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In Ukraine's Industrial East, The Silence Is Deafening

As the opposition in Kyiv lays claim to the city's main plaza, Independence Square, calm reigns on Donetsk's central Lenin Square in eastern Ukraine.
As the opposition in Kyiv lays claim to the city's main plaza, Independence Square, calm reigns on Donetsk's central Lenin Square in eastern Ukraine.
DONETSK, Ukraine -- It's been more than two decades since Nikolai Zakharov took to the streets to protest Soviet rule.

And this week, the 60-year-old mechanic, clad in a flat leather cap and clutching a European Union flag, was among dozens of demonstrators singing the Ukrainian national anthem in the freezing December wind on Donetsk's Taras Shevchenko Square.

Zakharov told RFE/RL that he is fed up with the corruption that he claims has become more pervasive since Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a native of the region, came to power in 2010

"I never thought that [over] twenty years later I would be here again with a flag saying that I don’t see a future for you, us, for our children and for anyone else," he said. "The [authorities] are clocking up more and more debt and there is no end in sight. I decided I had to do something.”

But little demonstrations like this are an anomaly. In the weeks since throngs of protesters poured onto the streets in the capital, Kyiv, to protest Yanukovych's scuttling of a landmark Association Agreement and free trade pact with the EU in favor of closer ties with Moscow, the silence in eastern industrial cities like Donetsk has been deafening.

By and large, residents of this predominantly Russian-speaking region, where just 30 percent favor closer ties with Europe, take a dim view of the unrest in Kyiv.

Many, like Ihor, a 35-year-old ethnic Russian who gave only his first name, parrot Yanukovych's claim that Ukraine is not yet ready for closer ties with the EU.

Ihor compared protesting masses in Kyiv to a child throwing a temper tantrum. "I might want a Mercedes," he said. "But I drive a Hyundai."

Low Approval Ratings

And yet, there is also a strong sense here that no one is rushing to defend the embattled Ukrainian president even as he faces the most serious challenge to his rule. Tellingly, Ihor says he is not sure if he will vote for Yanukovych again, as he did in 2010, in the 2015 presidential election.

In a city that represents the heart of Yanukovych's base of support, the authorities have managed to stage just one modest pro-regime demonstration. And critics say they had to bus in thousands of employees of state-owned companies to beef up the crowd.

One planned demonstration here even had to be cancelled due to an expected low turnout.

And, after racking up large majorities in Ukraine's east in the 2010 presidential elections, Yanukovych's approval ratings in the region were around 26-28 percent, according to the Razumkov Center, before this political crisis.

With 4.5 million residents, Donetsk Oblast is Ukraine's most populous region and its heavy industry -- mainly coal, steel, and iron mining and metallurgy -- represents a sizeable chunk of the country's economy.
Ihor Todorow of Donetsk National University believes there is a latent protest mood in the city.
Ihor Todorow of Donetsk National University believes there is a latent protest mood in the city.

Yanukovych has been careful to prop up industry here and he has maintained a close alliance with Ukraine's richest man Rinat Akhmetov who owns much of the industrial enterprise in the region.

This, together with the pro-Western opposition's inability to connect with Russian-speaking working class voters, has up to now been sufficient to maintain the president's support.

But even as residents here deride Kyiv for wasting time protesting while the country's east keeps the economy alive, there is a lot of discontent below the surface.

"The level of the protest mood is pretty high," said Ihor Todorow, a professor of International Relations at the Donetsk National University. "But the authorities have pretty influential administrative resources at their disposal."

'Triangle Of Death'

Todorow said state enterprises have suffered in Ukraine's struggling economy. So have small-business owners like Stanislav, 31, who runs a small company selling water filters.

Stanislav, who gave only his first name, said he voted for Yanukovych in the 2010 presidential election because of his electoral promises -- among other things -- of five years of tax breaks, none of which have come to fruition.

Moreover, he said some policies are driving businesses into the shadows and leaving them exposed to harassment and corruption.

"When the president or Prime Minister [Mykola] Azarov or the rest of them from the [ruling] Party of Regions say that they need to support business or develop it, I just find it funny," he said. "They are doing exactly the opposite."

Entrepreneurs here say they been plagued by a rise in corporate raiding, where criminals use police contacts to illegally appropriate businesses.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Kolesnikov, an entrepreneur and owner of the HS Donbass ice-hockey team, warned in November that business in Donetsk was trapped in a "triangle of death" comprising the courts, the prosecutor, and the police.

As Donetsk's residents associate problems like this as well as the deepening economic crisis with the man in charge -- Yanukovych who has been in power for the last three years -- analysts say it is inevitable that support will erode even in his traditional power base.

But this latent mood of protest has yet to become manifest, according to Sergiy Tkachenko, a Donetsk-based political analyst who sympathizes with the opposition.

"Unfortunately, for the majority of people it did not function as a trigger to transform their worries and mood into activism," he said.

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