Ukraine: East/west divide sharpens as chaos rules

IN THE afternoon, when the shift ends at the coal mine and the miners walk out into the cold and past the old concrete statue of ­Lenin, they often head to a tiny corner shop.
Pro-Russian protesters hold a banner reading "Donetsk region with Russia" at a rally in the city. Picture: GettyPro-Russian protesters hold a banner reading "Donetsk region with Russia" at a rally in the city. Picture: Getty
Pro-Russian protesters hold a banner reading "Donetsk region with Russia" at a rally in the city. Picture: Getty

There they will stand in the car park for a while, drinking little bottles of the vodka called “Truthful”.

They know what is happening in Kiev, the capital city that can seem so far away from Donetsk.

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They have seen pictures of the democracy protesters shot dead in Kiev’s streets, and the TV reports on the mansions of ousted president Viktor Yanukovich, the one-time thug and pro-Russia politician who grew up in this far-eastern city.

They watched from afar this week as protesters, many from western Ukraine, helped form a new government.

They do not like it at all.

“I have always felt that we are so different,” said a miner who gave his name as Nikolai, a 35-year-old who went from school directly into the mines. People speak Russian across most of Ukraine’s east, and worship in onion-domed ­Russian Orthodox churches.

They were shaped by 70 years of Soviet rule and its celebration of socialist industrialisation, and by the Russian empire before that. To them, the government is now being run by outsiders who care little for this side of Ukraine. “If they try to pressure us, our ­region will revolt.”

His words are echoed – except for a few key words – in a conversation 800 miles to the west, in the medieval cobblestoned city of Lviv, where residents speak Ukrainian and houses display the European Union’s flag.

“We are simply different people from those living in the east,” said Ludmila Petrova, a student in Lviv, a hotbed of support for Ukraine’s pro-democracy forces and opposition to Yanukovich. “They don’t know what the west is. We have a different history. Maybe it is better that we separate once and for all.”

If Ukraine looks neatly delineated on maps, its often-bloody history is a tangle of invasions and occupations, peoples and beliefs. It is a place that has been struggling for centuries to define itself.

Now it finds itself so sharply divided – between support for Russia on one side of the country and loyalty to the West on the other – that it often seems more like two separate nations. On opposite sides of Ukraine, two cities, each of about a million people, illustrate that divide.

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Donetsk can seem like a cliché of post-Soviet grimness, a place of Stalinist-era flats, tin-roofed shacks and loyalty to Russia. Lviv has emerged as a centre for Ukrainian artists and writers, a draw for European tourists and a city desperate for closer ties to the West.

To the fiercest pessimists, as well as to extremists on both sides, the cities are already in different nations.

“The country is already separated,” said Ivan Reyko, 30, a factory worker from Donetsk who joined a recent demonstration of about 100 people in the city’s main plaza, Lenin Square, where a 30ft statue of the Soviet hero gazes toward the horizon. “There is no way back to a united Ukraine.”

A series of ominous signs has diplomats warning the region could easily stumble into widespread violence. Among them: military drills just across the border by 150,000 Russian soldiers, and the ­seizure of the parliament building in Russian-speaking Crimea by unidentified gunmen, who flew the Russian flag and chanted “Crimea is ­Russia”.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has been long dreaming of pulling Ukraine, a sprawling country of 46 million, closer to Moscow. In Lviv, however, a bookish, softly-spoken mayor is dreaming of something else.

Andriy Sadovyi has been a powerful symbol of resistance to Yanukovich, as well as regional powerbroker who cut ties to the central government even before the president was forced from power.

Sadovyi, who insists he only wants regional autonomy in Ukraine, has called repeatedly for unity. “Ukraine is strong only if it is united,” he said a couple days after Yanukovich fled the presidential compound. “Any division would destroy Ukraine.”

Modern Lviv sees itself at the core of Ukrainian hopes for a more open, democratic government. But the area, once part of neighbouring Poland and long a wealthy agricultural region, also saw the rise of a series of nationalist movements in the 1930s.

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When Germany invaded Ukraine during the Second World War, some residents cooperated with the Nazi occupiers, who were seen as liberators from the hated Soviets. Tens of thousands of the region’s Jews disappeared into Nazi camps or were gunned down by death squads.

When the war ended, ­Moscow exacted its revenge: nationalists who fought Red Army soldiers were purged and sent to gulags, along with Roman Catholic and nationalist leaders who could challenge Russian authority.

The city was transformed from a cosmopolitan centre into a decaying backwater. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, political groups from Lviv were key in fighting for Ukraine’s independence.

For two decades, anti-Russian feelings quietly burned across the region, along with anger at Yanukovich.

Even today, thousands of people in western Ukraine, a handful even wearing Nazi-themed uniforms, hold rallies every year honouring men who fought Stalin’s forces during the Second World War.

Fierce historical loyalties helped drive the support that has poured from Lviv into Kiev and the capital’s Independence Square, epicentre of the anti-Yanukovich protests, which began late last year.

For months, Lviv residents have donated food, medicine and clothing for the protesters, and many have joined them. The city’s churches serve as warehouses for aid for the demonstrators, who continue to occupy the square, fearing the return of the former president or his supporters.

Over the months, western Ukraine became virtually independent as Yanukovich focused his attention on the Kiev uprising. Then, a few days ahead of Yanukovich’s disappearance, central rule all but disappeared in Lviv, when masked youths stormed the city’s police headquarters, looted weapons and setting fire to municipal buildings.

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With policemen nowhere to be seen, order in the city fell to unarmed “voluntary citizen patrols” in bright yellow vests.

A handful of regional leaders also began talking about changing the country’s laws, so that Russian is no longer ­recognised as an official language. This terrifies some in Donetsk, which is in the heart of a region where Russian has been the main language for generations.

Alexander Kravtsov, a top official in Donetsk and member of Yanukovich’s political party, says he believes most people in the region still believe in a united Ukraine, but warned that the number who identify with Russia will grow significantly if they feel threatened.

“People are scared of what has happened in Kiev,” he said.

Talk to the pro-Russia protesters in Donetsk and the list of those blamed for the changes in Kiev ranges from Ukrainian fascists to Jews to Free­masons to the US government.

Out by the mines’ entrance, though, few have the energy to protest.

Donetsk was built directly over a maze of mines, and the city’s working-class neighbourhoods sit beside mountains of reddish slag that can rise ten storeys high. They are places where stray dogs are blackened by the dust that fills the air and where you can never escape the oily smell of coal.

The little houses, with their leaning plaster walls and central chimneys, look like something out of the 19th century. They are filled with people who say they can barely feed their families between pay cheques, and who are far too frightened to give their names to a reporter.

They may not like what is going on in Kiev, but most are simply focused on keeping their jobs.

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“I don’t go to political meetings, I don’t go to protests,” said a sombre, 50-something miner with exhausted eyes and bad teeth. The idea of war, or of a divided country, frightens him more than anything else.

“All of us are Ukrainian. All of us,” he said. “We are one people.”