this issue. Sometimes it even leads to opposition... Perhaps it's more of a debate than opposition. But truth is born in debate. We insist that entrepreneurs who were registered and operated in the Luhansk oblast should remain as such, provided they do not wish to relocate. However, there was an issue when representatives of Luhansk businesses were re-registering en masse with tax authorities in other regions. Now, entrepreneurs are starting to return to our tax offices.

– OstroV reported that entrepreneurs registered with the relocated tax authorities of the Luhansk oblast are being forced to re-register in other regions because clients, partners, and banks refuse to work with them. Has the Luhansk OMA done anything to address this specific issue?

– Yes, we are aware of this. Various individual entrepreneurs approached us, including carriers and those sending orders through Nova Post, because it also began refusing to work with entrepreneurs registered in Luhansk. This is due to the incorrect interpretation of Article 17, Clause 3 of the Law "On Ensuring the Rights and Freedoms of Citizens and the Legal Regime in the Temporarily Occupied Territory of Ukraine".

Last week, we had a meeting where we passed all materials on this matter to Minister for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories Iryna Vereshchuk. We received the appropriate explanations from the Ministry of Justice. We provided examples from PrivatBank and Nova Post, where our entrepreneurs were being refused service. Now, we are preparing an expanded meeting with the ministry.

Every time we try to handle situations manually, it doesn’t always work out, so we planned a separate bill. For now, we have decided to issue a clear, delineating resolution from the Cabinet of Ministers outlining what should be done and how. We fully understand how much our business sector needs protection. At the same time, we must prevent any critical preferential re-registrations of other firms with the tax authorities in the Luhansk oblast. If these were our companies—small or medium businesses that previously operated in the Luhansk oblast and want to continue being associated with the region—there are no issues. But if a newly established company in 2024 suddenly decides to register in the Luhansk oblast because of some preferential tax treatment, that’s a different matter.

We also raised the issue at the government level about stopping credit pressure and refusals to provide loans to entrepreneurs from the Luhansk oblast. Now, this issue needs to be addressed with the Ministry of Finance. It’s clear that there will be some losses for the banks. However, these will be significantly less than the losses suffered by our citizens who have lost everything. Until the end of the full-scale war, until our victory and return to our territory, our people won’t be able to repay their loans normally. We are currently working on freezing these loans. So far, it seems the government is listening to us... We’ll see what their decision will be.

Initial actions after de-occupation: clear step-by-step approach and the example of the Crimean Platform

– OstroV has briefly written about the "Plan of immediate actions for stabilizing the situation in the de-occupied territories of the Luhansk oblast and their reintegration", which is designed for 90 days. It proposes that mobile brigades, which are already formed for the communities occupied after the full-scale invasion, will enter the region after de-occupation. But what will happen to the communities that have been under occupation since 2014? These areas have been without Ukrainian administrations all this time. For example, it's clear that a mobile brigade headed by someone like, let’s say, Roman Vlasenko will enter the conditional Sievierodonetsk district, and another led by someone like Volodymyr Cherevaty will enter the conditional Starobilsk district. But how will it work in places like Kadiivka, Lutuhyne, or Alchevsk?

– Currently, we are discussing this issue with the state. Introducing eleven administrations at once (corresponding to the number of communities in the Luhansk oblast that have been occupied since 2014) would, firstly, be a significant budgetary burden, as a full-fledged administration requires personnel. Secondly, the development of such administrations raises many questions and discussions.

For territories occupied since 2022, we have relocated communities, hospitals, schools, and other institutions. However, for the long-occupied territories, everything will need to be established from scratch. We are considering having either the regional administration or newly created transitional administrations be responsible for these areas after de-occupation until the necessary bodies can be established.

We see an example in the Crimean Platform, which has taken a path of limited resources for preparing de-occupation. Of course, they are also starting from scratch. We will monitor their experience closely.

By Yuliia Sabaieva, OstroV