Silent suffering for Donetsk critics of ‘Kafka-esque’ poll

Opponents of referendum stay away from poll they consider fixed

People queue to receive ballot papers during the referendum on the status of the Donetsk region in the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol yesterday. Photograph: Marko Djurica/Reuters

People queue to receive ballot papers during the referendum on the status of the Donetsk region in the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol yesterday. Photograph: Marko Djurica/Reuters

Mon, May 12, 2014, 01:00

Dmitry Pavlov stopped outside a polling station in central Donetsk, made no move to go in and pointed to the face on his T-shirt in explanation.

“I put this on especially today,” he said. “It kind of sums up what is happening here.”

It was the face of Franz Kafka.

“The so-called referendum is bullshit. It’s all been decided far in advance,” said Pavlov (28), who works in sales for one of the coal companies that are a mainstay of the rustbelt Donetsk region.

“It’s already fixed that 90 per cent of people, or something like that, will vote for independence,” he said

‘People’s republic’
Pavlov was one of the few dissenting voices to be heard in Donetsk yesterday, as separatists held a vote on whether their “people’s republic” should break from a Ukraine that they – and Moscow – claim is now run by a Russian-hating junta with fascist tendencies.

“Hardly any young people will vote today, but the older generation will,” said Pavlov, explaining that opponents of a split from Kiev would simply stay at home.

“My parents, in their 70s, are voting in favour. They don’t listen to me, but believe 100 per cent the propaganda on Russian television. They are the type of people who were last in Kiev 10 years ago and have never been to western Ukraine or Europe. They are still living in 1989 and are sure life will be better with Russia. ”

Several voters did lament the demise of the Soviet empire, but Pavlov was wrong to assume that only older people would back independence – a move that many here see as a step towards unification with Russia, as happened in Crimea.

Hundreds of men of all ages have taken up arms to seize official buildings around the region, and some of Pavlov’s contemporaries in the east are among the most ardent supporter of separation from Ukraine.

“Why are those people on Maidan allowed to give their opinion, and here it is illegal?” asked voter Natalya Tokar, referring to the Kiev square at the epicentre of pro-western protests that ousted Donetsk-born president Viktor Yanukovich.

“We have a different mentality to people in western Ukraine, and we don’t need the EU. Donetsk should be in the Customs Union, ” she added, in support of a Moscow-led trade bloc that comprises Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

‘Better if we join Russia’
Recent surveys suggest most easterners do not want to split from Ukraine, but a vote considered illegal by Kiev and the west was unlikely to reflect their views. “For 20 years our governments did nothing and now, when this new one is trying to change things, people here don’t understand. They are scared of change,” said Pavlov.

“People here want stability – for their small salary to be paid, a little piece of meat each day. They think life will be 10 percent, or 20 per cent better if we join Russia,” he added.

“Okay, things are bad in Ukraine, but at least we have some freedom of thought. Is freedom only worth this 10 or 20 per cent?”