Ukraine pass to enter rebel zones spurs corruption

Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - The frontline slicing across east Ukraine is more than a boundary fought over by the army and pro-Russian forces; it is also a partition many Ukrainian civilians in the separatist-held zone need to cross to live their lives.

And so, naturally, an underground business has sprung up in providing Ukrainian government passes -- one in which corruption is the byword.

"You need a pass quickly? That'll cost you!" warns Irina, a young hospital nurse in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk who has a lucrative sideline in supplying "propusks" -- government passes authorising civilians passage into insurgent zones.

In this city, ads promising to provide the precious bits of paper are stuck up in the street, and have multiplied since Ukrainian authorities in January put their system in place restricting movement across the frontline.

Irina, who is behind one of those ads, says getting each pass takes a cascade of bribes to various Ukrainian officials.

"You have to get the OK from the police or the SBU (security service) in Velyka Novosilka. That costs at least 1,200 hryvnias (around $42 or 37 euros)" -- or around the legal minimum monthly wage in Ukraine -- she says.

- No welfare in rebel areas -

Velyka Novosilka, located some 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Donetsk on the other side of the frontline, is the town where Ukrainian officials have set up their headquarters to process pass requests.

The need for the pass has become pressing for Ukrainians living in rebel areas who need government welfare and pensions to get by.

Since November, Kiev has ceased making payments in the separatist zones and has closed banks there.

Irina used to make money by selling fake certificates to welfare recipients declaring they lived in other towns under Kiev's control.

"It was a lot easier then. You found someone who worked in the pensions service in Mariupol who helped in return for a pay-off. Now though for the 'propusk' you need contacts in the interior ministry and the SBU, and that costs a lot more," she says.

Now, residents on the rebels' side of the line need to pay for both the certificate and the government pass.

At Donetsk's bus terminal, drivers offer trips up to the nearest checkpoint in Kurakhove, 22 kilometres distant, where civilians can formally request their "propusk."

"I can reserve a place for you on the bus, but there's little chance of the trip working out. People have been going for more than a month, but haven't received any passes," warns one of the drivers, Vladimir, dressed in Cossack clothes.

Each day, four or five buses, each carrying 30 passengers, leave the terminal. The fare is 70 hryvnias, ($2.50 or two euros), which includes a form requesting the pass that the driver hands out.

"If you get a pass, we can bring it here within three weeks and you can come to get it," one of the Ukrainian volunteer national guardsmen at the Kurakhove checkpoint says.

However, he admits, "very few passes are brought here".

- Unavoidable corruption -

Given the situation, many inhabitants have no choice but to turn to the corruption that is omnipresent in Ukraine. Some manage to navigate it without middlemen.

"I know someone in Velyka Novosilka. He asked for 1,000 hryvnias (31 euros, $35) and did my 'propusk' in two days," says Olga, a secretary living in Donetsk.

"Because I knew him, I wasn't afraid that I might be paying for nothing," adds the young woman, whose family lives in Kurakhove.

Ukrainian officials, who imposed the pass system to control who goes in and out of the rebel area, as well as to isolate it, acknowledge that it has spurred corruption in the ex-Soviet republic, which has been mired in the rot of graft for many years.

"If someone formally made a legal complaint, we would have already caught the corrupt officials," says the acting prosecutor for the Donetsk region, Oleksandr Livochka, who is loyal to Kiev.

But "people don't want to lodge complaints -- it's easier for them to just pay than start a legal case," he says.

Back in Donetsk, Olga takes an ironic view. "A lot of people say the Donetsk region is no longer in Ukraine. But the hryvnia does miracles and lets us cross all borders."