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 covered about a third of the two regions’ territory and was home to more than half of their prewar population of 6.5 million people, though the current population cannot be precisely determined. Local authority rested in the hands of the so-called People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (DNR and LNR, respectively), which were entirely dependent on Moscow for financial and military support. Both entities were recognized by Russia as independent states in 2022; Donetsk and Luhansk were annexed by Russia later in the year. Security services exercise tight control over local political activity, leaving no room for meaningful opposition. Local media are severely restricted and social media users have been arrested for critical posts. The rule of law and civil liberties are not respected.
- In February, just ahead of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of the DNR and LNR. Donetsk and Luhansk were annexed by Russia along with the Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in sham referendums in September; residents of the occupied areas were then given one month to accept Russian citizenship.
- Men residing in the DNR and LNR were subject to mobilization in February as Russian forces prepared their invasion of Ukraine. Men were detained or press-ganged into service and were subjected to poor conditions.
- Residents of occupied areas faced violence previously unseen in the region after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February, with the cities of Mariupol, Sievierodonetsk, and Lysychansk being effectively destroyed during the year. In December, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) counted 4,052 killed and 5,643 injured in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions since February 24; 483 were killed and 1,633 injured in Russian-controlled areas.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||0.000 4.004|
Under the constitutions of the DNR and LNR, executive authority was exercised by a directly elected “head of the republic,” who appointed a prime minister and cabinet with the consent of the legislature.
Donetsk leader Denis Pushilin and Luhansk leader Leonid Pasechnik, who are considered widely unpopular but loyal to Moscow, won deeply uncompetitive and fraudulent leadership elections in November 2018. New constitutions introduced in December 2022 reportedly abolished the direct election of leaders.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||0.000 4.004|
The preexisting DNR and LNR constitutions called for “People’s Councils” of 100 and 50 seats, respectively. Under legislation passed in Moscow in October 2022, the People’s Councils will still exercise local control until new legislatures are elected.
The November 2018 legislative polls were held under the same flawed conditions as the concurrent executive 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?||0.000 4.004|
The de facto 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. The sham September 2022 referendums were held under dubious conditions; voting in occupied areas was reportedly conducted door to door by armed soldiers or under armed escort.
|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?||0.000 4.004|
The DNR and LNR featured political duopolies, with both officially sanctioned parties (dubbed “public movements”) supporting roughly the same policy agenda. Any other political organizations, even if they were also pro-Russian in orientation, were effectively banned.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||0.000 4.004|
The run-up to the 2018 elections showed that meaningful competition, even within the pro-Russian spectrum, was not tolerated. Some dissident figures have been rehabilitated, though those who most frequently criticized the local leadership were sidelined. Donetsk separatist figure Pavel Gubarev had received the latter treatment in the past. In October 2022, however, Gubarev was filmed voicing support for—and threatening violence against Ukrainians who opposed—Russian rule.
|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?||0.000 4.004|
Throughout 2022, Moscow exerted more direct control over the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. In June, Russian officials were appointed to government positions in the DNR, including the prime ministership. Local media, schools and universities, public services, and business structures are dominated by people loyal to Putin. Political control has been enforced by the secretive “state security” ministries of the two regions, which are thought to be directed by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). The military formations known as “people’s militias,” which have some 20,000 men under arms, are reportedly commanded by regular Russian officers and were active during 2022.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||0.000 4.004|
While the republics’ 2014 constitutions guaranteed equal rights regardless of ethnicity, race, or religious belief, ethnic and religious groups not affiliated with Russia are excluded from politics in practice. No segment of society is able to organize independently to advocate for its interests in the political sphere.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||0.000 4.004|
None of the officials in Donbas are freely elected, and their de facto governments’ extreme opacity made it difficult to discern how much autonomy they have had vis-à-vis the Russian government. However, there have been numerous indications that major policy decisions were made in Moscow, as both de facto governments announced similar decisions in 2022 without deliberation, including the sham referendums held in September and the introduction of new constitutions in December.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||0.000 4.004|
Corruption is thought to be widespread in the occupied territories, and there are no effective mechanisms in place to combat it. While local 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?||0.000 4.004|
A persistent lack of transparency in public life is an overarching feature of the de facto authorities. Levels of secrecy have steadily increased over past years. The DNR and LNR communicated government staff changes without much 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?||-1.00-1|
Professing Ukrainian identity in Russian-controlled areas is considered dangerous, and most residents who identified as Ukrainian have left since 2014. The DNR and LNR abolished official-language status for Ukrainian, making Russian the sole official language. After annexation, local educational curriculums were fully replaced by those used in the Russian Federation.
|Are there free and independent media?||0.000 4.004|
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” local broadcasters, websites, and print media. Local outlets largely republish information and quotes from local and Russian officials. Coverage of the war against Ukraine closely resembles that seen in Russian state media. In December 2022, authorities in Donetsk began distributing free satellite-television equipment to boost local consumption of Russian state broadcasts.
Pro-Ukrainian bloggers and journalists have been silenced by long prison sentences and eventual deportation to government-controlled Ukraine during prisoner exchanges.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||1.001 4.004|
Although both the DNR and LNR guaranteed 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 then, a mandatory reregistration process has left many groups without recognition, and raids or other forms of 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 Russian-controlled areas since 2014.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||0.000 4.004|
Local universities and high schools gradually switched to Russian standards after 2020, having introduced new curriculums with revised history lessons and reduced Ukrainian-language instruction. In 2022, the local education system was forcibly integrated into the Russian system, with schoolbooks being sent from the Russian Federation.
Political indoctrination is rampant in the occupied areas and targeted at the younger generation, with the DNR and LNR having established 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?||0.000 4.004|
Any public expression of criticism is highly risky and private citizens’ online activities are monitored. Testimony from former prisoners about torture and abuse in custody serves to deter free expression.
After Russian forces occupied territory in Donbas, local internet service providers were effectively displaced in favor of Russian counterparts; internet users in occupied areas of Ukraine, including Donetsk and Luhansk, connect via Russian telecommunications infrastructure and are subject to the same censorship and monitoring regimes as users in Russia.
Score Change: The score declined from 1 to 0 because internet users in occupied areas of Donbas are forced to connect via Russian telecommunications infrastructure and are consequently exposed to Russian censorship and monitoring practices.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||0.000 4.004|
The de facto authorities have not tolerated any protests 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?||0.000 4.004|
Independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are not permitted to operate. The last independent Ukrainian NGO, the Donetsk-based Responsible Citizens volunteer group, stopped functioning in 2016 when its leaders were forcibly deported to government-controlled Ukraine. Foreign organizations like the Czech NGO People in Need were also expelled.
In two separate events in April 2022, six Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) mission members in Donetsk and Luhansk were detained by local authorities. Two were released in May; another two received 13-year sentences in the LNR in September.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||0.000 4.004|
Official trade union federations are headed by lawmakers who defer to the local leadership. The officially sanctioned unions’ purpose is to rally workers’ support for the de facto 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?||0.000 4.004|
There are no signs of judicial independence in occupied territory. 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?||0.000 4.004|
Basic due process guarantees are not observed by de facto 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 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?||0.000 4.004|
Residents of occupied territory had faced physical insecurity due to fighting between Ukrainian forces and separatists, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 brought levels of violence and destruction previously unseen in the region. Military offensives resulted in the almost-total destruction of the cities of Mariupol, Sievierodonetsk, and Lysychansk and caused large-scale loss of life. In December, the OHCHR counted 4,052 killed and 5,643 injured in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions since February 24; 483 were killed and 1,633 injured in Russian-controlled areas. According to previous OHCHR figures, more than 13,000 people had been killed since the conflict began in April 2014, including more than 3,350 civilians.
Long-standing reports of abuse, sexual violence, and torture in prisons and detention centers have persisted. Residents have also been subjected to forced mobilization, with men being forcibly rounded up and pressed into Russian-led armed formations.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||0.000 4.004|
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 addition to the prevailing hostility toward Ukrainian ethnic identity, there are no provisions to protect the region’s 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?||0.000 4.004|
Travel into territory controlled by Kyiv is effectively impossible due to the war. People eligible to collect state pensions in government-controlled Ukraine are heavily affected by ongoing travel difficulties.
Moscow’s distribution of Russian passports to residents of the occupied territories continued in 2022. In August, the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Information said that 700,000 passports were issued in occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk over a three-year period. Local residents are often forced to accept Russian citizenship and surrender their Ukrainian passports.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||0.000 4.004|
Local de facto authorities ignore property rights. In 2021, they began to “legalize” apartments seized from lawful owners who have fled. Large privately owned businesses confiscated in 2017 were restructured in a new secretive holding, the Southern Mining and Metals Complex, in 2021.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||2.002 4.004|
Domestic violence is a serious problem. Both the DNR and LNR took 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 the DNR nor LNR recognized same-sex marriage. A report published in 2016 found drastic worsening of the environment for LGBT+ people, but there has been little information since.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||1.001 4.004|
Economic opportunity is greatly impaired by the war, trade barriers with government-controlled Ukraine, international sanctions, and the concentration of wealth and resources in the hands of Russian and local elites. Many residents are dependent on humanitarian assistance. Exploitative working conditions, including low or unpaid wages, have been reported even by separatist-controlled media. Russian-led forces have allegedly trained and enlisted minors for participation in armed conflict.
On Eastern Donbas
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Global Freedom Score3 100 not free