Thursday 02 December 2004    


The Week


Neil Barnett on the mood of angry defiance in Ukraine’s Yanukovich-supporting east

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Issue: 4 December 2004
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Backing the bad guy


The sleeper train from Kiev to Donetsk in eastern Ukraine offers more than mere physical transport — it is a time machine. For £20, a cabin decorated like a little rolling dacha will take you from the relatively contemporary capital across frozen plains to Stalin’s heavy industrial heartland c. 1970, and onwards to a Kievan Rus of icon-wielding babushkas.

This is the Russian-speaking heartland of prime minister Viktor Yanukovich, the man who allegedly stole the Ukrainian presidential election. The stampede of western hacks to Kiev, the centre of Viktor Yushchenko’s orange revolution, may have left some readers with the impression of a gangster government trying to stamp on the flower of liberty. There is something to be said for this view. The Kuchma regime has been marked by the murder of opponents and wholesale criminalisation, while the evidence of vote-rigging is compelling.

Yet the fact remains that many in the east of Ukraine fervently support Kuchma’s anointed heir, Yanukovich. Where Kiev is a sea of orange, in Donetsk only Yanukovich’s blue and white is to be seen. The Donetsk regional assembly is now considering a referendum on autonomy, which could precipitate the break-up of Ukraine, so incensed are the people with the Yushchenko movement. Can all of these people be completely misguided?

On Lenin square in Donetsk there have been daily pro-Yanukovich demonstrations under the steely gaze of a huge statue of ...Lenin. Thousands are turning out here every evening, their motives ranging from the sensible to the outlandish. Anatoly Polyakov, a pensioner and victim of Chernobyl, said, ‘If Yushchenko wins, the Nazis will return. I was in the west of Ukraine recently and saw columns of foreign troops, fascists. If war comes, I will fight until the last cartridge.’ Among the elderly, memories of the second world war remain strong. Donetsk is close to Kharkov and just over the border in Russia is Kursk, scene of the greatest tank battle in history. Western Europe remains a vague and threatening entity for many people, a conflation of the fascist invader and the imperialist threat of the Cold War. Xenophobia is almost palpable (especially in the faces of the golden-toothed babushkas who belabour foreign journalists with their handbags) and Yushchenko is viewed as the agent of foreigners. If Kiev feels rather like Warsaw, a progressive, developing central European city, then Donetsk is something far more oriental and alien.

But alongside such obscure views of the world, there is no denying that people are content with the modest prosperity and stability Yanukovich has brought as governor of Donetsk region and latterly as prime minister. For free-market theorists, this could be something of an anomaly. Much of eastern Ukraine’s economy is controlled by a network of oligarchs such as Donetsk’s Renat Akhmetov, and his financial-industrial conglomerate Systems Capital Management (favourite for this year’s all-Ukraine sinister name competition). In Dnepropetrovsk to the west, the president’s son-in-law Viktor Pinchuk and his Interpipe Group rule the roost. Oligarchs such as these enjoy mutually supporting relationships with Yanukovich and Kuchma, who help them to win privatisation tenders on on what one analyst described as ‘obviously’ rigged terms.

All very reprehensible, no doubt, but one fact cannot be ignored: the people in much of eastern Ukraine are delighted with the deal they’re getting. At the state-owned Oktyabrskaya (October) coalmine on the edge of Donetsk city 1,500 miners labour in filthy, freezing and often dangerous conditions for 1,200 hryvna per month — about £160. As prime minister in 1999–2000, Yushchenko closed several mines as part of a restructuring policy and, unforgivably in the minds of the people, failed to pay salaries and pensions for as long as six months at a stretch.

Yuri Mikhailovich, a manager at the mine, said, ‘Yushchenko’s “restructuring” brought the mining industry and many towns to the verge of extinction. There were hunger riots.Yanukovich reversed these criminal policies. Now the workers are paid promptly, they received a 50 per cent pay increase, and we have new British and German machinery.’ This alone goes some way to explaining why exhausted miners are willing to stand in the falling snow on Lenin square after a day underground to show their support for Yanukovich.

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