February 11, 2014, 10:14
Florian Kellermann, “ ‘We Must Clear Our Land of Those People’” (Translation by William Risch)
The east of Ukraine was a region that voted for Yanukovych for President in 2010. It is they who are demanding order and the clearing of Independence Square in Kyiv – “if necessary, with force, too.”
Blood sticks to the sidewalk on Artem Street. One strong stream of it clearly has splashed over the steps onto a wall. “That’s blood from demonstrators,” explains a young woman in a fur coat. Policemen had struck them with truncheons when they broke up the Euromaidan in Donetsk. The young woman considers this completely justified: “The demonstrators still resist when they’re arrested,” she says and then walks on.
The mood in the coal miners’ city of Donetsk and other cities of eastern Ukraine, where most people support President Viktor Yanukovych, becomes more aggressive. “Most don’t want any more negotiations. They demand that the President take care of order, if necessary, with force, too,” says Sergei Bogachev, Secretary of the Donetsk City Council and a member of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.
Clearing Independence Square
People demanded the clearing of Independence Square in Kyiv, claims the functionary. Only with difficulty could he explain to them the reasoning for further negotiations. “Finally, violence would make the situation worse.” Although Bogachev had no problem further rearming himself verbally: Nationalists from the Freedom (Svoboda) Party are setting the tone at Independence Square, “ones who represent radical views and use Fascist symbols,” he explained.
Meanwhile, almost all eastern Ukrainian Regionaires, as they are called there, have embraced that interpretation. This provides Yanukovych with a high degree of support.
Explosives and rubber bullets are no longer flying in Kyiv or anywhere else, but tensions are building up under the surface: While “self-defense units” made up of pro-Western demonstrators in Kyiv have grown to up to 12,000 volunteers, as their commander has claimed, there are also calls in eastern Ukraine for forming “defense troops.”
An organization in Kharkiv called Oplot (Bulwark) wants to organize street battles with the Maidan. “The Fatherland is in danger, we must defend it,” claims Ievhen Zhylin, leader of Oplot, in one appeal. He calls upon everyone “who is ready to fight the enemy.”
Yanukovych Has Been “Legally Elected”
The situation has been compared to that of 1941, when the German Reich attacked the Soviet Union. According to Zhylin, it’s about “the honor of our sacred land.” These aren’t empty words: Oplot runs a well-equipped fight club in the northern part of downtown Kharkiv. The organization does not say how many members this club has. “But our numbers are constantly growing,” says Aleksandr, who presents himself as a lawyer in the office of Oplot. “Every day we get a couple dozen applicants.” But he’s not allowed to say anything – his boss, Zhylin, is away abroad.
Zhylin says only this about his motives: “It’s simply offensive for me when they put pressure on my president.” Finally, Viktor Yanukovych has been “legally elected.” But there’s no direct connection with the Party of Regions, he declares. In any case, his appeal for self defense coincided with an extremely controversial event organized by the President’s party in Kharkiv.
Mykhailo Dobkin, the eastern region’s governor, brought together 6,000 party members for an assembly and called for establishing a “Ukrainian Front.” His rhetoric is conspicuously similar to that of Zhylin. “We must clear our land of those people who have come here to occupy it,” he claimed. Dobkin did not explain how exactly this should happen.
Promises to Bring Ukraine Closer to Russia
For Yanukovych’s opponents, this fight started a long time ago. Unknown assailants have set their cars on fire; well over 100 people have already been affected by this. There have also been attacks on party offices, like the Fatherland (Batkivshchyna) Party in Donetsk, where activists since then only work with the window blinds rolled down. Again and again, masked men attacked pro-EU demonstrators in eastern cities and beat up protestors – without the police able or willing to find those guilty. Oplot and similar organizations have distanced themselves from such incidents.
It was the east of Ukraine that voted for Yanukovych as president in 2010. He scored points there with his promises to move the country closer to Russia. That wasn’t very difficult for him to achieve, because most people in the east speak Russian instead of Ukrainian – and this is also true for the pro-Western capital, Kyiv. Rather, many people there have ties to this neighboring country.
According to a survey made last year by the Institute of Sociology at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, in the three eastern regions (Kharkiv, Donetsk, Luhansk), only about 30 percent identified themselves as ethnic Ukrainians. Around 20 percent gave “Russian” as their ethnic origins, and about half could not decide between the two options. Another reason for this is that most have acquaintances and relatives across the border.
Drawing Closer to the EU
“My son lives in Russia, my grandchildren live there,” claimed a retired woman at a pro-Yanukovych demonstration in Donetsk last week. “How can I be against them and want to be in the European Union?” The propaganda of Russian televsision stations, which many here watch, deliberately stirs up people’s fears. The tenor of such propaganda suggests that if Ukraine becomes separated from its neighbor, then the border with Russia will be about as sealed as the German-German border once was.
Yanukovych seemed not to have fulfilled his election promises, but it’s been the opposite. He indeed gave Russian the status of a “regional language” next to Ukrainian, the state language. And he extended the treaty for stationing Russia’s Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol in Crimea for 25 years, until 2042.
When Moscow made no concessions with gas prices, the President began drawing closer to the EU. He brought the Association Agreement negotiations to a close, and he had laws for it – some of them unpopoular ones – passed, including one raising the retirement age. “He couldn’t convince the eastern Ukrainians of this change of course,” says Valeriy Khmelko, Professor of Sociology at the Mohyla Academy.
Fired through Refusal
The number of EU opponents there remains unchanged: a high percentage, and in a significant majority. People were equally benevolent in the East when Yanukovych did not sign the Association Agreement at the EU summit in Vilnius in November.
However, when the Party of Regions called on demonstrations in support of the President, not many came – in Donetsk, a city of barely one million residents, somewhere between 50 and 100 people came last week. More people would show up only due to officials forcing them to take part, claims Ievheniia, who works in the regional state administration and does not want her last name mentioned. “Then the boss comes, and she says that all of us have to show up at the demonstration,” she says. She knows of instances where colleagues were fired because they refused to do it.
In no way does this show hidden sympathy for the protests at Kyiv’s Independence Square; instead, according to most observers, it reflects people’s inertia. “We make very little money, but our income comes in regularly, and we want no changes,” Ielena Barannyk, editor-in-chief of Nova Khvylia, the independent radio station in Kharkiv, thus describes the mood here.
That would be the same for her hometown in the Donetsk Region, where water flowed through the tap only on certain hours, and where all public buildings fell into disrepair because of coal fields being shut down. “Stability,” one of Yanukovych’s key words, would mean the greatest good there – and also stability at the lowest level. Thus, Yanukovych’s opponents are blamed not just for the protests in Kyiv, but also for the burning of opposition figures’ cars. They’re the ones who started the confrontation, they say in the East.