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Ukraine: Eastern City Views Kyiv With Suspicion

Yanukovych supporters celebrating news of Donetsk's referendum plans (file photo) The people of the eastern industrial city of Donetsk cast a suspicious eye on the pro-Western leanings of other Ukrainian regions. As Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko prepare to face off in a historic repeat of the country's disputed presidential runoff, the city's authorities are threatening to seek greater autonomy.

Donetsk, Ukraine; 6 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A massive Lenin statue stands in the main square of Donetsk, where thousands rally in support of their presidential candidate -- pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

As with Lenin, people in Donetsk do not trust the capitalist West. They have no confidence in Western Europe or in the United States. And they cast a suspicious eye on western and central Ukraine, which is largely pro-Western and nationalistic.

Donetsk is one of several regions threatening to seek greater autonomy if pro-Western opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko is elected president later this month. A repeat of the contentious 21 November was ordered by the Ukrainian Supreme Court on 3 December when it backed an appeal by Yushchenko that the original polls had been marred by fraud.

Interviewed on the streets of Donetsk by RFE/RL, the city's residents say their future lies only with the "working classes" of Eastern Ukraine and Russia.

Andriy Ignatov, in his 30s, said he and his friends voted for Yanukovych. He said Yanukovych, a Donetsk native, has done a lot for the region, which is a powerful industrial motor for the entire country. He characterized Yushchenko as "a puppet of America."

"I would like Donbass [the wider region including Donetsk and Luhansk] to have an upper hand in the country, not a U.S. puppet [Yushchenko], together with Yuliya Tymoshenko, Pavlo Lazarenko [a former prime minister, now in jail in the United States on corruption charges] with whom he worked together," Ignatov said. "None of these people can be trusted."

Ignatov said that Eastern Ukraine cannot be compared with the rest of the country, which he said "produces nothing."

He said people in Kyiv and the West who support Yushchenko are economically and politically blind. They refuse to accept that the industrial east "feeds the whole country."

"Yushchenko promises a sweet life for those regions that produce nothing and naturally are worse off than Donbass," Ignatov said. "Donbass feeds all of Ukraine. Donbass feeds Kyiv and western Ukraine. There is no industry in western Ukraine; there are no high-paid jobs. That's why our region is not loved very much."

The coal miners of Donetsk's Zasadko mines think along the same lines.

Take Vladimir, for example. He said that he would like to know who pays those people who have left work to rally in Kyiv's Independence Square for the past two weeks.

'We have more industry here than they do in this west -- I mean in the western regions [of Ukraine]. And we all are working, all the factories are working, nobody is on strike or goes to rally," Vladimir said. "We go to rallies, but after work. Just look at them, at those who support Yushchenko. Who pays them for going to meetings? Where do they get the money from?"
"Donbass feeds all of Ukraine. Donbass feeds Kyiv and western Ukraine. There is no industry in western Ukraine; there are no high-paid jobs. That's why our region is not loved very much."

For Vladimir and his friends, the answer is apparently simple. They are convinced the United States and the European are paying the pro-Yushchenko protesters in Independence Square.

Vladimir said he will support Yanukovych in the repeat presidential run-off later this month because the prime minister has long shown concern for the "life of common coal miners." He said that under Yanukovych's government, miners have always been paid on time -- unlike during Yushchenko's tenure as prime minister.

Local analysts said it's no wonder that people here have such a different take on their country's developments than Ukrainians to the west.

Serhiy Harmash heads a nongovernmental organization of Donetsk journalists and publishes an Internet magazine called "Ostrov" (Island).

"Local people never identified themselves with Ukraine. During Soviet times, they made up a special region of workers lost somewhere between Russia and Ukraine," Harmash said. "All the time, a kind of Donbass patriotism was being encouraged here, not the Ukrainian one but a Donbass brand."

Harmash said that people from different parts of the Soviet Union came to work in Donetsk, which was a hub for Soviet industry. Workers were proud to come here and to be treated with special attention from Soviet ideologists. However, patriotism here seems to have more to do with being a coal miner than with belonging to any particular nation.

But the proximity of Russia and emotional ties to the Soviet past make people here more likely to listen to the Kremlin than to Kyiv. And workers in the region often point to higher wages and pensions across the border in Russia as evidence that Ukrainian independence has been a failure.

"It is no wonder that Yanukovych, taking a pro-Russian stance, has so many supporters in Donetsk," Harmash said. "These sentiments also make Donetsk a very ripe breeding ground for manipulating any drive toward autonomy."

[To see an archive of RFE/RL's full coverage and analysis since the Ukrainian crisis began, click here.]