A Test For Ukraine In A City Retaken From Rebels

SLAVYANSK, Ukraine — When Denis Bigunov, a civil servant, recently returned to work after a long break, he found three prisoner’s hoods wrapped in masking tape stashed in his office at City Hall, sinister mementos left behind by the pro-Russian rebels who controlled this eastern Ukrainian city for nearly three months.

Interior Ministry official, Anton Herashenko

He donated the hoods to the local history museum “to remind people what really happened” here after masked gunmen seized control on April 12 and, cheered on initially by many residents, began a brutal drive to create a new order rooted in fanatical loyalty to Russia.

With the city now back in government hands and the Ukrainian military advancing steadily against other nearby settlements that had fallen earlier this year to the pro-Russian cause, Slavyansk has become a test of whether the central government in Kiev can both win on the battlefield and win back the loyalties of its rebellious east. 

“We can’t just liberate these places by force of arms but need to change people’s thinking,” said Anton Herashenko, an Interior Ministry official from Kiev who visited Slavyansk last week.

He came to preside over the exhumation of corpses from a mass grave that he said had been left behind by the rebels before they fled south on July 5 to the city of Donetsk, which is still held by separatists.

After a day of digging, workers equipped with a bulldozer and shovels unearthed 14 decomposing bodies, each wrapped in a flimsy white shroud.

As it struggles to secure the consent, if not yet the trust, of Slavyansk’s largely ethnic Russian population, Ukraine has found that its best weapon has been provided by the rebels themselves — a legacy of violent thuggery and chaos that alienated just about everyone.

“It was a horror, a total horror,” said Arkady Hlushenko, the chief surgeon at the Lenin Hospital, the city’s biggest.

“Nobody wants a repeat of that.”

Another powerful tool in the hands of the Ukrainian authorities is the fear many residents have of retribution for their collaboration with the toppled pro-Russian leadership.

The new authorities, promising anonymity, have set up a hotline for residents to inform on rebel collaborators, and they have printed fliers warning that a new law mandates up to 15 years in jail for separatism.

“Of course people are afraid,” Dr. Hlushenko said.

“They are frightened of being punished.”

Although a firm believer that Ukraine must stay united, and proud of his two sons in the Ukrainian military, the surgeon warned that vengeance against collaborators must be kept in check.

He said he had stayed in Slavyansk throughout the period of separatist control and had often treated wounded rebels, not because he wanted to but because he had to.

“You don’t argue with a Kalashnikov,” he said.

When the rebels first seized Slavyansk in April, they hoisted Russian flags, arrested the elected mayor, hunted down traitors and proclaimed the city a “great symbol of the struggle for human dignity.”

Thousands of residents thronged a large square in front of City Hall to welcome the pro-Russian putsch, chanting “Russia, Russia” and posing for photographs with gunmen they hailed as their saviors from the fascists who had seized power in Kiev with the February ouster of President Victor F. Yanukovych, a Russian-speaker from Donetsk.

After pro-Russian gunmen fled as the Ukrainian military advanced, many of the same people rushed into the same square to greet Ukrainian military trucks as soldiers handed out free food.

Virtually nobody now admits to having supported the separatists.

“They are happy to welcome whoever gives them food,” said Konstantin Batozsky, an aide to the Kiev-appointed governor of the Donetsk region, which includes Slavyansk.

The Ukrainian authorities have restored electricity, water, salaries to municipal workers and pension payments to the older Ukrainians, who now make up around half the city’s shrunken population of roughly 80,000, around two-thirds the number who lived here before the rebels took control.

They have also flooded the city with troops, some of them poorly trained irregulars, and strengthened the local police force — its loyalty somewhat suspect — with officers from western regions of Ukraine where anti-Russian sentiment is strong. 

Ukraine has been helped in an odd way by Russia, whose tightly controlled news media has issued a series of hair-raising stories alleging Ukrainian atrocities that have made locals only more wary of bucking the new authorities.

LifeNews, a Russian television channel, broadcast a report titled “Witch Hunting,” saying that Slavyansk was being turned into a huge prison camp like Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where the United States detains terrorists.

Channel One, in a particularly gruesome piece of propaganda, reported that Ukrainian troops had crucified a 3-year-old boy in front of his mother in the central square.

Even locals who detest the Ukrainian government in Kiev, the capital, dismiss the crucifixion story as a grotesque lie.

Until the Russian TV report, nobody here had ever heard of any such incident.

True or not, Russian propaganda has helped halt open resistance to the new Ukrainian order.

Residents who actively supported the rebels have nearly all fled.

“You would have to be an idiot to stay here,” Lybova Nazarayeva, the director of an orphanage that suffered heavy damage when Ukrainian forces began shelling a rebel base next door, said of the pro-Russian residents.

“You would only get killed or arrested. They all left for Donetsk.”

Loudspeakers atop City Hall, used by the rebels to play Soviet-era martial music, now blast Ukrainian state radio.

Big posters have gone up across the city proclaiming that “Slavyansk is Ukraine.” 

But long-closed Soviet-era factories that once dominated the local economy are still rotting away and many other businesses have shut, their premises scarred by shrapnel and bullets.

There is no mood of joyous celebration at what Ukrainian officials trumpet as the city’s “liberation.”

Anger and animosity bubbles just below the calm surface.

In each workplace, everyone knows who did what during rebel rule, creating poisonous currents of suspicion.

Nikolai Mishkin, a technician at a communal heating plant here, said his boss had worked zealously with the rebels, even inviting them to store their armor in the plant’s courtyard and climb its brick chimney to scout Ukrainian military positions.

“He was very aggressive in his enthusiasm,” Mr. Mishkin said, adding that he had not seen his boss since Ukraine’s forces arrived.

Local residents who suffered under rebel rule complain that Ukrainian authorities have not done enough to punish residents who sided with the separatists.

A group of local pro-Ukrainian activists gathered outside City Hall last week to demand a thorough purge of all officials who collaborated with the rebels.

The only prominent figure who is known to have been arrested so far by the Ukrainians is Nelly Schtepa, the former mayor, who initially supported the pro-Russian gunmen but then spent nearly three months locked up by the rebels in City Hall.

She is now being held by Ukrainian authorities in Kharkiv, the largest city in eastern Ukraine, awaiting trial on charges of separatism.

Interviewed last week by monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Ms. Schtepa admitted making statements that supported the rebel cause but said she had been forced to do so by her rebel captors, who she said had beaten and tortured her.

A rebel-designated “people’s mayor” who replaced her is missing and is widely believed to have escaped to Donetsk.

The organization for security said the Kharkiv detention center where Ms. Schtepa was being held now was clean and well-kept, unlike the filthy City Hall cellar where she and many other prisoners had been held.

Rebels also used that basement for target practice, leaving the floor littered with spent cartridges.

The new police chief of Slavyansk, Ihor Ribalchenko, said investigators had started collecting information about residents suspected of actively supporting the rebels but added that the widespread collaboration of ordinary people would not be punished. 

“Most people were simply afraid because there were armed terrorists walking around” and they had no choice but to obey, he said.

He said that eight police officers who had openly sided with the rebels had fled.

An Interior Ministry commission is investigating the rest of the 300-member force.

The police chief added that he saw no need for a sweeping purge of the force, despite the fact that its officers put up no resistance when rebels seized the city and then helped them solidify their power.

This cautious stand has infuriated people like Victor Butko, the owner of a printing business and editor of a small local newspaper shut by the rebels.

Grabbed by pro-Russian gunmen before the arrival of Ukrainian troops, he was held for days in a fetid cellar beneath the local headquarters of the state security service. 

Passing three police officers guarding the mass grave left by the rebels last week, Mr. Butko cursed them for not resisting the separatists, shouting:

“You are to blame for all this. You all did nothing. You should have picked up your guns and shot them.”

The officers looked at their feet nervously.

As some residents who fled during the rebel occupation trickle back home, a semblance of normal life slowly returns.

But, Mr. Butko predicted it would take a generation before Slavyansk shook off its flirtation with Russian nationalism.

“The biggest problem here is not economics or anything physical,” he said.

“It is moral. The problem here is in people’s heads.”

Source: The New York Times