Ukraine eastern cities tense as US-Russia due to meet

By bne IntelliNews March 5, 2014

Harriet Salem in Donetsk -

On the evening of March 4, the supposedly pro-Russian city of Donetsk turned yellow and blue. More than a thousand protesters took to the streets in the eastern industrial city, waving the Ukrainian flag in a show of support for the country's continued unity in the face of political turmoil. "Putin go home!" chanted the crowd. "Donbas is Ukraine!"

The large pro-unity rally flies in the face of the demands of pro-Russian demonstrators who have occupied the local parliament building in Donetsk since March 3. Those protesters, who do not recognise the new government in Kyiv, are demanding a referendum on Donetsk's secession. "We will not leave until our demands are met," said 42-year-old Oleksender, the self-appointed commander of a Donetsk local defence unit. Inside the session room where local lawmakers normally convene, the Russian and "Independent Republic of Donetsk" flags now flank the speaker's chair. "Donetsk belongs with Russia," Oleksender told bne.

In the wake of the occupation of Ukraine's southern Crimea peninsula by suspected Russian military forces and mass defections by local security services, tensions have been simmering across the historically predominantly pro-Russia east of the country. In the past week, large pro-Russian demonstrations have been held in several major eastern cities, including Odessa, Donetsk and Kharkiv, where the Russian flag has been raised above administrative buildings. The Kharkiv protests have descended into violence, with pro-Ukrainian unity protesters being badly beaten by Russian nationalists.

Speaking in the lobby of the administrative building, Donestk police captain, Yavgeniy Yokanov, called the occupation of the local parliament in Donetsk "illegal", stating that a criminal case against those involved had been opened. However, the riot police, which throughout the day lined the building's corridors, appeared to be taking little action to remove the squatters.

Capital gripes

Many Donetsk locals feel marginalised by the new administration in Kyiv, which they perceive as an illegal power grab by pro-western bandits and terrorists - an image that's been fuelled by Russian media presenting events as a patriotic fight against fascists.

In a positive sign, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are due to hold crucial talks to try to ease tensions over the Ukraine crisis. President Barack Obama has suggested to Moscow a plan that envisages the return of the Russian troops in Crimea back to their bases of Russia's Black Sea Fleet in the peninsula, followed by the sending of a group of international monitors to Ukraine to ensure that the rights of ethnic Russians are protected.

The Russian side hasn't responded yet to Obama's plan, but on March 4 President Vladimir Putin said that while sending troops into Ukraine would be a "last resort", he did not rule out the possibility either. "If we see this anarchy beginning in the eastern regions, we reserve the right to use all means," he told a small group of Russian press gathered near his residence in Moscow.

Putin also denied it was Russian troops that had invaded airports, military and navy bases in Crimea, insisting the men armed with sniper rifles and Kalashnikovs, sometimes spotted driving vehicles with Russian plates, were "local self defence units". Crimea is home to a number of Russian military and navy bases including the Black Sea Fleet.

The invasion by the unidentified armed men in Crimea has seen virtually no local resistance in a region that, bar the local Tatar population, is predominantly pro-Moscow.

Reports of Russian military personnel and vehicles massing on Ukraine's eastern border near Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts have sparked rumours that the Kremlin is preparing to pull a similar trick in Ukraine's eastern regions; ensuring it has local support before making a covert military move on the territory. A Ukrainian customs official told bne that they had local intelligence that Russian troops were conducting military exercises just 10-15 kilometres from Ukraine's border.

However, Russian intervention may go down less well in Donetsk and other eastern cities than it has in Crimea. On March 4, a number of "pro-Ukrainian unity" rallies were held across the city, attracting people from all walks of life. "I am Russian, my family speaks Russian. I am against separatism, we don't want Russian troops here to separate us by force," said Maxim Gorinov, aged 37, a pastor at a local Evangelical Church waving a Ukrainian flag in Lenin Square alongside several other members of the local clergy.

On the night of March 4, in a further indication of the deepening political divides in the pro-Russia east and the to-and-fro of daily life, it was reported by Ukrainian television channel 5 Kanal that the Russian flag erected above the Odessa administration had once again been replaced by the Ukrainian flag.

Complicating matters is that the unity movement in Donetsk, as well as the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv that sparked the present conflict, have contained some undoubtedly unsavoury elements with unpleasant far-right views. The Donetsk pro-unity movement is backed by the "ultras" (hooligans) of the popular local Shakhtar football club, one of Ukraine's two top teams. In an unprecedented move, the Shakhtar ultras united with their arch rivals, Kyiv's Dynamo football club, to fight side by side against Yanukovych's regime during the Euromaidan protests.

Football hooligans seem to have done a better job at finding a way forward from Ukraine's historically deep divides between east and west Ukraine than the new government in Kyiv. The prevalence of far-right nationalist politicians including Dmitry Yarosh and Andriy Parubiy, as well as high-profile Euromaidan activists such as Dimtry Bulatov and Tetyana Chernovil, in the new administration has done little to reassure the anxieties of those in Ukraine's east.

"People here are scared by the inclusion of Praviy Sektor radicals in government," says Dimitry Goryainov, one of the pro-unity rally's attendees referring to a shadowy far-right group. Goryainov urged the government to hold parliamentary elections as soon as possible in order to "let the people make their voice heard democratically."

Heavyweight boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitkschko and his UDAR party are the only opposition force seen as straddling the east-west divide. But UDAR refused to participate in the interim government - a possible sign of growing rifts in the opposition movement that led Euromaidan.

However, there is scope for compromise to be struck. "If there was a referendum, then Ukraine would lose Crimea for sure," Alex Ryabchyn, a unity activist and PhD student, told bne at the March 4 evening's unity rally. "But one option is to give regions more autonomy at a local level."

The new government should not rule out cooperation with Russia said Ryabchyn, since there is strong support for maintaining "friendly relations" in Donetsk and across eastern Ukraine. "But most people separate the Kremlin and Russia," he said, "and so should the government".

Some even see the loss of Crimea as a help to relations between Ukraine and Russia in the new period after the ousting of former president Viktor Yanukovych. Jeff Schubert of the Russian Economic Forum says: "Ukraine will not get Crimea back, but neither will it lose any more territory. But the Crimea is no great loss. Strongly pro-Russian, as well as being coveted by Russia, it would always be a hindrance to a closer relationship between the Ukraine and the EU. Russia has gained (in reality) the Crimea, although Putin's ambitions for a larger customs union (always somewhat unrealistic) have now fatally hit. But, this is not a bad trade."

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