Graham Stack in Kharkiv -
Embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's most vocal supporters are currently not from his Donbass homeland, but from the second largest city of Kharkiv. But their combination of provocative sloganeering, abusive rhetoric and apparent thuggishness mean friends like these may do him no favour in the eyes of the nation.
Kharkiv played host on February 1 to an "All-Ukraine Congress of Party of Regions", a meeting of the local branches of the pro-government party, convoked in response to protests that have rocked Ukraine since Yanukoych failed to sign a free trade and association deal with the EU in November 2013. The protests have become known as Euromaidan, with reference to the Independence Square, or Maidan, in Kyiv, their epicentre.
Yanukovych is currently involved in protracted negotiations with opposition leaders over a settlement that could see political life return from city streets to the corridors of power. But on both sides the space for compromise is limited due to mutual accusations, escalating rhetoric and violence.
Kharkiv appears now to be the vanguard of Party of Regions ideology: The upshot of the All-Ukraine Congress was the founding of Ukrainian Front - an umbrella movement supporting Yanukovych, his pro-Russian foreign policy and heavy-handed domestic policies. But the phrase "Ukrainian Front" refers equally to the Soviet Red Army campaign that drove Nazi Germany out of occupied Ukraine in the World War II - thus provocatively equating protestors with fascists.
"70 years on, in Ukraine a new 'Ukrainian Front' is starting, the participants in which will follow their fathers' and grandfathers' example in freeing our lands, like in the 1940s of the last century," declared 44-year-old Mikhail Dobkin, governor of Kharkiv region for Party of Regions, and the driving force behind the congress, in his keynote address.
Playing the federation card
This was not the only deeply provocative note: The "All-Ukrainian Congress" and its warlike rhetoric awoke memories of the "Severodonetsk All-Ukrainian Conference of Deputies" of November 2004, at the peak of Ukraine's last mass protests, called the Orange Revolution. The conference was held in the town of Severodonetsk, in the eastern region of Lugansk, following western regions' refusal to accept the apparently rigged presidential election "won" by Yanukovych in 2004. At the Severodonetsk conference, Party of Regions bigwigs including Yanukovych called for carving out a federal state comprising south and east Ukraine.
Playing the federation card has been a political taboo ever since, due to fears it would trigger the country's implosion. But in the run-up to the February 1 event, controversial but influential Party of Regions MP Vadym Kolesnichenko called for Ukraine to become a federation, in a blog entry January 30. The Communist Party of Ukraine, co-backing the Ukrainian Front, duly published a draft bill for a new federalist constitution on February 1. The moves prompted a sharp rebuff from pro-western opposition leader Petro Poroschenko: "The other side are making noises about the so-called federalisation of the country. We will not give them the slightest chance," he told protestors in Kyiv on his return from the Munich Security Conference.
In the event, Party of Regions top brass failed to show at the congress in Kharkiv February 1, and there were no explicit calls for making Ukraine a federation. "There is a divide within the Party of Regions between those that back President Yanukovych and a united Ukraine and those who take their cue from the Kremlin and believe that some sort of union with Russia is a better solution," says Otilia Dhand, political scientist at consultancy Teneo Holdings.
Instead, the Kharkiv politicians focused on how to mount physical resistance to the protests - in particular to the opposition's seizure of government offices. "We are being forced to create parallel structures to defend state institutions," Dobkin said. Apart from the Party of Regions and the Communist Party of Ukraine, the congress was notably attended by military veterans organisations.
Dobkin's threats point to the authorities' apparent new strategy - to use paid civilians rather than men in uniform against protestors, a strategy that is already spreading dismay throughout the country. "Instead of violently dispersing the Maidan, the authorities will continue to conduct their 'stealth war'," says Taras Beresovets, head of analytical centre Berta Communications. "The goal of this stealth war is to intimidate as many citizens as possible against opposing the authorities."
Speakers at the congress thanked the anti-riot police units, called Berkut, blamed by the opposition for brutalising protestors. Already on January 31, Governor Dobkin and the Party of Regions majority in Kharkiv regional council provocatively donned black sweaters bearing the slogan Berkut, for a televised council session. The council then held a minute's silence for Berkut members "who had died during mass protests while defending the interests of their state." Ukraine's interior ministry claimed on the same day that a Berkut officer had died of a stress-induced heart attack while on duty in Kyiv.
Dobkin's close Party of Regions ally, the mayor of the city of Kharkiv, 55-year-old Hennady Kernes, already impaired Kharkiv's reputation as a centre of science and technology, in the eyes of many, in a TV interview on January 30.
In the bizarre and abusive 80 minutes long interview with star journalist Mustafa Naiem on Hromadskoe TV, Kernes lashed out personally at members of the opposition - alleging that one opposition leader was alcoholic and another gay. Kernes also persistently asked whether Naiem holds foreign bank accounts, while evading every question put to him. The video has since then attracted over 200,000 viewings on YouTube.
Asked about a video posted on the internet showing riot police humiliating a detained protestor by stripping him naked and photographing him in the snow, Kernes equated this to a secretly recorded and recently leaked sex video, apparently featuring an opposition figure. In what may be a first in media history, Naiem threatened to break off an interview with the official if he would not change his tone. Kernes concluded by addressing Naiem with the informal 'ty' form of you, and telling him he lacked "the human factor" and "definitely must read more books on philosophy."
Given Kernes' abusiveness and overall strangeness, Yanukovych may not thank him for his efforts to come out strongly against protestors. "80% of people in Kharkiv do not support what is going on in Kyiv," Kernes said, calling the protests "the flagrant manifestation of a certain technology and funding, by a certain circle of people." Kernes warned that any attempt by protestors to seize Kharkiv city hall would meet with "a more than tough response."
Kernes in the interview evaded answering whether he was recruiting martial arts enthusiasts, security guards and youths to intimidate protestors in Kharkiv. Kernes acknowledged the presence of the controversial local pro-Yankovych martial arts club Oplot: "I know there are people in this club who declare they are against allowing 'Banderovtsy' (West Ukrainian nationalists) to come to Kharkiv and I support this," Kernes said, adding that he had "simple relations" to the club's leader Evhen Zhilin and other sportsmen. "I know these sportsmen, they win medals here and abroad. This is a normal competition and process, where people don't use drugs or engage in homosexuality."
Since the seizure or attempted seizure of regional administrations across the country, combined with small anti-Yanukovych protests in Kharkiv itself, numerous reports in Kharkiv have spoken of hired sportsmen and youth intimidating protestors.
Opponents of Kernes allege that city hall is directly involved in organising these. Oleksandr Davidov, trainer at an Aikido studio with a university degree in English, is organising a small group to patrol against the pro-Yanukovych thugs in Kharkiv. Of their opponents he says, "only some of them are sportsmen, in fact many are simply disadvantaged youths from the villages near Kharkiv," he tells bne. "The police do nothing to stop them, and they actually seem to assist."
"There are in fact many people here who are dissatisfied with what is happening in Kharkiv and with the city authorities, and who support the 'Euromaidan' movement," said Davydov. "We have trained all our lives to defend people, not to attack them, and that is why we are getting involved to make sure that these people go unharmed."
A member of Kharkiv's martial arts subculture tells bne that, "Kharkiv is a country for itself, it has its own laws and system. The sportsmen are somewhat part of this system and connected to the city authorities."
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