(Bloomberg) -- With Russia declaring diplomacy at a dead end, a suburb just miles from the front lines in Ukraine would be among the first to know should Russia’s President Vladimir Putin decide to invade. The people here would be less ambivalent about which side to pick than the last time they came under attack, seven years ago.
Putin’s Russia isn’t admired in the city of Mariupol in the way it once was. When people imagine the future they might have under his rule, they no longer see a wealthier, more comfortable one in Russia, 30 miles (48 kilometers) away.
Today many compare their lives instead to the territory that lies between, held by Kremlin-backed separatists since an unsteady ceasefire stopped their approach to the city. They don’t like what they see. Crime rates are high, the economy is crippled and living standards are even lower than on the Ukrainian side of the so-called line of contact.
Life in the shadow of conflict has also taken a toll on Putin’s reputation among many of the Russian-speaking Ukrainians once most likely to believe they belong with Moscow. So too the influx of more than 100,000 people displaced from separatist areas of Donbas, who have direct knowledge of life there.
“Attitudes to Russia have completely changed,” says Svitlana Kalsina, director of School No. 5, whose windows and doors were blown in on Jan. 24 2015, when Russian-armed and aided militants shelled the district, killing more than 30.
Property values plummeted as people fled, according to a local real estate agent. The number of pupils at the school fell to 520, from 1,100, says Kalsina. Today, the Livoberezhniy district’s housing market is healthy again and her classrooms at capacity, with 1,160 students.
“Everybody understands now that Russia is the aggressor,” said Vadym Boichenko, Mariupol’s mayor since 2015, speaking at his office in the center of the city. At the same time, like every other person interviewed, he believed the cost of invasion would be too high for Putin to risk.
Instead, said the 44 year-old ex-steel factory manager, Mariupol, a city of half a million not counting those displaced from conflict zones, is turning into Ukraine’s “shop front window” to show how a reintegrated Donbas could be rebuilt.
New parks, buses and waterfront developments, water and sewage infrastructure, as well as a mushrooming of private cafes and restaurants have changed the look of the city.
A CCTV-based project has helped reduce crime by 30%, according to official data. Last year, Transparency International ranked Mariupol top among Ukraine’s cities for transparency and accountability, an improvement from 57th in 2016.
A law decentralizing Ukraine’s central budget played a big role, making more funds available. Mariupol now says it invests 40% of a $145 million budget in development each year. Boichenko says he aims to boost that to $100 million, soon.
A 2030 development plan, made with input from USAID and a team from nearby Georgia’s own “shop window,” the Black Sea resort of Batumi, was voted into force in December. It aims to turn Mariupol into a tourist destination with a new, leafy embankment built out into the Sea of Azov, together with modernized water supply and sewage systems and a medical cluster.
All of this seems fragile if not unreal, given the build up of troops across the border. Despite a stuttering diplomatic track and a large cyber attack last week on Ukrainian government websites, there are no signs of preparations for war in Mariupol. No bomb shelter drills, no empty grocery store shelves or reserves in new fatigues walking the streets.
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Defenses are being hardened, Boichenko said, but that is happening at the front, 12 miles from city hall.
For all the public investment and bravado, there’s little sign of private money and construction following suit. The city still lacks an airport, damaged during the war and now under military control. The nearest civilian runway is more than a three hour drive away, even after construction of a new road. Key rail connections also remain cut.
The change of heart among many of Mariupol’s ordinary citizens doesn’t mean they’re willing to fight to keep their city in Ukraine. Nor that they like the country’s pro-Western government any better than they did in 2014, when the capital’s so-called Maidan protests toppled former President Viktor Yanukovych, an ex-governor of Mariupol’s Donetsk region.
“The only thing Ukraine gained from Maidan was gay parades and a war,” said Vasilisa Ivanovna Markova, a 52 year old factory worker, approached at a fish stall in the Kyiv Market, just across the road from School No. 5. Her biggest concern, as for others at the market, was the rising cost of living.
“We sit here freezing, trying to sell something because we have to,” said 55 year old Natalia Linnyk, who has a table offering underwear. There were few customers. People can no longer afford to buy even inexpensive clothes, she said.
Asked who was at fault — the war, the Covid-19 pandemic or bad government — Linnyk picked the last. “Everything was good until 2014,” she said. As for a Russian invasion, “I don’t believe in it,” she said. “I don’t even think about it.”
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