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Oksana Grytsenko: What drives the hate in eastern Ukraine

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April 16, 2014, 3:36 p.m. | Op-ed — by Oksana Grytsenko

People take pictures of men wearing military fatigues standing guard outside the regional state building seized by pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk on April 16, 2014. At least two Ukrainian military helicopters landed in an airfield near the flashpoint city of Slavyansk on April 15 with reinforcements for an ongoing push into the separatist-held city, witness told AFP. The helicopters landed in a military airfield in the town of Kramatorsk, about 15 kilometres (nine miles) south of Slavyansk, where pro-Kremlin militias have occupied government buildings since Saturday. AFP PHOTO /GENYA SAVILOV
© AFP

LUHANSK, Ukraine -- When Channel 5 TV anchors dismiss as "terrorists" and "separatists" those who took over the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) headquarters in Luhansk last week, they should keep in mind that these people are part of their audience. There is no other channel working in this office.

The anchors should also understand that the hundreds of people who rally day and night outside of the SBU headquarters also watch Ukrainian TV channels.

When they are shown as alcoholics and people on the margins of society, the more they talk about wanting to separate from Ukraine. And of course they start to hate any journalist who comes there from Kyiv. They do not allow them into their camp, which leads to more distorted TV stories.

Those in Kyiv who call on police to storm manned checkpoints on the entrance to Sloviansk in Donetsk Oblast should keep in mind that the people defending them, and who might be killed first are just plant workers or students, who don’t know how to use guns they are holding. And the criminals who handed over these guns to them are staying in much safer places.

It is really scary that, most of all, residents of Sloviansk are afraid not of the army or a police raid but of some mystical radicals from western Ukraine, whom they call either “Benderovtsy" (after Kremlin-despised Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera) or the nationalistic Right Sector, the militant group that played a key role in the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on Feb. 22.

Russian propaganda, of course, played an important role here, but Ukrainian propaganda added to the problem by speaking only from the side of the EuroMaidan Revolution and ignoring half of the nation that didn’t participate in the pro-European protests.

Unlike in Crimea, few people in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine speak about joining Russia. They have no special sentiments to Russia and perfectly know that the Russian backwoods across the border is no better than how they live in Ukraine. But many of them demand autonomy, saying it will help them to distance themselves from an alien government in Kyiv and hostile Ukrainians on the west.

“They used to call us 'titushkas' (hired thugs that were brought and by Yanukovych and his cronies against activists of Kyiv's EuroMaidan); now they call us separatists. How long are they going to humiliate us?!” one woman from Sloviansk said, crying.  

A taxi driver from Luhansk told me that the majority of people there were also furious to know about the students beaten by Yanukovych's Berkut riot police officers on Nov. 30. They were also happy with Yanukovych’s escape on Feb. 21.

But after EuroMaidan was won, they were angry with attempts to revise the law that gave official status for the Russian language in their regions, and many of them still believe that this law was canceled. It was not.

Representatives in the new government did not call on them and they felt neglected. They also don’t understand against whom the barricades are still being kept in Kyiv. I don’t understand this as well.  

Now there are numerous Maidans -- or potential revolutionary points -- in the east, which are similar to what we had in Kyiv months ago, despite the fact that they are targeted against the authorities who came to power thanks to the EuroMaidan Revolution.

These Maidans have their own self-defense and students with sticks. Their only difference with students in Kyiv can be noticed only by the St. George's ribbons -- a symbol of Soviet victory in World War II -- on their hands, instead of the Ukrainian blue-and-yellow stripes worn by the militantly nationalistic Right Sector. There are women bringing warm clothes and cooking for the protesters. There are pensioners bringing their last Hr 5 for tents. There are, of course, pure radicals but in Kyiv they were as well.

They also shout “Police are with the people!” and even cry the famous “Hanba!” or “shame!” in Ukrainian, but there is also “Russia!” among their slogans, while people in Kyiv were hailing “Europe!”

When some of them capture government offices, they argue that the activists in Kyiv and western and central Ukraine were doing just the same. “So why are they heroes and we just the extremists?” I heard many times when was speaking to them.

My apolitical friend in Donetsk told me recently that she also came to the pro-Russian barricades, but she said it wasn’t for Russia. “I want to make it clear that we do not stand here for (Russian President Vladimir_ Putin or Yanukovych, stop involving them everywhere,” she said. “The first is a closed chapter and the second is nothing to do with us. I don’t support the current authorities!”

This attitude towards the government in Kyiv is not strange because the current rulers in Kyiv would rather travel to a glamourous European summit than show up at a dirty and smoky rally somewhere in Luhansk, where they might get a very unpleasant welcome. 

And probably they just don’t see any need to talk to hostile “extremists” and “separatists.”

Kyiv Post staff writer Oksana Grytenko can be reached at grytsenko@kyivpost.com 

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