The threat of secession is not just confined to the Crimea region. FRANCE 24 spoke to pro-Russian activists in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk who say they are ready to fight against Kiev and its ‘fascist’ backers in the West.
Donetsk, a city of around two million people in eastern Ukraine, has been chilled by Cold War winds ever since former president Viktor Yanukovich was ousted in late February. Pro-Russians, warning of an approaching Western invasion, are mobilising for the impending clash.
In recent weeks the pro-Russian camp has targeted the governor's palace, a judicial administration building and even the headquarters of the SVU (national security services). Each time, hundreds of demonstrators managed to outwit the police to gain access to the buildings, hoisted a Russian flag and then quickly retreated.
“Our actions are mainly symbolic. Showing that we can raise the Russian flag at these places is kind of like waging an ideological war,” Serguei Fedchenko, a 29-year-old activist opposed to the new, Western-backed government in Kiev, told FRANCE 24.
The young ophthalmologist denies any Russian involvement in his group’s stunts. "If our actions had been organized by Russian intelligence services, they would have been way more professional. Unlike the [anti-Yanukovich] protests in Maidan square in Kiev, in Donetsk we never had the resources to eat, sleep and fight," he says.
Standing guard at Lenin Square
Among pro-Russians in Donetsk, just 80 kilometres from the Russian border, Maidan is now synonymous with evil. It represents the enemy that unites all the different anti-Kiev factions in this industrial city. Supporters of pan-Slavism, advocates for greater regional autonomy and people nostalgic for the Soviet past gather every day in Donetsk’s Lenin Square.
“People are not as active here as they are in Crimea,” the opthalmologist Fedchenko adds. “But everyone understands that what happened in Kiev, already took place 70 years ago. It’s the fear of fascism that is motivating us.”
With a baseball cap glued to his head and an ostentatious armband of Russian inspiration, Yaroslav Korotenko, 28, says he will never forget January 31. Enraged and fired up by television images of barricades in the heart of Ukraine’s capital, he decided to launch his own self-defence group that day. “Shield” now counts around 300 volunteer members, who stand ready to fight the “Western invaders” at Lenin Square.
“Our volunteers are not armed, but we have a good relationship with the police. We know that the provocateurs are already in the city and are trying to get organised,” Korotenko warns. He says he supports full autonomy for Donbass, the region comprising Donetsk, similar to that of Transnistria.
It is a rather moderate position in Lenin Square, where some protesters are calling for the "liberation" of Donbass by the Russian army.
The “Western fascists”, whose presence in Donetsk justifies a military intervention from Moscow, are in fact gathered just a few kilometres from Lenin Square.
A makeshift tent near a bridge houses the city’s dwindling pro-Ukrainian movement. It includes elderly Slavic women, a pair of plump priests, some young women and teens. It is a motley group, but nothing like the scary picture painted by the self-defence forces. Members are preparing for the showdown with Russian shock troops by chanting prayers for peace.
“We are praying that common sense returns to the people camped out on Lenin Square,” says 17-year-old David Martischenko. Standing alongside a yellow and blue flag, he holds out a sign that reads “Prayers for Ukraine”.
Martischenko admits to having been the target of insults and threats by passing pro-Russian motorists. The teenager remains stoic, saying his group relies on good communication between the priest and the local police for protection.
Igor Kozlovskyy, an academic and prominent figure among pro-Ukrainians, says the low turnout for the prayer session in Donetsk is misleading. He argues that most Russian-speakers in Donbass are deeply attached to a sense of Ukrainian national identity.
“We lived in the Soviet Union and we know the destructive nature of a culture that exalts the community over the individual. Our native language is Russian, but as Ukrainians, we are committed to a society in which each person’s view is respected.”
Questioning police loyalties
Tensions in Donetsk may be reaching a boiling point. Clashes between rival pro-Kiev and pro-Moscow camps in Donetsk on March 13 left at least one protester dead and several others wounded.
The violence erupted despite the presence of a police cordon, and many in the Ukrainian camp are convinced that Donetsk police are sympathetic to the pro-Russian groups.
“This is what I call the post-Maidan syndrome,” says the academic Kozlovskyy. “Law enforcement now associates the Ukrainian flag with the protesters who occupied Kiev’s city centre. As police officers they identify with the Berkut [riot police] who were victims of attacks in Maidan.”
Police in Donetsk are also blamed for allegedly allowing pro-Russian activists to occupy government buildings without resistance.
A police source who wished to remain anonymous admitted that Donetsk police received orders not to use “batons or tear gas,” to avoid a repeat of Maidan, where protesters returned “wearing helmets and brandishing weapons.”
This explanation fails to convince those who support Ukraine’s new government. They see the excesses that are being allowed to flourish in Donetsk as an invitation to the Russian forces massed on the nearby border.
© Photos by Mehdi Chebil/FRANCE 24.
Lenin Place is a popular gathering place for the pro-Russians in Donetsk. The square saw mass demonstrations last weekend, and is permanently occupied by dozens of militants.
Photographs of anti-riot police killed in the Kiev demonstrations are affixed to the base of Lenin’s statue. Viktor, 47, sees the new union proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin as a historic opportunity to reunite the Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian peoples.
The vote form from the March 16 referendum asks, “Are you in favour of the Donetsk region rejoining the Russian Federation or of remaining a part of Ukraine?”
Gavrielko Alexei, who works in a coal mine, poses with a flag at Lenin’s statue. “Ukraine is a country that was invented by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century to destroy Russia," he says. "For the past 23 years, it has gotten worse and worse here.”
Gavrielko Alexei (left) gathered a group of volunteers to maintain public order and ensure Lenin’s statue was not vandalized. He does not believe that any Ukrainian politician will be able to reunite the pro-Russian east and Europe-leaning west of the country.
Inside the recruitment tent for those joining the group of volunteer guards organised by Yaroslav Korotenko.
Lawyer Diana Koslovka described the idea of Donetsk rejoining Russia as a “waking nightmare” and said that Ukraine is at risk of permanently losing its national identity.
Igor Kozlovsky, a philosopher, has had ancestors in Donetsk since the 18th century and speaks Russian. He describes Ukrainian culture as "more concerned with the individual, as opposed to the Russian collectivist approach”.
The pro-Ukrainian inhabitants of Donetsk unite every evening to pray that Ukraine’s territorial integrity will not be compromised.
The pro-Ukrainian activists say that it is the good relationship that their priest has with the local police that keeps them from being attacked by pro-Russian groups.
Date created : 2014-03-20