A rearguard against the swell of uprising, dozens of pro-Russia Ukrainians defend a statue of communist leader Vladimir Lenin in Kharkiv, the first stop for fugitive ex-President Viktor Yanukovych as he fled the capital.
“The statue for us isn’t about Communism, it’s our history, which is shared between Russia and Ukraine,” said Leonid Stryzhko, a Communist lawmaker in the regional parliament, one of the monument’s defenders.
Police stood by as activists seized the government building in Kharkiv, reflecting the spread of the movement that sprang from protests in Kiev, 480 kilometers (300 miles) to the west. As regions in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east and south ditch plans of disobedience to the new rulers, resignation is setting in for the would-be capital of a tepid secessionist movement.
“The east won’t split off, they couldn’t even adopt a resolution calling for federalization” to bolster their autonomy, said Igor Korotchenko, 60, a retired aviation engineer, as he protested against the regional administration building’s occupation in the city’s main Freedom Square.
Divisions between the Ukrainian-speaking west and center and the pro-Russia east and south are straining the country’s unity after the nation’s bloodiest week since World War II toppled the Kremlin-backed regime. From Kharkiv to Donetsk and Sevastopol, bonds with Moscow are also being tested.
Russia, which bolstered Yanukovych with promises of $15 billion bailout and cut-price gas after persuading him to abandon a free-trade agreement with the European Union, has been humiliated by the sudden reversal.
Even as angry announcements from Moscow condemn the new leadership in Kiev, the Kremlin has so far looked on powerlessly as Ukraine turns westward, sabotaging Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal of creating an economic bloc to rival the EU.
“President Putin has now arguably suffered his most significant foreign policy defeat in a decade,” Tim Ash, the London-based chief economist for emerging markets at Standard Bank Group, said by e-mail. “If Russian TV commentary over the past few days is anything to go by, Putin is now feeling extremely bitter.”
The Ukrainian-speaking western regions and capital were the driving force behind the three months of protests. In contrast, Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine, with a population of 1.5 million, showed little enthusiasm for events in Kiev.
Since the anti-government protests started in November, Yanukovych-appointed Governor Mikhail Dobkin has called repeatedly for more autonomy for his region and said he’d run in the May 25 early presidential election. Confrontation between his supporters and pro Kiev activists turned violent Feb. 22 when locals attacked campaigners who wanted to remove the Lenin statue.
In a reversal of fortunes, the pro-Russia activists constructed makeshift barricades around the statue, the pile of metal barriers and wooden planks resembling the sprawling protest camp in Kiev.
An industrial and scientific powerhouse in the Soviet era, Kharkiv, a city with Tsarist-era architecture in the center, is almost entirely Russian-speaking like the rest of the industrialized east and Crimea in the south.
“Russia! Russia!” chanted a crowd of a few dozen people who gathered opposite the regional administration building on one side of the main square. A man walked around carrying a tall blue-white-red Russian flag.
Inside and spilling out into the street were several hundred well-organized activists armed with batons and metal shields who have expelled Dobkin.
As protesters took control of Kiev over the weekend, 4,000 delegates gathered from the south and east in Kharkiv, with guests from Moscow. The meeting that featured speeches on secession included governors of four regions neighboring Ukraine, as well as Mikhail Margelov and Alexei Pushkov, who head the foreign affairs committees of Russia’s upper and lower houses of parliament, respectively.
The congress was a “failure,” according to Sergei Markov, a Kremlin adviser and a vice rector of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics in Moscow.
“Yanukovych was counting on some support from the Kremlin, but he didn’t get it,” Markov said by phone from Moscow. “Russia decided that these people aren’t serious and can’t be counted on.”
Moscow’s frustration was palpable as Russian state television presenter Dmitry Kiselyov, picked by Putin to overhaul a state news service, lashed out at Yanukovych. On his flagship weekly show on Feb. 23, he berated the former leader now in hiding wanted on charges of murder after dozens were killed in Kiev last week:
“The result: the real betrayal of the Ukrainian people, his partners and even his own police.”
Concerns about what the pro-Russian activists see as an aggressive nationalist movement still run high in the east and in Crimea, part of Russia until 1954 and still the home of its Black Sea fleet.
While people toppled Lenin statues across the country in protests, according to Ukraine’s Channel 5, thousands rallied for closer ties with Russia in the southern cities of Odessa and Sevastopol. In Kerch, also in the south, marchers replaced a Ukrainian flag at the mayor’s office with Russian and Crimean flags, the Unian news service reported.
In Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, the regional parliament will hold an emergency session today to vote on a referendum about joining Russia. Thousands of flag-waving pro-Russia demonstrators gathered near the building to pressure lawmakers, separated by a line of security forces from a rival protest of ethnic Tatars, Espreso TV reported.
A vote for the referendum would be “symbolic,” rather than binding, parliament spokeswoman Lyudmila Mokhova said by phone.
That means the tide may yet turn, said Viktor Artyumenko, 50, a retired Interior Ministry officer who served with Soviet forces deployed during a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan that started in 1989.
“The new authorities would be wise to tread carefully,” Artyumenko said. “They are trying to dismantle Lenin. Why? They should focus on the economy, not on removing Lenin statues and the Russian language. If they trample on our rights, we will take up arms and then we will ask for Russia’s help.”
For now, Dobkin and Kharkiv Mayor Gennady Kernes are facing mounting pressure to resign. Ivan Kulichenko, the mayor of Dnipropetrovsk 217 kilometers to the south, left Yanukovych’s party Feb. 22. Their position has weakened since the Party of Regions distanced itself from the ex-president and went into opposition.
Dobkin and Kernes “should be punished for their actions and words,” said Ivan Varchenko, who’s coordinating the occupation of the government building.
With police officers subject to the authority of the country’s acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, they are taking a neutral role and stood by as youths wearing balaclavas and wielding wooden sticks patrolled the corridors.
Dobkin, the ousted governor, said he was frustrated by his inability to return to work.
“Our goal is to ensure these provocateurs don’t take over Kharkiv,” he told reporters after leaving his car for a few minutes. “If our city follows Kiev, 1.5 million people will be left without services.”
A prominent local civic figure, pediatrician Evgeny Komarovsky, says he’s skeptical that the “deeply passive” population in the east will rise up in opposition to Kiev.
“It’s as quiet as a cemetery here, there are no real fighters,” he said in an interview in his children’s clinic in Kharkiv. “Politics is seen as an absolutely dirty field of activity and people don’t want to get involved.”