The Ukrainian city of Pokrovsk in the Donetsk region, home to nearly 65,000 inhabitants, has clearly suffered from the effects of the conflict with Russian-backed separatists, just 60 kilometres to its east. But local industry, consisting predominantly of coal mines and mechanical engineering works, is keen to attract external investment, under the guidance of a local administration that is gradually finding its feet.

City mayor Ruslan Trebushkin is not one for hubristic statements, but understands he has to work within current constraints and tough circumstances. One of his priorities is overseeing the area’s transition to biomass fuels, through 15 communal renewable energy projects, gradually replacing expensive gas heating systems.

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“Most of Europe pays three times less for electricity and gas than we do in Ukraine, so we are using biomass technology to generate cheaper energy,” he says. In this way the city hopes to save $1.8m each year, which can then be earmarked for other investments.

“Today, in Ukraine, the prime minister and president want to encourage such important projects and they want to help cities such as Pokrovsk through decentralisation,” says Mr Trebushkin, warming to his theme of greater local budgetary responsibility, permitted by recent Ukrainian legislation. “In many leading European countries, such as Germany and France, there is a similar system, where city councils have the power to spend their own budgets, with greater responsibility for local services,” he adds.

Empowering locals

Mr Trebushkin is keen to give local people greater say in how the annual city budget of Hrv150m ($5.5m) is allocated to schools, kindergartens, roads and roofing of communal buildings “to maximum effect”.

He talks openly about the ultimately unsuccessful efforts of “several hundred” local separatists to take over the administration buildings back in 2014 and how the city’s hospital treats many wounded soldiers from the nearby frontline.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Information is also improving access to Ukrainian TV channels by upgrading a transmission tower in Pokrovsk, to curb the reliance of many locals on nearby Donetsk-based separatist-run TV stations for their news. (The city was only renamed Pokrovsk in 2016, after its previous Soviet incarnation of Krasnoarmiysk, as part of Ukraine’s ongoing ‘decommunisation’ process.)

Another heated topic is Ukrainian activists’ blockade of the roads and railways leading to the territories that are currently occupied by Russian-backed separatist militias. The Ukrainian government also appears to be reluctantly backing a temporary freeze on cargo traffic.

“One side talks about the evils of separatism and corruption and the other about economics,” says Mr Trebushkin. “But this is painful for Ukraine. It is our territory and we need to pay the wages of people who work there. It is obviously a blow for the economy. Ukraine is a single, whole organism. You can’t cut off a leg or arm and expect it to survive in the same way.”

Support from outside

On a more optimistic note, the mayor is starting to see firms from the Netherlands, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Japan becoming involved in small projects of about €25,000 each to back citizenship initiatives and entrepreneurship.

Bigger projects in the pipeline include a shopping centre, housing, a supermarket, several cafes and a trading area for a broader range of outlets, plus a €3m grain elevator with capacity for 25,000 tonnes of grain, which will create up to 70 jobs.

“When I speak to my Polish counterparts, they tell me that our biggest problem is our Soviet legacy,” says Mr Trebushkin. “Under the Soviet Union there were too few initiatives actually coming from the people, as the government used to look after everything. This is something we have to change.”