MOSCOW — The same picture that we saw at the end of 2013 in Kiev has now simply moved to Donetsk, Kharkiv, Luhansk and Mykolaiv. Buildings stormed, barricaded streets, people in masks and flags flying.
The differences, at first glance, appear insignificant. Before, there was just one center of the protests — Kiev — whereas the protests now are scattered in different locations. In the capital, protesters stood their ground 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but now protesters are only coming out periodically, on the weekends. But that doesn’t mean, it’s not the prelude to a serious conflict.
The new Ukrainian government also reacted to the protests in a predictable way, calling them “pro-Russian gangs,” as if they had forgotten how Viktor Yanukovych behaved himself and seeming to repeat his mistakes in ignoring the protesters. For example, a third of the police force in Kharkiv risks being fired after showing too much sympathy for the protesters.
What is more, the most active protesters are being threatened with a five-year prison sentence and being labeled “separatists.” Less than a day after those arrests were announced, the government changed the sentencing guidelines to make “separatism” punishable by 15 years in prison. As a result, the number of people who sympathize with the “separatists” is only growing — the more people are arrested, the more sympathy the movement gets.
Now it has both a real excuse for anger and a formal demand — amnesty for the arrested protesters. It’s like magic: The Ukrainian government-vs-protesters pendulum has swung the other way, and is playing out almost like a mirror image of what happened at the end of 2013.
Still, there are some crucial differences, explains Andrei Suzdaltsev, a researcher in European and International Affairs. “The protesters at Maidan were passionate revolutionaries, and they had a clear ideology — national independence, European elections, etc. Things are more complicated in eastern Ukraine. There isn’t a unifying ethnic identify, the ideology tends towards separatism, they don’t have information resources."
Suzdaltsev also noted that as soon as the protesters in Kharkiv took control of the government building, they immediately started arguing among themselves about what the objective was. "Some wanted a more federalist Ukraine, others wanted to leave Ukraine and join Russia. This question hasn’t been decided among the protesters.”
Feb. 23 protests in Kharkiv's Freedom Square — Photo: aureliuscrutch via Instagram
In painting this conflict as a simple conflict between eastern and western Ukraine, most people are getting it wrong, over-simplifying the real reasons for unrest. At the moment, there is no unified political ideology in the East, since there is also no single political center.
Still, it is clear that the people in the East don’t identify with the values of the “Westerners.” It seems like just as opposition to Yanukovych became a unifying battle cry among pro-Western Ukrainians, the so-called "anti-terrorism" crackdown is unifying the Eastern regions against the new leaders in Kiev.
It takes a closer look at the past to understand what's unfolding near the Russian border. “The secret of the East’s diversity is in its history,” explains Natalya Zubarevich, the director of the regional program at the Institute of Social Politics. “Because carbon and steel were manufactured there, the cities developed in an equal but scattered way. No single city could be considered the leader — not the manufacturing leader, Donetsk, not the second-largest city, population-wise, in Ukraine, Kharkiv. The East is angry with Kiev because it is convinced that it is feeding the country. The discontent is more economic than ethnic."
Zubarevich says these concerns are partially justified, though eastern Ukraine’s manufacturing sector was only able to survive after the fall of the Soviet Union thanks to subsidized gas. "These gas subsidizes account for almost 18% of Ukraine’s federal budget. So it’s not really a question of who is dependent — the dependence is mutual.”
Right now, everyone, both in Ukraine and abroad, is talking about how to manage that mutual dependance. There are many scenarios to consider: a break-up of the country, federalization, unconditional unification.
“The amplitude of uncertainty is growing: There still isn’t any agreement between Russia and Europe regarding the future of Ukraine, the country is in limbo,” explains Anna Yazikova, the head of the Mediterranean and Black Sea Research division at the European Institute. “The rebellion is not just in Ukraine — it is on an international level. In offering former Soviet countries economic partnerships, Europe is not taking Russia into account. Russia, on the other hand, isn’t taking Europe into account when it annexes Crimea. At some point the seesaw has to stop. I just hope that it stops before Ukraine falls apart."