Echoes of Crimea abound in eastern Ukraine

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 March, 2014, 12:15am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 March, 2014, 12:15am

The dishevelled men barricading the muddy lane leading into a military facility in the eastern Ukraine town of Artemivsk say they are defending the region's Russian-speaking majority.

In the nearby city of Donetsk, gangs of pro-Russian activists and Cossacks armed with sticks and bats have been storming local government offices.

It looks a lot like Crimea.

The protests that precipitated President Viktor Yanukovych's downfall and paralysed the capital of Kiev were perceived by many in Artemivsk as ardent Ukrainian nationalism.

One set of thieves is replaced by another and the economy just gets worse

In truth, the protesters in Kiev's Independence Square hoped to banish corruption and strengthen ties with Europe.

When the new parliament after Yanukovych's overthrow moved to drop Russian as an official language, easterners' worst fears seemed to have been realised. The new government quickly backed off that proposal, but the damage had been done.

Police in a dozen cities across the Donbass region - including Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lugansk - have struggled to stop pro-Russian activists from seizing local government buildings.

At the military facility in Artemivsk, several dozen pro-Russian activists, many of them wearing black leather jackets, intermittently formed a human cordon on Thursday to stop vehicles from entering or exiting.

"Power in Kiev has been seized by a junta that wants to speak to defiant people in eastern Ukraine with weapons and force. We will not allow this," declared Sergei Varyuschenko, a 63-year-old businessman taking part.

Like the encampment erected by protesters in Kiev's main square, known as the Maidan, pro-Russia activists in Artemivsk have pitched tents, installed an open-air kitchen and burn wood in steel drums to keep warm.

"We'll show them Maidan. The east of Ukraine will live separately, by its own laws," said Varyuschenko, who was spending his third day outside.

For some, like 46-year-old Donetsk miner Anton Skachko, the disillusionment with Ukraine's new government is about economic consequences.

"We are tired of revolutions and upheavals in Kiev," Skachko said. "One set of thieves is replaced by another, and the economic situation just gets worse. We want stability and peace. Only Russia can give us that." Around Donetsk, pro-Russian activists have set up checkpoints. They say they are trying to keep "radical nationalists from western Ukraine" from bringing in weapons to make trouble. Metals billionaire Sergei Taruta, who was recently appointed governor of Donetsk province, is fighting to re-assert the new leadership's authority over the east. Taruta said that despite what he called signs that the Russian government has been engaged in fomenting unrest in Donetsk, a repeat of the Crimean takeover is impossible there.

Police have been brought in from neighbouring regions to help keep order. Also, Taruta paid for the construction of a 193-kilometrelong anti-tank trench. Russian military forces have assembled for exercises that Ukraine sees as a thinly disguised threat.

Taruta is most worried about the activities of Russian citizens he says are flooding over the border to start trouble. "There are representatives here from Russia. I do not know who is sending them. The Kremlin or other organisations, I do not know," Taruta said. "But our law enforcement bodies understand exactly what is going on in Donetsk."

While there is little love lost for the interim government in Kiev among eastern Ukrainians, many of whom would like to see closer economic ties between Ukraine and Russia, disappointment is growing over Russia's annexation of Crimea.

"I am Russian, but what I see now is that the Kremlin's actions are leading to war," said Viktor Gurov, a 38-year-old businessman from Donetsk.

"Neither Russians nor Ukrainians need that."