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Ukraine

What's Driving Pro-Russian Separatists In Donetsk

As the risk of war hovers over the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, one local explains why he looks to Moscow rather than Kiev.

Pro-Russian activists in Donetsk don't trust Kiev.
Pro-Russian activists in Donetsk don't trust Kiev.
Piotr Smolar

DONETSK — Iegor Velychko is driving between piles of tires and other barricades, avoiding people traveling in the opposite direction. Accustomed to performing in a difficult environment, he is normally in charge of leading 35 people 1,100 meters underground, where he works in a mine on the outskirts of Donetsk, Ukraine.

But on April 10, he joined a few colleagues to help activists seize the administrative building in Donetsk, which has since become the symbol of anti-Kiev, pro-Russian protests in the eastern region of Donbass.

The 30-year-old Velychko has been working underground for six years. Though his father is a head mechanic in a mine and his mother works as an accountant for another, he never wanted or planned to follow in their footsteps. The strong young man spent many years studying to be a surgeon, until the demands of daily life crushed his dreams.

“I had to feed the family,” he says. “I would’ve had to wait years to earn good money as a doctor.” Miners are indeed pretty well pampered in Donetsk. The 9,000 hryvnias ($680) a month he earns are enough to make the monthly loan payments on his car and flat, despite the insanely high but common interest rate of 45% over 20 years.

These figures are crucial to understanding the miners’ support for the separatists. Their employers haven’t encouraged them. In fact, the workers even say they’ve been threatened with their jobs. But the memory of their ancestors, who fought against the Nazis, and fear for their children’s future have persuaded them to act.

The economic situation, with currency in free-fall, worries them. “My buying power was divided by three in just six months,” Velychko explains. “I can’t make any plans for the future more than one month ahead. I can live with little money, but only if the situation is stable.” The radical reforms demanded by Ukraine’s Western lenders could have dramatic effects on the country’s coal basin.

It doesn’t matter to the miners that the roots of this economic disaster go deeper, that they existed even before the Maidan protests that led to upheaval in Ukraine. For Velychko, the revolution that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych in late February was a rude awakening.

Misrepresented by Kiev

Until Maidan, I didn’t care which country I lived in,” he says. “But I hate that other people speak in my name. When I hear on Ukrainian television that 80% of us are being manipulated by Russia’s Federal Security Service, it drives me mad! When I hear that I’m a stupid little miner, that I don’t understand anything, it pushes me to go on.”

Velychko says he is ready to defend the occupied building in Donetsk against any attack from the police. “If they give the order, the authorities will regret it. I’ll take whatever I can get my hands on, and I’ll fight.”

When asked about the possibility of joining Russia, he avoids a direct answer, sensing a trap. “I want to live in a country that respects me,” he says. “Kiev won’t be able to reunite the whole population, that’s for sure. At least in Russia, there are people like us. Our lives wouldn’t be better with them but not worse either.”

The large Russian city of Rostov-on-Don is only a two-hour drive away, and Velychko also has family living in the south, near Sochi. But he has never been to Western Ukraine. The “federalization” of Ukraine, demanded by Moscow to weaken Kiev, is a prospect he supports. “People in the Western part, who unlike us have no industry, claim that we live off the benefits they give us. Why should I be working for them?”

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