Anger, frustration as Ukraine prepares for elections
With presidential elections upcoming, anxiety and fear deeply felt in a country rocked by six months of political crisis.

Most Ukrainians are returning from their annual May holidays this week feeling angry and frustrated about the events of the last six months, which have taken the vast former Soviet republic of nearly 50 million people to the brink of war.

After Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine’s strategic Crimea peninsula in late February, the two neighbors have found themselves locked in a prolonged geo-political battle over the future of the country’s rebellious eastern Donbass district – a heavily industrialized, Russian-speaking coal mining area that includes the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, where heavily-armed, pro-Russia militants have fortified themselves in dozens of the regions’ cities.

Sporadic but increasingly intense fighting continues as Ukrainian troops attempt to restore federal authority in areas held by separatist forces.

– Citizens angry at government inaction

Many in Ukraine’s elegant capital Kiev have begun to question whether any new government will be capable of resolving the current crisis.

"It’s embarrassing what has happened. (Russian President Vladimir) Putin has already stolen a part of our country and is in the process of occupying another. He humiliated our military and us as a nation. The government has done nothing to stop this. What happened in Odessa (a historic Black Sea port city where dozens of protesters died in clashes earlier this month), who would have thought any of this was possible a year ago?” said Mykola, a pro-Ukrainian, Russian-speaking businessman from the southern industrial city Dnipropetrovsk.

"I supported the protests (that led to former President Viktor Yanukovych ouster in February) and the need to get out of the corrupt system we’ve had since Soviet times,” he said.

Standing on Institutskaya Street, where dozens of protesters were gunned down by Yanukovych’s Berkut riot police in February, veteran Maidan protester and a Russian speaker from the southern city Nikolayev, Alexander said many were stunned by the turn of events, but no less determined to carry on with what began last November as a protest against Yanukovych’s decision to turn away from a trade agreement with Europe.

"Civil war, Russian invasion, annexation…occupation, Putin massing 40,000 or 50,000 soldiers on our borders. None of us saw any of this coming. I think most are still in shock, trying to figure out what happened and what went wrong,” he said.

"But we won’t let Moscow do what they want with us,” he added defiantly.

– Reckless political decisions

Many in Kiev believe the interim government that was quickly cobbled together in the wake of Yanukovych’s overthrow provoked Moscow by recklessly overturning the country’s law on the official status of the Russian language.

The decision was quickly repealed and Russian regained its place alongside Ukrainian but the view from Moscow and pro-Russian separatists was that Western leaning ultra-nationalists dominated the new government in Kiev.

"The ban on Russian only days after Yanukovych fled was a stupid decision. It gave the Kremlin a perfect excuse to invade Crimea. Putin was looking for a reason to seize Ukrainian territory in the event he couldn’t force the government to stay within his sphere of influence. The vacuum left by Yanukovych and the pro-Europe Ukrainian officials that replaced him gave Moscow what they wanted. Putin needed an excuse to occupy huge sections of the country, and he got it,” Kiev resident Katya said outside the Verkhovna Rada – Ukraine’s parliament – Tuesday.

"He was able to create this myth that the Maidan protests were a coup led by (ulta-nationalist group) Pravy Sektor. The truth…they’re actually a small group of people with little real following amongst ordinary people,” she said.

– Influence in the ‘near abroad’

Putin has often cited his right to protect – using force, if necessary - Russian speakers living in the 14 other republics that once, alongside the Russian Federation, made up the Sovietq Union.

He used a similar justification in 2008 in a brief war with Georgia when the Kremlin claimed that then-Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili had launched an unprovoked attack on the breakaway pro-Moscow – and decidedly un-Slavic – south Caucasus regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Putin views the current interim government in Kiev as largely comprised of anti-Russian, Ukrainian nationalists from Ukraine’s E.U.-oriented western regions.

Pro-Russia separatists, Kremlin officials and Putin himself have made numerous dubious claims that Russian speakers in Ukraine are systematically harassed by local officials and marauding gangs of ultra-nationalist groups, who Moscow labels ‘Banderists’, in reference to World War II Ukrainian nationalist leader and anti-Soviet guerrilla fighter, Stepan Bandera.

– Ukraine key for Moscow

The Kremlin considers Ukraine to be the jewel in its project to build a Eurasian economic union, which already includes the former Soviet republics Belarus and Kazakhstan, with Armenia and Kyrgyzstan expected to join by 2015.

Angered by the overthrow of Moscow-backed Yanukovych, who had agreed to scrap plans to further integrate with the E.U. in favor of joining the customs union, Putin sent special forces units from Russia’s GRU (military intelligence) and regular combat troops from Rostov-on-Don – nicknamed ‘green men’ by residents due to their lack of insignias and ranks – as well as volunteer Don and Kuban Cossack groups to Crimea to quickly seize and take control of the region in late February.

A referendum held on March 16 saw pro-Russia residents vote overwhelmingly in favor of joining the Russian Federation.

The events spurred a series of small, but decidedly more militant protests, in Ukraine’s eastern regions. The demonstrators’ leaders hoped to replicate the Crimea scenario, with Putin sending in more Russian troops before the regions’ annexation by Moscow.

– Donbass’ descent into chaos

After seizing government offices and police stations across the Donbass region, including the city administration offices of the capital Donetsk, militant separatist groups declared themselves independent from Kiev’s authority and prepared to hold referendums on joining Russia.

Armed with some of Moscow’s latest military hardware and backed by elements of Russia’s GRU and FSB security services – most of whom fought in Chechnya in the 1990s and South Ossetia in 2008 – the militants have taken journalists and international observers hostage.

Others, including pro-Ukrainian city officials and civil servants, have been kidnapped and murdered, while some still remain unaccounted for.

In late April, AA’s correspondent in the region witnessed a man being dragged from a Soviet-made Lada Zhiguli car at a checkpoint outside the separatist stronghold Kramatorsk by four unmasked individuals wearing uniforms identical to those used by Russia’s special forces. The man – who appeared to be in his early 40s – had a gun put to his head, his hands were tied and he was later taken away in a second car.

Two days earlier, the same correspondent was briefly held and threated at gunpoint by a separatist group near the rebel stronghold Slavyansk.

Numerous former residents from separatist-held towns - including Slavyansk, Kramatorsk and Gorlovka - have fled after receiving threats for refusing to participate in the referendums or for supporting a united Ukraine.

One former Kramatorsk resident, who wished to remain anonymous, told AA’s correspondent that she and her teenage daughter had left their home after the security situation in the city had become too dangerous, and would relocate to Georgia to live with her ex-husband.

– Moscow’s support seen as key

Russia has consistently denied that it holds any sway over the separatists in eastern Ukraine. Despite claims by the self-declared ‘people’s authorities’ that they are acting alone, Moscow’s support via money, arms and occasionally personnel continues to fuel the unrest in the Donbass.

With Wednesday’s opening of round-table national talks on diffusing the crisis, Kiev understands that any hope of preserving it’s territorial integrity without large-scale military operations hinges on Moscow’s ability to force the separatists to the negotiating table to implement an OSCE roadmap aimed at resolving the crisis.

If Moscow is unable to convince the increasingly bellicose and assertive separatist leaders – including Slavyansk’s Vyacheslav Ponomaryov and Donetsk’s Denis Pushilin – to come to the table, eastern Ukraine could come to resemble Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, the Serb-dominated entity where militant separatist leaders disobeyed the orders of their patron and eventually led to even more tragic events, including the 1995 Srebrenica massacres.

Last Modified: 2014-05-15 10:12:32
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