Pro-Russia volunteers in the east seek a divorce from Ukraine

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 April, 2014, 10:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 April, 2014, 10:08pm


In the foyer of Yenakiyevo city hall, Nataliya Litvinenko and other volunteers were preparing sandwiches. Well-wishers had delivered all sorts of produce: giant bottles of pickled gherkins, cheese, homemade honey and salo, Ukrainian pork fat. One old lady had brought a tin of sardines. On it she had written: "We are with you."

The women set up their impromptu kitchen on Sunday, soon after pro-Russia activists seized the administration building. The takeover was peaceful. The protesters now camped outside the entrance reject the new government in Kiev. Instead they want a referendum, leading to either independence for the east of Ukraine or its union with Russia.

We’d like the USSR back … Russia was right to help itself to Crimea

On Tuesday, Ukraine's government launched a major "anti-terrorist operation" in the Russian-speaking east.

But the politicians in Kiev are acutely aware that deploying the army on a large scale could lead to casualties among the local population. Many in Yenakiyevo and elsewhere support the anti-Kiev uprising. Any military intervention in turn could trigger a furious reaction from Moscow and possibly a full-blown invasion.

"We're like a family where the husband and wife quarrel all the time. It's better for them to split up, to divorce," Litvinenko said. "We could be Russia or we could be separate. The most important thing is that we are separate from the rest of Ukraine."

Anti-government protesters now occupy municipal buildings and police stations in a string of eastern cities. The problem for Kiev's beleaguered government is how to wrest the buildings back without endangering the civilians now occupying them.

In Yenakiyevo, the birthplace of Ukraine's fugitive president Viktor Yanukovych, local police have sided with the protesters. They have even lent them flak-jackets. On Tuesday the mayor chatted calmly with activists outside his occupied building. A banner read: "No to Nato."

Yanukovych grew up in a small, now ruined hamlet down the road, under the shadow of a giant metallurgical factory. He spent several years in prison as a teenager after being convicted of hooliganism. His fortunes changed when he joined the communist party and become a company boss.

"I don't know whether Yanukovych was a thief or not. All I know is that during the four years he was our president we had stability. Our lives were small but predictable," said Alla Zuliyeva, who was helping out in the protest kitchen handing out cups of black tea and instant coffee. "We got our pensions regularly. We could get credit."

With Yanukovych in exile in Russia and unlikely to return, what did she want? "We'd like the USSR back," she said. "Russia was right to help itself to Crimea. I envy them."