Yanukovich's ousting shows a divided Ukraine

As President Yanukovich is forced from office, eastern regions remain fiercely supportive of the embattled leader.

Last updated: 22 Feb 2014 15:52
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Supporters of anti-government protesters have been targeted in Ukraine's eastern regions, which remain sympathetic to President Viktor Yanukovich [AP]

Kiev, Ukraine -
On January 24, Kateryna Zhemchuzhnykova went off the grid. The journalist and activist, who had been active with the EuroMaidan anti-government rallies in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, had suddenly and inexplicably turned off her phone and could not be found anywhere. 

Zhemchuzhnykova's colleagues immediately sounded the alarm, setting up Facebook pages with information about where she had been seen last. The BBC's Ukrainian service published an article declaring the 25-five-year old journalist missing. 

Two other opposition activists from Donetsk, 23-year-old Artur Shevtzov and Stanislav Fedorchuk, in his early 30s, had disappeared on the same day, fuelling suspicions of foul play.

Approximately seven hours after her disappearance, Zhemchuzhnykova turned her phone back on and was met with a flood of text messages and missed phone calls. Zhemchuzhnykova, who left Donetsk with Shevtzov, said they turned off their phones to avoid being followed. 

"I was really worried that something might happen to me if I stayed in the area," Zhemchuzhnykova told Al Jazeera. "Tensions between the local authorities and journalists were on the rise. Leaving the area seemed like the best option at the time."

Zhemchuzhokova and Shevtzov came back to Donetsk on February 4 and began working again. The other activist, Fedorchuk, had gone into hiding separately and came back at a later date.

Several days before the three disappeared, a website named "Enemies of Donbass" - the region of eastern Ukraine which includes Donetsk and Lugansk - appeared, listing the personal information of activists and journalists thought to be enemies of the local government, including their addresses, passport details and phone numbers. Zhemchuzhnykova, Shevtzov and Fedorchuk were all on the list.

Zhemchuzhnykova claims that the day after her address was posted, a group of men drove up to her house, looked around and then left. She added that she had received many threatening messages from anonymous numbers. 


These kinds of intimidation tactics are hardly isolated to Donetsk, or neighbouring eastern regions. During the past week's violence, the federal government demonstrated few qualms in dealing with Kiev's protesters. 

The word titushki has entered the vernacular here, describing the burly men, generally believed to be hired by government officials, who try to scare off protesters from meetings. The leader of "AutoMaidan" - a group that used to go around causing a ruckus outside the houses of oligarchs - was kidnapped for eight days and resurfaced with part of his ear missing and nail holes in his palms.

However, these kinds of scare tactics are used most effectively against anti-government protesters and journalists in the eastern parts of Ukraine, especially in the Donbass region, where support for the government is strongest, said John Herbst, director of the Centre for Complex Operations at National Defense University and a former US ambassador to Ukraine during the Orange Revolution. 

Donetsk activists told Al Jazeera that titushki became an almost expected part of EuroMaidan gatherings in the country's east. At first they would just bring banners in support of President Viktor Yanukovich, and then they escalated to screaming at activists and bumping into them to provoke fights, according to a string of YouTube videos, photographs and interviews with activists. 

Ukraine's power vacuum as president flees capital

This is the way that the government in the Donbass region operates - through intimidation, said Tatiana Zarovnaya, a journalist and EuroMaidan activist. Local authorities here don't want opposition activists, or journalists, upsetting the status quo, and send their cronies out to keep order through various means, she added. Zarovnaya is also listed as an enemy of the Donbass region on the ominous website. 


EuroMaidan opposition activists in the Donetsk region are representative of a small minority here. Many in the region have warm feelings for Yanukovich, who started his political career in Donetsk.

"Donetsk Defence", a group of pro-government activists, has organised rallies in support of the government and has held press conferences to denounce both local activists and the Maidan protests in Kiev. According to an announcement, the group's purpose is to preserve lawfulness and order in the region and to protect the area from violence, extremism and Nazism.

"I do not want protesters in masks to come to Donetsk and disrupt the peace we have here," said Leonid Denicenko, a member of the Donetsk Defence group. Denicenko said he feels threatened by Donetsk's EuroMaidan activists.

If people really want change, Denicenko said, then they should wait until the elections - instead of overthrowing the current government, which was elected in 2010.

Many others in the region are apathetic. "The vast majority of eastern Ukrainians have a political apathy that is still a holdover from Soviet days," said Yury Yakymenko, the deputy director of the Kiev-based Razmukov Centre, during a phone interview with Al Jazeera. People in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions were used to the factory-style chain of command in and outside of work, he explained. 

Although more than 20 years have passed since Ukraine became an independent country, little has changed for many - particularly in the east. While many young people leave looking for work, fewer than one-third of those who remain have travelled outside of the country, and this statistic is even lower in the east, Yakymenko said.

Because of this stagnation, "there are still very different expectations as to what the government should provide for its citizens, and what human rights are", said Yakymenko.

Ukraine government on verge of collapse

"The current situation in the Donbass region is [caused by] location, but also by information," said Volodymor Panchenko, the director of the International Center for Policy Studies in Kiev. People are largely reliant on news outlets that are funded by the state or by oligarchs - and those channels typically glaze over problems.

The few media channels and sites that present a more balanced view of what is going on in the government can easily be overwhelmed by news that is funded by oligarchs or the government.

Novosti Donbassa (Donbass News), a local news site funded in part by international grants, has focused on reporting objectively on the region. However, after the site began reporting on EuroMaidan events, the building owner who was renting office space to the channel informed editors that it had to move. Novosti Donbassa has not made public their current location, according to editor-in-chief Oleksiy Matsuka. 

Nevertheless, the fact that such independent media outlets and EuroMaidan protests exist here in Ukraine's, albeit in small numbers, is significant, said Herbst. Ten years ago, he said, this kind of independent thinking was even less acceptable in Donetsk.

However, despite Yanukovich's administration being in tatters, and Yanukovich absent from the presidential offices, analysts maintain that it is unlikely that any of Ukraine's more remote regions would immediately feel the effects of a change in government in Kiev.


Al Jazeera
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