The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

March 1, 2014

At heart of Ukraine drama, a tale of two countries


Over the months, western Ukraine became virtually independent as Yanukovych focused his attention on the Kiev uprising. Then, a few days ahead of Yanukovych's disappearance, central rule all but disappeared in Lviv, when masked youths stormed the city's police headquarters, looted weapons and set fire to a number of municipal buildings. With policemen nowhere to be seen, order in the city fell to unarmed "voluntary citizen patrols" in bright yellow vests.

A handful of regional leaders also began talking about changing the country's laws, so that Russian is no longer recognized as an official language. This terrifies some in Donetsk, which is in the heart of a region where Russian has been the main language for generations.

Alexander Kravtsov, a top official in Donetsk and member of Yanukovych's political party, says he believes most people in the region still believe in a united Ukraine, but warned that the number who identify with Russia will grow significantly if they feel threatened.

"People are scared of what has happened in Kiev," he said.

Talk to the pro-Russia protesters at Donetsk's Lenin Square, and the list of those blamed for the changes in Kiev ranges from Ukrainian fascists to Jews to Masons to the U.S. government.

Out by the mines entrance, though, few have the energy to protest.

Donetsk was built directly over a maze of mines, and the city's working-class neighborhoods sit beside mountains of reddish slag that can rise 10 stories high. They are places where stray dogs are blackened by the dust that fills the air and where you can never escape the oily smell of coal. The little houses, with their leaning plaster walls and central chimneys, look like something out of the 19th century. They are filled with people who say they can barely feed their families between paychecks, and who are far too frightened to give their names to a reporter.

They may not like what is going on in Kiev, but most are simply focused on keeping their jobs.

"I don't go to political meetings, I don't go to protests," said a somber, fifty-something miner with exhausted eyes and bad teeth. The idea of war, or of a divided country, frightens him more than anything else.

"All of us are Ukrainian. All of us," he said. "We are one people."

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