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Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2014 7:30 p.m. ET

Ukraine's Divisions Extend to East Itself
History Helps Explain Country's Dichotomy, but Doesn't Necessarily Mean People Living Near Russia Want to Secede

By James Marson And Paul Sonne

DONETSK, Ukraine—With young men standing guard over barricades of tires, and speeches and music blaring over loudspeakers, the pro-Russia camp that has taken over the regional assembly here could be an answer to the pro-Europe movement that emerged late last year in Kiev.

But Donetsk, one of the largest cities in eastern Ukraine, is missing one element that proved vital to the success of the Kiev protests in toppling Ukraine's pro-Russian president: people.

Thousands of activists lived on Kiev's central square for three months, rising to tens of thousands at weekend rallies in the capital. By contrast, the movement here has never attracted more than a few thousand. Nowadays, the square in front of the assembly building often has only a few dozen stragglers.

The disparity reflects the differences between Ukraine's west and east that are at the center of the current crisis, as well as the mixed feelings in Donetsk itself.

Western Ukraine was only absorbed by the Soviet Union in 1939 after centuries under Polish or Austrian rule. It was long a bastion of Ukrainian nationalism that has translated into strident political activism, particularly against Russian influence. Many people there work, study or travel in Western and Central Europe.
Hotspots Along the Border

The eastern heartland of Donbas was long part of the Russian empire and adapted quickly to Soviet centralized rule, where big steel mills, factories and coal mines took care of most every element of life. Few have traveled West, relying as before on Russia for trade and jobs.

The west is predominantly Ukrainian-speaking and idolizes nationalists who fought against the Soviets, at one point alongside the Nazis. In the east, where Russian is the main language, statues of Lenin still stand in town squares and the western heroes are seen as traitors.

The west was the driving force behind Kiev protests that led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, a Donetsk native, in February. The majority in Donetsk reject the new government and want closer economic and cultural ties with Russia.

But that doesn't mean they want to become Russian.

A recent poll showed that only about 28% of people in the Donetsk region want to become part of Russia. Just 18% supported the seizure of the regional assembly, according to the survey, which the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, one of the country's most respected, independent pollsters, conducted from April 8-16.

Asked about the low headcount outside the building, Kirill Rudenko, a spokesman for the protesters, said it was overflowing with people this month but that after Kiev began what it calls an antiterrorist operation last week, many went home to the outskirts.

"The time for protests is already over," he said.

Still, Russian television has given them blanket coverage, depicting the occupation as backed by the majority and claiming equivalence with the Kiev demonstrations, which it portrays as engineered by the West.
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A member of the Ukrainian special forces takes position at an abandoned roadblock in the eastern city of Slovyansk. AFP/Getty Images

That has prompted Moscow to suggest Ukraine's regions are too diverse to be governed from Kiev, and to push for a federal structure.

Ukrainian officials view that as an attempt to increase Moscow's sway and hobble the government's attempt to reorient the former Soviet republic westward. Kiev has instead offered more power to the regions over economic and cultural matters.

The Donetsk protesters themselves are at odds over what they want. They demand a referendum, but when they are pressed on what question will be posed, few can answer.

Compared with Kiev, it is more difficult to mobilize protesters of any political stripe in Donetsk, a less-youthful and more working-class city buttressed by surrounding steel mills, coal mines and factories, said Serhiy Harmash, a journalist and activist who organized a pro-Ukraine rally in the city last week.

"Here, people are more apolitical," Mr. Harmash said. "There is a lot more paternalism."

If Moscow were to send troops, more than 10% of people in the region would welcome them, but more than half would stay home and do nothing, according to the KIIS poll.

Many simply feel they have no influence on events controlled by elites and vested interests.

"When they decide something somewhere up above, that's when something will happen," said Irina Kiriyenko, a 17-year-old Donetsk student. "We have nothing to do with it."

Ms. Kiriyenko said, above all, people just want stability, even those who might sympathize with the goals of the activists.

In the KIIS poll, 42% of people in the Donetsk region cited Russia's economic stability and 38% political stability as what they find attractive about the country—even higher percentages than in eastern Ukraine as a whole.

After opposing demonstrations in Donetsk in March resulted in violence, many people became scared and lost the desire to protest. One demonstrator was stabbed on March 13 when a pro-Russia mob attacked a crowd waving Ukrainian flags.

Also, some say their ideas can't be boiled down to a clear, shared goals in the way the Kiev protesters—despite vastly differing backgrounds—came together in demanding Mr. Yanukovych's resignation and closer ties with the European Union.

For example, some in Donetsk favor a united Ukraine but hate the new authorities in Kiev, making them wary of unfurling Ukrainian flags. Some older people in particular want closer relations with Russia and dream of the old Soviet days, but nonetheless see Donetsk as part of Ukraine.

The toppling of Mr. Yanukovych shocked people in the region amid fears the new government wouldn't listen to their interests. Last year, when he seemed set to sign a free-trade deal with the European Union, Russia slowed its imports from Ukraine and halted some industrial cooperation in what was interpreted as a warning shot.

If it did so again, production in the industrial region would fall, sending unemployment soaring to more than 15%, estimates Dmitry Petrov, an analyst at Nomura.

Even so, weekly anti-Kiev protests appeared to be fading before an unexpected thrust in early April, which Kiev officials say was provided by Russian agents and money, leading to building takeovers in several cities. Moscow has denied involvement.

Now, apart from hotbeds like Slovyansk, the occupied buildings in places like Donetsk have turned into strange spectacles.

Tuesday in Donetsk, about 20 middle-aged men and women sat on makeshift benches behind the barricades, watching a flat-screen television taped to a wooden bookshelf that was beaming out a live feed of Russian state news. Curious passersby stopped to listen to Soviet-era poems or karaoke performances.

It is a different vibe from Kiev, where students were the lifeblood of the protests. Here they are rarely spotted. Neither have many blue-collar workers joined. The trade union at one of the largest metal plants in the region said its members supported Ukrainian unity and would stay at work.

At the root, however, the concerns of many in Donetsk resemble those of people in Kiev.

"Forget about the Donetsk Republic," said Vladimir Kovalchuk, a pensioner who supports the protests against Kiev but says he doesn't want to join Russia. "People want decent wages and pensions. They want the smell of meat and wine."

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