The numerical scores and status listed here do not reflect conditions in either government-controlled Ukraine or Crimea, which are examined in separate reports. Freedom in the World reports assess the level of political rights and civil liberties in a given geographical area, regardless of whether they are affected by the state, nonstate actors, or foreign powers. Disputed territories are sometimes assessed separately if they meet certain criteria, including boundaries that are sufficiently stable to allow year-on-year comparisons. For more information, see the report methodology and FAQ.
Eastern Donbas comprises the portions of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions that have been occupied by Russian and Russian-backed separatist forces since 2014. It covers about a third of the two regions’ territory and was home to more than half of their prewar population of roughly 6.5 million people, though the current population cannot be determined with precision. Local authority lies in the hands of the so-called People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (DNR and LNR, respectively), which claim to be independent states but are not recognized by any country, including Russia. Both are entirely dependent on Moscow for financial and military support, and their leaders have openly proposed joining the Russian Federation. Politics within the territories are tightly controlled by the security services, leaving no room for meaningful opposition. Local media are also under severe restrictions, and social media users have been arrested for critical posts. The rule of law and civil liberties in general are not respected.
- Russia’s policies towards Donbas focused on political “integration,” amounting in practice to Russification and creeping annexation more than ever before. By the year’s midpoint, Russia had issued more than half a million passports to Ukrainian nationals residing in the occupied areas, and invited them to vote in Russia’s tightly controlled parliamentary elections in September.
- The coronavirus pandemic had severe consequences for both public health and the economy. Promises by separatist leaders that Russia would ship enough vaccine to achieve herd immunity by the end of the year were not fulfilled and COVID death-rates soared in the fall, as the delta variant swept across the open border from Russia.
- Crossing points with government-controlled Ukraine remained closed, making it very hard for pensioners to pick up state payments in government-controlled areas. Aid shipments from the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were delivered, while Russian aid was massively reduced.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
Under the two separatist entities’ constitutions, executive authority is exercised by a directly elected “head of the republic,” who appoints a prime minister and cabinet with the consent of the legislature.
The winners of the deeply uncompetitive and fraudulent leadership elections in November 2018 remained in place during the year. Both Donetsk leader Denis Pushilin and Luhansk leader Leonid Pasechnik are believed to be widely unpopular but sufficiently loyal to Moscow.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
The DNR and LNR constitutions call for “People’s Councils” of 100 and 50 seats, respectively. Legislative elections in November 2018 were held under the same flawed conditions as the concurrent leadership elections, with no meaningful competition permitted. Both entities feature only two authorized political “movements.” In the DNR, the ruling Donetsk Republic movement was credited with 72.5 percent of the vote, while Peace for Luhansk took 74.1 percent in the LNR. The remaining seats went to the two secondary and equally loyal movements, Free Donbas and the Luhansk Economic Union.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
The separatist electoral authorities implemented their entities’ laws and regulations arbitrarily in 2018, allegedly manipulating the declared election results and using technicalities to exclude unapproved challengers who might be capable of attracting support. For example, the DNR election commission approved each of the officially sanctioned candidates’ lists of signatures, but it rejected the list submitted by separatist businessman Pavel Gubarev on the grounds that it contained fake signatures.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
The separatist entities feature political duopolies, with both officially sanctioned parties supporting roughly the same policy agenda. Any other political organizations, even if they are also pro-Russian in orientation, are effectively banned. The Communist Party, for instance, has been denied registration in occupied Donetsk.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
The run-up to the 2018 elections showed that meaningful competition, even within the pro-Russian separatist movement, is not tolerated. And while a few dissident separatists have been rehabilitated, those who criticize the current leadership, like former Donetsk separatist figures Pavel Gubarev and Andrei Purgin, remained sidelined.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?
Russia has established a complex albeit opaque web of control over the “People’s Republics” that affects all aspects of daily life, including political affairs. Local media, schools and universities, public services, and business structures are dominated by people loyal to the separatist leadership. While many of them are locals, some key positions are held by Russian citizens. Political control is ultimately enforced by the secretive “state security” ministries of the two entities, which are thought to be directed by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). The military formations known as “people’s militias,” which have tens of thousands of men under arms, are believed to be commanded by regular Russian military officers.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
While the republics’ constitutions guarantee equal rights regardless of ethnicity, race, or religious beliefs, in practice ethnic and religious groups not affiliated with Russia are excluded from politics, and no segment of society is able to organize independently to advocate for its interests in the political sphere. Professing pro-Ukrainian sentiment is outright dangerous.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
None of the separatist officials in Donbas are freely elected, and their de facto governments operate with extreme opacity, making it difficult to discern how much autonomy they have in practice vis-à-vis the Russian government. However, there are numerous indications that major policy decisions are made in Moscow rather than in Donetsk or Luhansk. This is discernible when both “republics” announce similar decisions without any prior deliberation—including, recently, the organization of the Russian Duma elections in September 2021.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
Corruption is thought to be widespread in occupied Donetsk and Luhansk, and there are no effective mechanisms in place to combat it. While separatist authorities regularly report arrests among customs and police officials, there is no evidence that corruption is effectively curtailed.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
A persistent lack of transparency in all spheres of public life is an overarching feature of both separatist regimes. Levels of secrecy have steadily increased over past years. In 2021, DNR authorities drafted a bill that would further restrict the publication of basic statistical data, citing “information security.” Both “republics” continued the practice of communicating the removal of cabinet members simply by presenting successors without explanation or public discussion.
|Is the government or occupying power deliberately changing the ethnic composition of a country or territory so as to destroy a culture or tip the political balance in favor of another group?
Professing Ukrainian identity in the separatist-controlled areas of Donbas is considered dangerous, and most residents who identified as Ukrainian have left since 2014. Both entities have abolished official-language status for Ukrainian, making Russian the sole official language. School and university curricula are gradually being brought in line with those used in the Russian Federation.
|Are there free and independent media?
No free and independent media have operated in the occupied Donbas since 2014 and the local media landscape remains firmly in the hands of “official” DNR and LNR broadcasters, websites, and print media. Separatist outlets largely republish information and quotes from separatist and Russian officials. Reports about the armed conflict are exclusively based on statements from separatist militias, who blame the Ukrainian side for every cease-fire violation. Coverage of government-controlled Ukraine is almost always negative, whereas reporting on the “Republics” is fawningly positive.
Pro-Ukrainian bloggers and journalists have been silenced by long prison sentences and eventual deportation to government-controlled Ukraine during prisoner exchanges. Pro-Russian bloggers critical of the separatist leadership operate anonymously and under the constant threat of detention and imprisonment.
Ukrainian journalists generally do not enter the DNR and LNR for safety reasons, and most foreign media remain subject to extremely restrictive accreditation policies, meaning that they are practically barred from reporting.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
Although both the DNR and LNR guarantee freedom of religion in their constitutions, adherents of faiths not affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church remain subject to persecution. The most severely affected are Jehovah’s Witnesses, who in 2018 were banned completely as an extremist organization and had their properties seized. Since that year, a mandatory reregistration process has left many groups without recognition, and raids or other pressure have been directed at Baptists, members of the Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, the Greek Catholic Church, and some Muslim communities. Most members of religious minorities, including Roman Catholics and Jews, are thought to have left the separatist-held areas since 2014.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
Local universities were brought under separatist control in 2014. Some, like Donetsk National University, split into two rival institutions, with one established in government-controlled territory and the other run by separatist authorities at the old location. Political indoctrination is rampant in the occupied areas; high schools were forced to switch to Russian standards in September 2020, having previously introduced new curricula with revised history lessons and reduced Ukrainian-language instruction.
Political indoctrination is targeted at the younger generation. Both republics set up militarized youth organizations for this purpose. Membership in the Young Guards–Yunarmia is open from 8 years onward, prompting allegations of a children’s army.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
Any public expression of criticism is highly risky and private citizens’ online activities are monitored. In June 2021, Donetsk-based pro-Russian commentator Roman Manekin was apparently sentenced to 2.5 years in jail for “justifying terrorism.” Manekin, who regularly criticized the local leadership on social media, had been in detention since December 2020. Testimony from former prisoners about torture and abuse in custody also serves to deter free expression.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
The de facto authorities have not tolerated any protests in the separatist-held areas since 2014, when most pro-Ukrainian activists fled. Rare attempts to hold rallies, as last happened during a miners’ strike in 2020, are usually quickly thwarted by agents of the self-proclaimed state security ministries.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
Independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are not permitted to operate. The last independent NGO in the separatist-held areas, the Responsible Citizens volunteer group, stopped functioning in 2016 when several of its leaders were forcibly deported to government-controlled Ukraine. Foreign organizations like the Czech organization People in Need were also expelled. The only remaining international organizations are the ICRC, UN agencies, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
The DNR and LNR have official trade union federations, and both are headed by separatist lawmakers who defer to the local leadership. The officially sanctioned unions’ purpose is to rally workers’ support for separatist authorities, rather than to defend their labor rights. In 2020, for example, LNR miners’ union leaders supported the “restructuring” of 56 mines, a process that came with significant wage and job losses.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
There are no signs of judicial independence in the two separatist entities. Courts routinely hand down lengthy prison sentences against alleged Ukrainian agents and other perceived enemies of the local authorities, validating spurious charges regardless of the evidence. The work of the judiciary is entirely opaque, as outside observers are not known to have attended court hearings.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
Basic due process guarantees are not observed by separatist authorities or affiliated armed groups. Arbitrary arrests and detentions remain common, and interrogators have reportedly used force and torture to extract confessions. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine said in a September 2020 report that interviews with released prisoners “confirmed patterns of torture and ill-treatment.”
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
Violence between Russian-backed separatist forces and the Ukrainian military worsened in 2021, as a new ceasefire brokered in 2020 was increasingly disregarded. More than 13,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in April 2014, including more than 3,350 civilians, according to the most recent figures (issued in 2020) from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The OSCE Monitoring Mission recorded 88 civilian casualties between January and mid-December 2021: 16 fatalities and 72 injuries. The OHCHR has condemned the lack of institutional mechanisms to prevent and punish enforced disappearances.
There have been numerous reports of abuse, sexual violence, and torture in separatist prisons and detention centers. The self-proclaimed state security ministries of both entities regularly publish videos in which detainees confess to spying and other forms of subversive activity while showing signs of physical abuse or severe psychological pressure.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
The deeply flawed legal system operating in the occupied regions offers little recourse for women facing gender-based discrimination, and the basic rights of LGBT+ people are not recognized. In 2018, two Russian transgender activists traveled to Donetsk with the aim of carrying out an art performance in support of such rights. They were quickly arrested and expelled.
In addition to the prevailing hostility toward Ukrainian ethnic identity, there are no provisions to protect the separatist-held areas’ other ethnic minority groups—such as Greeks, Azerbaijanis and Armenians—from discrimination.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
Travel restrictions between the separatist-held areas and government-controlled Ukraine deteriorated severely during the COVID-19-pandemic. All five crossing points remained largely closed for much of 2021, opening only with severe restrictions. The DNR allowed only previously approved individuals to enter, while the LNR allowed individuals to exit only once per month. Crossings between the two remained closed for the first half of 2021. Most of those affected were the more than one million old-age pensioners, who can no longer travel directly to government-controlled Ukraine to pick up state payments. Travel to and from Russia remained less impeded, but senior separatist officials must still inform their leaders before leaving the territories.
The Russian government’s distribution of Russian passports to residents of the occupied territories continued in 2021, and the number of issued passports exceeded 600,000 by the summer. An intensifying campaign against the Ukrainian language and identity has raised fears that Ukrainian passport holders will face increasing difficulties in the future.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
The separatist authorities continue to ignore property rights. In 2021, faced with massive wage arrears and mounting debt, the de facto authorities announced the disbanding of Vneshtorgservis, the secretive holding company that operated plants confiscated from private Ukrainian companies. They announced that the factories would be run by a little-known Russian investor. There have been numerous reports of other property seizures, including the expropriation of apartments whose lawful owners have fled.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
Domestic violence is a serious problem, and both separatist entities have taken nominal steps to improve the protection of women and children. However, the loss of Ukrainian government and NGO services has negatively affected conditions for victims. Neither separatist entity recognizes same-sex marriage. A report published in 2016 found drastic worsening of the environment for LGBT+ and transgender people, but there has been little information since.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
Economic opportunity is impaired by the ongoing conflict, trade barriers with government-controlled Ukraine, international sanctions, and the concentration of wealth and resources in the hands of Russian- and separatist-affiliated elites. Many residents are dependent on humanitarian assistance. Exploitative working conditions, including low or unpaid wages, have been reported even by separatist-controlled media. Separatist forces have allegedly trained and enlisted minors for participation in armed conflict.
On Eastern Donbas
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Global Freedom Score2 100 not free