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Pro-Kiev voices struggle to be heard over separatists in Ukraine's east

Source: Reuters - Wed, 23 Apr 2014 09:31 GMT
Author: Reuters
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(Adds death of Ukrainian politician)

* Pro-Kiev activists say face pressure, threats

* Say separatists not more popular, just more aggressive

* Poll shows majority against joining Russia

* Many suspicious of Kiev also reject separatism

By Gabriela Baczynska

DONETSK, Ukraine, April 23 (Reuters) - When a group of pro-Kiev activists decided to hold a rally in Ukraine's eastern city of Donetsk, they found that no shops stocked ribbons in blue and yellow, the colours of the Ukrainian flag.

Instead, they had to use social media to appeal to supporters in other parts of Ukraine to send the ribbons to their improvised headquarters, in a cellar near Donetsk's Lenin Square.

"This is all very hard," said Tetiana Durneva, an activist with the committee.

"I speak Russian and grew up in a region that, compared to other parts of Ukraine, may seem less patriotic. But I know that the flag of my country is in yellow and blue and I have no other flags, or nostalgia for other symbols."

Since pro-Russian activists and gunmen in unmarked uniforms took over about a dozen public buildings around Ukraine's eastern Donbass region this month, they have grabbed international attention and dominated the debate in the east about Ukraine's future.

The separatists have declared an independent "People's Republic of Donetsk". The region is now plastered with red, white and blue Russian flags and ribbons in the separatist colours of orange and black. Ukraine's own colours are far harder to find.

But the evidence of opinion polls, sociologists and local people themselves suggests the real picture in the Donbass region, where most people speak Russian as a first language but identify themselves as ethnic Ukrainians, is much more nuanced.

Many people actively support the government in Kiev, though quantifying their number is difficult. And an even large number are caught somewhere in the middle: they do not particularly like Kiev, or Moscow, and just want an end to the instability.

A poll by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology on April 10-15 said that only 27 percent of people in the Donetsk region supported joining Russia, echoing other recent polls.

But the same poll said 72 percent of people in Donetsk considered the government in Kiev, which took power in February after Donbass native Viktor Yanukovich was overthrown as president, to be illegal.

"All of the surveys show most people are for the status quo, keeping the region as part of Ukraine, even if the people don't support the government," said Igor Todorov, a professor in the foreign policy department at Donetsk University.

"While there seems to be a tendency towards escalation and radicalisation, most of the population seems to be engaged in a kind of passive resistance by just continuing with their normal lives," he said.

KITCHEN POLITICIANS

Last week, some 2,000 anti-separatist protesters wrapped themselves in Ukraine's blue and yellow flag and sang the national anthem in the centre of Donetsk, a city of 1 million people. Pro-Russian rallies in Donetsk have been about the same size, although more frequent.

The backers of the Ukrainian government say their true support is much greater than it appears.

"The majority of Donetsk residents support a united, independent Ukraine. But, unfortunately, they support it sitting in their kitchens," said Yegor Firsov an activists with the pro-West UDAR party led by retired boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko.

The pro-Kiev protesters blame a campaign of intimidation for keeping like-minded people off the streets. They say many of them have received multiple threats on the phone.

"The worst thing is fear. When it trickles into the minds of the people, they are paralysed," said activist Aleksandr Klimenko.

The body of a Ukrainian town councillor, Volodymyr Rybak, was found on Saturday near Slaviansk. Police said that Rybak and another, unidentified, man appeared to have been tortured and dumped alive in a river to drown.

On March 13, an activist with the Ukrainian nationalist Svoboda party was stabbed to death when separatist sympathisers attacked a pro-Ukraine rally in Lenin Square in Donetsk.

While pro-Russian separatists at the city administration are armed with Kalashnikovs and wearing balaclavas, pro-Ukrainian activists have remained unarmed and kept their faces uncovered.

"The majority supports Ukraine. But the minority, unfortunately, is very aggressive. And this minority has arms," said Sergey Harmash, an activist and journalist.

The supporters of Kiev have adopted different tactics. One protest took the form of an unannounced "flash mob" in an upscale shopping mall, which the demonstrators calculated was less likely to be targeted by their opponents.

"If you're feeling suicidal, take a (Ukrainian) flag and walk down the main street," said Lyudmila Vozmishcheva, a 57-year-old businesswoman who took part in that protest.

Pro-Russian groups say they are also subject to persecution, in their case from the police and army carrying out the orders of the government in Kiev.

Apart from the views of ordinary people, the opinions that carry the most clout in this part of Ukraine are those of the oligarchs who control its industrial wealth.

One of them, metals baron Serhiy Taruta, has thrown his support behind Kiev by taking up the post of governor in Donetsk, although he has not been able to stop heavily armed pro-Moscow activists from barricading themselves in his office.

The region's most powerful man and Ukraine's richest by far, coal and steel tycoon Rinat Akhmetov, once a supporter of Yanukovich, has been more circumspect.

Last week, on the eve of the pro-Kiev protest, he told his 300,000 employees to stay away from rallies of all kinds. (Additional reporting by Lina Kushch; Writing by Conor Humphries; Editing by Peter Graff)

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