East Ukraine city faces separatist split
Agence France Presse
By Fran Blandy
Kharkiv (Ukraine) (AFP) — As Ukraine plunged into political crisis, residents of the eastern city of Kharkiv began making a weekly pilgrimage to one of two iconic statues.
At the feet of Ukrainian national hero and poet Taras Shevchenko one group waves the country’s blue and yellow flag in support of their new pro-Western government in Kiev.
A few hundred metres away beneath a hulking statue of Lenin, the flags are Soviet red and the tricolour of neighbouring Russia, and the rally cries are for greater autonomy from a new government they view as illegitimate.
Russian-speaking but Ukrainian, only 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the border with Russia yet 500 kilometres from Kiev, Kharkiv is suffering from an acute identity crisis.
“We need federalisation, it’s the only thing that can save us. We are really very separated, we have a very different history,” says mother of three Emily Belkina, 31.
She stands under the statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, where Kiev’s winter protests to oust pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych are viewed — as in Moscow — as a coup by “fascists”.
Anger in Kharkiv boiled over this week as pro-Russian militants repeatedly occupied and trashed the regional government building facing Lenin across Freedom Square, to demand autonomy. Many disagree with the violence, but not the message. They feel betrayed and isolated by Kiev.
“We have been a country for 23 years but they have always hated us,” a woman named Mila said bitterly.
By “they” she means the west of Ukraine, separated from the east by the meandering fault line of the Dnieper River. The region closer to western Europe joined the Soviet Union much later than the east, and the historical and geographic divide remains strong more than two decades after independence in 1991.
Like many of these protesters, Mila rails against the interim government for disabling all Russian TV channels — a move Kiev said was to block dangerous Russian propaganda.
This, and attempts to clamp down on the use of the Russian language, seems to incite the most anger on Freedom Square, among hardcore protesters who have for three days laid siege to the regional government building.
“I have never met a person who speaks Ukrainian at home. In my city people at home speak Russian, we feel Russian,” says Belkina.
While some may long to split from Ukraine like Crimea — which in March voted to join Russia in a referendum widely regarded as illegal — others just want to ensure their deep ties to Russia will be protected.
“We can understand, OK we live in Ukraine but we must be friends with Russia or we are just gonna die,” Belkina says, referring to the industrial city’s heavy reliance on business with Russia.
– Federalisation? –
“Federalisation” has become a buzzword on Freedom Square, ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested it as a solution to give Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions greater powers.
But away from the protests, it just instills confusion.
“No one has explained it to us, maybe it’s good maybe it’s bad. I don’t know, honestly I don’t know,” says Raisa, 63, a retired woman walking between the two squares on a quiet afternoon.
Many in this city are refusing to vote in a snap May 25 presidential election unless they are granted a referendum for greater autonomy.
A recent survey by the International Republican Institute found that 26 percent of eastern Ukrainians want federalisation, while 45 percent want it to remain a unitary state.
“People speak about federalisation, we ask them ‘do you know what federalisation means, do you understand the legal consequences of introducing this form of state?’ No,” Deputy Governor Yuriy Georgiyevskiy told AFP.
He was speaking in his new and undecorated office just a day before it was overrun by pro-Russian militants.
While these protesters may not know the ins and outs of federalisation, it has become a handy slogan that has given voice to their frustrations.
But the scenes of nostalgia for Soviet glory under Lenin’s statue are only one half of the picture in this city of 1.4 million people.
– ‘Don’t want to go back’ –
When Ukraine won independence from the Soviet Union, many towns pulled down their statues of Lenin and replaced them with a sculpture of Shevchenko.
Kharkiv still has both.
Shevchenko, a serf-turned-poet, is revered as the father of Ukrainian culture and language. He represents Ukrainians’ deep ties to their fertile land, carved up time and again by competing powers and referred to imperiously as “Little Russia” under tsarist rule.
In Kharkiv, the memory of Stalinist purges of hundreds of intellectuals and artists to crack down on nationalism still lingers. So does that of a Kremlin-engineered famine which left millions of Ukrainians dead, many of whom lie buried around this city.
Lena Abiyuk, 40, is an English teacher from Crimea who has been living in Kharkiv for 15 years. She stands with hundreds of government supporters under Shevchenko’s statue, buoyed by a renewed sense of national pride over the prospect of finally breaking free from Russia’s orbit.
But her eyes well up when she describes how her family has been torn apart by the crisis.
“Half of my family in Crimea are happy because the Russians came…. I can’t talk to my mother…. And for half of the family it’s a tragedy because they can’t see any future for their children.”
She sympathises with the crowd under the Lenin statue, who she says have been “brainwashed with propaganda”.
“You have to understand that it is really deep and no one can say that their pain is deeper than our pain.”Top