Strange bedfellows join protests in eastern Ukraine cities

By bne IntelliNews March 10, 2014

Harriet Salem in Donetsk -

Crises often throw up unlikely bedfellows - and Ukraine is no exception. As rallies continued across eastern Ukrainian cities over the weekend of March 8, pitting pro-Russia supporters against Ukrainian nationalists, in the divided city of Donetsk football hooligans and the predominantly middle class and student-led pro-unity activists are backing the same team.

Best known for their brutal clashes against arch rivals Kyiv Dynamos and the intimidation of visiting fans during the Euro 2012 football championships, the football hooligans, or "ultras", of FC Shakhtar Donetsk are now on the frontline of a political war to save Ukraine.

In January, ultras across the country, from Kyiv to Donetsk and Odessa, put aside their violent disagreements to step into the political arena for the first time as a united force. Instead of fighting one another, these ultras called a truce that enabled them to mobilise against a common enemy - the corrupt regime of the now ousted pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. The move was unprecedented; in the past, Ukraine's notoriously violent ultras have eschewed politics. During the 2004 Orange Revolution, the Shakhtar football team even changed their kit colours from orange and black to plain black to ensure they were not associated with the Tymoshenko-led political movement in the capital.

Ilya, a Shakhtar ultra from Donetsk, travelled to Kyiv as soon as he saw the violent clashes in the capital on television. There he met with football fans from across the country. "We stood together for the pride of the country," says the 25-year-old street fighter. In January Ilya spent six days on Hrushevskoho Street - just round the corner from Dynamo's football stadium - which was the epicentre of the violent clashes in the capital. There, anti-government protesters hurled Molotov cocktails and fireworks at police, who responded by spraying tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd. "I saw great pride and bravery amongst the people in Kyiv," says Ilya. "Even old women were helping pass bricks up to the frontline."

Two died in fights when law enforcement officials are alleged to have used live ammunition. Following the violence, the Euromaidan's leaders embraced the football fans' heroic efforts, reading out a long list of clubs in a message of "thanks."

Now the battle is over in the capital, the ultras have returned home to continue the crusade in their eastern hometowns, many of which contain virulent pro-Russia sentiment. Perhaps nowhere is this more the case than Donetsk, the birthplace of Yanukovych and the heartland of his now-defunct pro-Russian Party of the Regions. However, whilst Yanukovych may have fled the country, many in the pro-Russia Donetsk continue to reject the new authorities in Kyiv, branding them "bandits" and "criminals" who have led an illegal power snatch.

Tensions continue to simmer in this industrial city; on March 9, pro-Russian protesters managed to take down a Ukrainian flag near the regional government building, replacing it with a Russian flag. Earlier in the week, on March 5, more than 2,000 pro-unity demonstrators gathered in Lenin Square for a charged standoff with around 1,000 pro-Russia supporters. Competing chants of "Glory to Ukraine, glory to its heroes" and "Donbas is Russia" rang through the air. Unity activists waved giant flags and sung Ukrainian hymns, whilst the Kremlin supporters retaliated by hurling firecrackers and eggs. Flanking the unity activists, who are mainly drawn from Donetsk's student population and middle-class business owners, was their new surprising ally. "We are just here to make sure that everyone gets home safely," says Ilya, one of 100 Shakhtar ultras who accompanied the demonstration. There were no clashes that night.

The ultras' informal private security service comes following growing evidence that local law enforcement neither can, nor wants to, protect the unity activists. Ilya says that the ultras only made the decision to get involved in the local situation when it became clear that law enforcement officials in Donetsk were no longer interested in protecting citizens' right to peaceful protests. "Normally we are outside politics. But the tipping point was when we saw Euromaidan activists being beaten by titushki [government-hired thugs] whilst the police just stood by," he says, referring to an incident were Maidan activists were openly attacked in the centre of Donetsk in January. "It is not clear at the moment who the police are working for here, and if the police no longer protect people, then it is our duty as patriotic citizens."

Standing on the sidelines, police officer Alexey Tkachenk told bne: "We don't want to fight with our own people." Both Tkachenko, who served in Kyiv during some of the worst violence, and his captain Andrey Kopylov say they do not recognise the new administration in Kyiv and are now under the command of the self-appointed, pro-Russian "peoples' governor" Pavel Gubarev. "We are with the Russian people," said Tkachenko, calling the administration in the capital "fascists - an opinion shared by "every police officer that survived Kyiv."

On the other side, the Shakhtar ultras say they were targeted by Yanukovych's security services for their participation in Euromaidan. "As soon as we decided to go to Kyiv, all our personal details, including names and addresses, appeared on social networking sites," says Ilya. "I received threats warning me that I would have big problems if my face was seen at anti-government demonstrations."

But the street fighters are not easily deterred. The ultras say their aim is to keep the peace, but if provoked will fight back. "I have fought alongside my boys for more than eight years, we know each other very well, we can depend on each other," says Ilya. "If we have to, we are more than prepared to fight."

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