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DONETSK, Ukraine — The woman who stood in the cold on Saturday afternoon shouting for the release of a pro-Russian self-appointed “people’s governor,” Pavel Gubarev, would give only her first name, Irena.
She demonstrated in a square in Donetsk, the unofficial capital of Donbass, the coal mining region of eastern Ukraine, where last week a group of pro-Russia supporters stormed the regional government headquarters, hoisted the Russian flag and demanded that Donetsk separate from Ukraine. Gubarev, founder of the People’s Militia of Donbass, declared himself the new governor.
He was arrested by the Ukrainian government on Thursday night and charged with trying to damage “the territorial integrity and independence of the state.” Hence the gathering on Saturday — a rather underwhelming 800 or so, considering the conventional wisdom that has eastern Ukraine solidly in favor of Russian intervention.
Irena shouted with the crowd.
“We’re here for freedom!’ she yelled. “For the people’s governor, who was illegally arrested by the illegitimate government in Kiev, which has come to power thanks to America!”
Irena, 30, is a stay-at-home mother of two. She was wearing aquamarine Adidas, her green eyes lined with purple, several gold earrings in each ear. She is no elderly Soviet pensioner longing for the glory days of yore but a young woman who said she felt moved to show up at the regional headquarters with her husband and another friend to chant pro-Russia slogans.
“People who don’t respect their history have no future,” she said, adding she had never really felt any strong political sentiment until last month, when the new interim government came to power in Kiev.
“My ancestors fought for this land, and I don’t want to sell it to the fascists,” she said referring to the Kiev government, which Russian President Vladimir Putin has also called illegitimate.
The rally petered out, and on the walk back to her car, Irena said she had no idea what Gubarev would actually do for Donetsk if he were governor. In fact, she said, she didn’t think he would be freed anytime soon.
“What we don’t want are any more criminals, bandits or oligarchs stealing our rights,” she declared.
Donetsk, ousted President Victor Yanukovich’s stronghold, is still trying to figure out where it stands on the issues roiling Ukraine. With Crimea declaring independence in the south and Kiev appointing its Western-leaning interim government in the west, Ukraine’s industrial heartland, which has close historical and ethnic ties to Russia, has become the next battleground for the powers that be.
While staunch Russian nationalism has raged here, the fate of this region is far from decided. Activists admit they are being used as bargaining chips for future discussions between the greater powers that wield the real authority over their fate. But what has emerged is a new sense of political voice in which previously apathetic people have taken to the streets for either side. Both ends of the political spectrum — despite fundamental differences in identity and demands — have come out against Ukraine’s history of corruption in politics.
Politics as a pendulum
To be politically active in Donetsk before this crisis was no small feat. Under Yanukovich, Denys Tkatchenko, 32, a pro-Maidan activist and the editor in chief of NGO.donetsk.ua, an information portal, said the government did everything it could to stop protests like the ones that swept Kiev in November from cropping up here.
“I wasn’t just afraid — I lost faith," he said. "It was like being in a swamp, with all your efforts just sucked into the muck."
The pro-Maidan movement is still small here, overcome by the more vocal majority, which wants greater recognition from the central government, federalism or autonomy — or just to join Russia. Yet on Wednesday an estimated more than 5,000 pro-Maidan people rallied in the square to declare they wanted to remain part of Ukraine.
“This was the first time people could gather,” Tkatchenko said. “I think more people would have come out from the beginning, but the government killed all initiatives in their embryonic state.”
He mentioned intimidation from security services, fear of hired thugs and a lack of protection from police as some of the reasons more people did not join the rally. But thousands showed up, calling for Ukrainian unity and supporting the change in government in Kiev.
A week ago Enrique Menendez, a 30-year-old owner of AdFactory, was one of those people who just wanted to live and let live. After the Orange Revolution in 2004, Menendez had lost all interest in politics, let down by promises of change that emerged from that protest movement but were never realized by then-president Viktor Yushchenko. Menendez washed his hands of activism and went about his life, which by his account wasn’t bad at all under Yanukovich. His company prospered, he said he had never been shaken down for a bribe, and he wasn’t interested in the protest movement that swept Kiev in November. In fact, he was against it.
“I realized that Ukrainian politics are like a pendulum. When one power wins, they take over everything. When the other side wins, they take everything back for themselves,” he said. “They all line their own pockets.”
It was useless to try to change anything, so while he favored integration with Europe, he turned a blind eye to events calling for Yanukovich’s ouster, until he realized his city was being characterized in the media as the next domino to fall to Russia.
On Monday he turned on the television and saw that pro-Russia supporters had planted a Russian flag on the government building.
“The television was showing the world that Donetsk wants to be part of Russia,” he said. “I’m Ukrainian. I love Ukraine. I want to live in Ukraine. I realized that I need to do something.”
Menendez wrote a post on Facebook, and things quickly spiraled until he ended up being one of the organizers behind the Wednesday protest. “We wanted to show the world Putin is not right about people in Ukraine needing help [from Russia].”
Menendez said he was shocked by how many people came out into the street — but what shocked the organizers more was that they were actually granted government protection for their rally.
“I could feel something changed. This was the first time the police ever protected us,” Tkatchenko said.
On March 2, the interim government appointed a new governor for the region, Sergei Taruta, an oligarch whose roots are in the Donetsk region. The central government knows this region is vital for the future of a united Ukraine and is trying to calm the loud separatist calls — real or provoked by Russian state television here.
‘Give me a normal life’
But as previously apolitical cadres from both sides met in the city’s central square at rival protests this week, the rest of the population continues to watch from the sidelines with the kind of apathy reserved for people who have been downtrodden for generations.
Far from the glitzy regional capital’s glass buildings and tall apartment complexes, in the small villages surrounding the coal mines that minted Donetsk, the people have come to expect nothing at all.
Squat houses with chimneys line potholed roads outside the center, with little available in the way of basic infrastructure. “Right now, we don’t have a government. Let’s start there,” said Tamara Vasilivna, a shop attendant in the small village of Snizhne, 50 miles east of Donetsk and roughly a dozen miles from the Russian border.
“We don’t know what will happen. We just know the poor state we live in now. What will happen to our children? Our grandchildren? Give me a normal life and a normal salary and we’ll live whichever way and smile.”