Kharkiv an island of calm in Ukraine's turbulent east
Ukraine’s second city appears stable despite shooting of powerful mayor
Ukrainian policemen rest inside of a regional state administration building as pro-Russian protestors outside have their rally to mark International Labour Day in front in Kharkiv, Ukraine, earlier this month. Photograph: EPA
Dwarfed by a towering statue of Vladimir Lenin on Kharkiv’s vast main square, Ukraine’s anti-government protesters posed no threat to its second city yesterday. Five men clustered around a small red Communist Party tent, while another five talked beneath the orange-and-black banner adopted by Ukrainians who oppose their new pro-EU leaders. In the regional administration headquarters at the other end of Freedom Square, prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk met local officials who seemed to feel quite safe from the chaos engulfing other parts of eastern Ukraine.
From official buildings they control in Donetsk and Luhansk, activists have announced the creation of pro- Russian “people’s republics”, and plan to hold referendums on Sunday on whether to declare independence.
Fierce gun battles
In Slovyansk, a large town near Donetsk, rebels and soldiers have died in fierce gun battles, and three Ukrainian military helicopters have been shot down by militants whom Kiev and the West believe are controlled by Kremlin agents.
As violence and instability intensified to the south, many predicted trouble for Kharkiv and its surrounding region, which borders Russia.
But those fears have proved unfounded.
“Officials in Kharkiv have worked better on security issues than in Donetsk and Luhansk, arresting some organisers of the unrest and stopping financing coming from Russia,” said pro-government activist Dmytro Pilipets.
“I don’t feel any great tension here now. I don’t think aggressive moves would work.”
Pilipets has felt the violent edge of Ukraine’s political upheaval. Last Christmas Eve, after a rally he helped organise against Viktor Yanukovich’s regime, he was attacked by three men and stabbed 15 times.
Yanukovich’s escape to Russia, along with much of his entourage, sent shock waves through their eastern stronghold, where they and their relatives and friends were part of a vast web of power.
Kiev claims the current unrest is funded by their stolen money, and supported by figures in politics, business, the security services and criminal world who fear the new order and its promise to end rampant corruption.
They have found an ally in a Russia that also has no desire to see Ukraine become a more transparent, democratic and pro-western state, officials say.
Kharkiv’s billionaire mayor, Gennady Kernes, condemned the Maidan protests and showed little sympathy for Pilipets and other activists who were attacked. Kernes is something of a political chameleon, however, and few in Kharkiv were surprised when he suddenly warmed to Ukraine’s new leaders and pledged to defend the country’s unity.
And then he was shot – hit in the back on April 28th while jogging along a favourite route in a leafy part of Kharkiv.
He is recovering in an Israeli clinic but many saw the attack as a bid to rob Kharkiv of its main controlling influence and send it spiralling into the same turmoil that has gripped Luhansk and Donetsk.
“Kernes was probably targeted because he refused to take part in this war or finance it,” said Kharkiv businessman Dmytro Kutovyi, who is a member of civil society projects that seek to heal rifts in the city caused by the revolution.
“Now Kharkiv is in much better shape to face its challenges than a month ago,” when police would still stand by and watch thugs beating Maidan activists, he said.
“Security service and police officials have been changed, and things seem to be working better. There may still be attempts to destabilise the situation, but I think, thankfully, that that train has left the station in Kharkiv.”
Others are not so sure.
“The government must stop military action against its own people and call a referendum on federalisation – only that can prevent Ukraine breaking up,” said Vitaly Zavgorodny, an anti-government activist.
He said vicious street fighting and a fire in Odessa last Friday that killed more than 45 anti-government protesters had horrified Russian speakers in Ukraine, and convinced them that that “these authorities are ready to kill us”.
Kharkiv officials warning of the danger of possible “provocations” cancelled part of tomorrow’s traditional Victory Day celebrations.
And events in Odessa – a city that had previously been peaceful – showed how quickly Ukraine can now change.
“No one wants bloodshed,” said Zavgorodny.
“But if something like Odessa happens again, they won’t stop us until we reach Lviv,” a city in the far west of Ukraine.