Thursday, April 10, 2014

In Eastern Ukraine, A One-Building, Pro-Russia Realm Persists Despite Criticism

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Nikolai Solntsev, the self-declared commissar of the Eastern Front and a founding father of the newly proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, has been waiting 22 years, three months and 14 days for this moment.


That is the time the former submariner in the Soviet Navy has had to endure since the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving him without a country he felt at home in and could serve with pride.

“The Soviet Union does not exist, but my oath of service remains. I never took an oath to Ukraine,” Mr. Solntsev said, explaining why he feels no loyalty to the country where he lives but is ready to serve an imaginary new nation that nobody, not even Russia, recognizes. 

The Donetsk People’s Republic has no authority outside an 11-story Ukrainian government building that an unruly Russian-speaking, club-bearing crowd has occupied since Sunday.

It also has no electricity.

The authorities cut that off as soon as the People’s Republic declared its existence.

It is a quixotic and, to many here, crackpot project, but one that feeds on a deep pool of resentment and fear that extends beyond the few hundred people now holed up in the government building.

Nobody really expects the People’s Republic, a revival of the short-lived Donetsk Republic set up amid the chaos that followed Russia’s 1917 Communist revolution, to last more than a few days.

But the rifts rooted in language, culture, politics and economics that created it — and that have dogged Ukraine since its independence in 1991 — show little sign of fading.

Nor do the tensions created by the struggle in Donetsk, about 45 miles from the border with Russia, seem likely to go away.

Late on Wednesday, a group of protesters blocked the exit of a Ukrainian military site here and forced buses carrying troops to go back inside.

Mr. Solntsev acknowledged that the People’s Republic, declared on Monday, faced an uphill struggle.

On Wednesday, the Ukrainian government vowed to end the occupation of the government building within 48 hours, either through negotiation or force.

Even officials in the Party of Regions, the former governing party of the ousted president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, denounced the seizure of official premises and called on the protesters to end their occupation and accept that Donetsk is part of Ukraine.

The cluster of fringe pro-Russian political outfits behind the Donetsk People’s Republic, which the authorities in Kiev denounce as a local power grab instigated by Moscow, disagree on their final goal.

They cannot decide whether to push to join Russia, to give substance to their chimerical state or to secure more autonomy for the region within Ukraine.

But the People’s Republic does now have a 12-member governing council, which meets on the 11th floor, Mr. Solntsev said.

That space had been occupied by Donetsk’s Kiev-appointed governor, the billionaire metals magnate Sergei A. Taruta, who now holds his meetings in a local hotel.

With the power cut off in the occupied government block, the elevators no longer work, requiring the portly Mr. Solntsev and his comrades — who include two newly appointed ministers, one for foreign affairs and one for security — to climb the stairs past masked men armed with metal rods and wooden clubs.

Mr. Solntsev said he could not remember either minister’s name.

Far more important, he said, than the conventional trappings of statehood — details like territory, laws and functioning services — is “the idea” of a country that “speaks for the people.”

In the case of Donetsk, Mr. Solntsev said, this means for Russian speakers, who he said felt like unwanted aliens in a nation that has been dominated by Ukrainian speakers from the west since the ouster of Mr. Yanukovych, a Donetsk native, in February.

While only 4.7 percent of local residents want a separate Donetsk state, just over a third like to identify themselves as “citizens of Ukraine.”

More prefer “Russian-speaking residents of Ukraine” or “residents of the Donets Basin,” according to a survey released Wednesday by the Donetsk Institute for Social Research and Political Analysis.

Igor Koval, the acting chairman of the Donetsk regional council, complained that the protesters occupying the administration building had made it impossible for him to do any work because they would not let him into the council chamber on the 10th floor.

They should leave, Mr. Koval said.

But he added that he understood and shared their anger at “being treated like second-class citizens” by a national government that “does not listen to or understand the problems of the east.”

The government installed after Mr. Yanukovych fled the capital on Feb. 21 ended the dominance of Russian-speaking politicians from the east of the country — most of whom had opposed the pro-European protests in Kiev that toppled Mr. Yanukovych — and shifted power sharply to Ukrainian speakers from western and central regions.

State-run Russian television, which is widely watched here despite efforts by officials in Kiev to block access, has fanned fears that this shift will bring discrimination and even persecution by nationalist extremists.

The Ukrainian Parliament contributed to this anxiety by voting in late February to scrap a law that allows Russian to be used instead of Ukrainian in schools, courts and elsewhere in regions where it is widely spoken.

The decision was quickly reversed but left fertile grounds for pro-Russian activists to plant seeds of alarm.

Few Donetsk residents can cite concrete examples of how life has become worse as a result of the change of power in Kiev, but opinion polls show that the eastern regions take a dim view of Ukraine’s new order.

A recent poll commissioned by the International Republican Institute showed that 72 percent of people in the Russian-speaking east think the country is going in the wrong direction, compared with only 36 percent in the Ukrainian-speaking west.

East and west are also sharply divided on where their future should lie.

Ninety percent of those polled in the west want Ukraine to enter an economic union with Europe, while 59 percent of easterners want to join a Russian-led customs union.

Mr. Solntsev said the People’s Republic had not had time to work out its own economic policy but would focus on supporting “the working class, not the bourgeoisie.”

The lack of a firm policy means that while Mr. Solntsev and his allies have been able to mimic the tactics of the pro-European protesters in Kiev by building barricades, tearing up paving stones and setting up self-defense units, they have failed to rally widespread public support, particularly from the middle class.

Dmitri Zhukov, the owner of a restaurant near the seized government building, watched in disgust as a group of young men with clubs marched by to join the occupation.

“How can we support these people?” he asked.

“They think Uncle Putin will come and give them money. They need to stop drinking and start working.”

Source: The New York Times

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