Local elites and the Donbas conflict
: a comparative case study of Kharkiv city and Donets’k region

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis aims at answering the question why there was a secessionist conflict in Donets’k region, eastern Ukraine, by offering a comparative case study of Kharkiv city and Donets’k region. Drawing on the literature on political opportunity for protest, I argue that to explain the different trajectories taken by these two structurally similar regions, we need to focus on the behaviour of the local elites and activists in the period before the arrival of external agents and the macro-process of escalation to war in one region. 
In contrast with the history and identity approach, which – implicitly or explicitly – argues for the primacy of history, local ordinary people and their identities and emotions, I offer my own approach, which focuses squarely on the two groups of actors – the local elites and activists – and their rational action and interaction. Both regions in my story display a comparatively similar propensity to protest and violence, with Kharkiv city being more prone to protest violence as demonstrated through protest cataloguing and process tracing. 
What contrast the two regions are, firstly, the starkly different stances taken by the local elites towards the local protest and changes in Kyiv, and how pro-federal and pro-Russian activists used political opportunities for protest. In my story, the local elites created political opportunities for these activists. I treat the radical changes in the centre in Kyiv in February 2014 as the exogenous shock that informs the local elites’ behaviour. I borrow conceptual insights from the literature on patronage, clientelism and, more specifically, Henry Hale’s book Patronal Politics to explain the divergent behaviour of the local elites following the change in the governing network in the centre. I distinguish the city of Kharkiv and Donets’k region by the type of patronage that applies to their elites. These are diffused and concentrated types of patronage. I argue that in the city of Kharkiv, moderate pro-federal protest developed because the regional elites were functioning under a diffused patronage system. By contrast, in Donets’k, a concentrated patronage region, pro-Russian radicals took centre stage from the start. The result of these pre-war processes is that in one region, political opportunities for the intervention of foreign actors are closed off, whereas in the other they remain open. Therefore, an external actor might start an insurgency in one region only after exploring options in all the regions susceptible to conflict.
Date of Award1 Mar 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorGulnaz Sharafutdinova (Supervisor)

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