Eve of Election A Fractured Ukraine, United in Uncertainty
Part 2: Kharkhiv: 'Prepared for Aggression'
On the second Sunday of October, at 8 a.m., in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, Vyacheslav Tseluyko is on his way to the trenches with 20 volunteers. The group is called Help the Army. There are dozens of such citizens' initiatives in the city -- spontaneously formed groups that look after refugees or bring food with private cars to the front.
Tseluyko and his people are driving to Ztrilecha, a village 35 kilometers from Kharkiv, where there is a now-closed border crossing to Russia. Blocks of concrete and antitank obstacles block the road, but pedestrians are still allowed through. There is a view of the Kharkiv River down below.
Tseluyko and his friends dig trenches here every Sunday. Kharkiv -- with 1.4 million inhabitants, the second largest city in the country -- lies almost on the border to Russia. "If we've learned anything this spring, it's that Kharkiv has to be prepared for aggression," says Tseluyko.
Until recently, the border between Russia and Ukraine was unmarked. The border crossings were staffed by civil servants working for the Interior Ministry and there were no fortifications. On the Ukrainian side of the border, there is now an air defense post behind a field of sunflowers and tractors from a nearby farm plowing lines for defense.
Tseluyko's volunteers enlarge these trenches: One meter (3.25 feet) wide at the top, 50 to 80 centimeters (20 to 30 inches) at the bottom. They also dig shelters and build bulwarks to protect against shrapnel -- they acquired their knowledge from old textbooks about the world wars.
Tseluyko is a slender 34-year-old man with glasses and jeans. He studied physics, finished his PhD, and is now a university lecturer in political science. But he has always had an interest in military matters -- he's read a great deal about the Russian military, and these days he gives presentations to border guards about the structure of Putin's army.
"Our army is only of a symbolic nature," he says, "and it has never looked toward Russia. Now it feels like the army has been betrayed by the Russians -- and it is terrified of Russia's military might."
No one in Kharkiv has forgotten that after the Donetsk People's Republic was proclaimed this past spring, the city seemed to be Ukraine's greatest Achilles' heel. The separatists announced their intentions to install a people's republic in Kharkiv. This would have given them control of not only the east's mining center, but Kharkiv's defense industry.
'They Are Driving Us Apart'
Back then, busloads of Russians crossed the border, and the regional administrative building was occupied twice. For a long time, it was unclear which side would win. "Putin's course of action in the east, and the 200,000 refugees who later fled to the city, helped swing the mood in our favor," says Tseluyko.
The struggle between the two camps seemingly concluded three weeks ago, when the 20-meter (65-foot) statue of Lenin was pulled down on Freedom Square. It was a sign that the new rulers were allowing the streets to be taken over by the radicals -- in the case of the statue incident, by ultra-nationalists from the local Metallist football club.
No politician personally took part in toppling the monument, but the Kiev-appointed governor signed a decree a few minutes beforehand that removed the Lenin statue from the list of cultural monuments and removed any reason for the police to intervene. Government officials could then just lean back and watch other people do what they weren't willing to do themselves.
"What is the purpose behind this now?", asks Alla Aleksandrovskaya, the 65-year-old chairperson of the Kharkiv chapter of the Communist Party. "They want to intimidate us. They are in the process of driving us further apart."
Aleksandrovskaya is a highly educated woman who worked as an engineer for the Soviet space program, and later served as a representative in the parliament in Kiev. The offices of her party are located on the ground floor of a building in the old part of the city, and its blinds are kept down, even during the day. "We are afraid of attacks," she says.
She says that 65 of her activists have been in police custody since April, and speaks of the "growing legal nihilism" pursued by the state. "Unfortunately it seems to me that Ukraine, in its current form, and under its current leadership, cannot continue to exist." Then she reflects for a while and says: "People want calm and stability. This is not possible together with the aggressive western Ukraine. In that sense, the new Russia model seems to me to be a possible rescue plan." To achieve that, Aleksandrovskaya would need Moscow's help. But the Russians appear to have given up on Kharkiv.
Zaporizhia: Searching for New Markets
The city of Zaporizhia, 300 km west of Kharkiv, still has its Lenin. It stands in front of what was once the world's largest hydroelectric plant on the Dnieper River. But someone has clad the statue in a traditional Ukrainian shirt -- a bit of ironic wit in Ukraine's heated political climate.
It takes the train from Kharkiv five hours to reach the industrial city's smokestacks. The train ticket costs the equivalent of 2.50. In Zaporizhia -- population 765,000 and the cradle of Ukrainian Cossackdom -- only one out of every four inhabitants is a Russian, but the industry here has always been largely dependent on Russia. Now that connection has officially been severed.
The fact that cities like Zaporizhia are faced with the potential layoff of tens of thousands of workers makes the debate over the significance of an independent Ukraine seem rather academic. The gross domestic product of Ukraine may drop by 10 percent this year. The country may face a winter without Russian natural gas -- in Lviv they are already repairing the old tiled stoves from the Austrian era.
Valeriy Baranov, 57, the Kiev-appointed governor in Zaporizhia, is a man who likes to get straight to the point and doesn't mince his words. If someone wants to meet with him, they have to show up at his office on Lenin Avenue at 7:30 a.m., when he appears for a few minutes with his bodyguards. The rest of the day he's out traveling around his region.
What about the car plant that produced 124,000 vehicles a year during its heyday, and reduced its workforce from 21,000 to 6,000? "It hasn't been operating all summer. Deliveries to Russia have been discontinued. We are looking for new markets, Kazakhstan or Egypt."
And what about the Motor Sich company, with its 27,000 employees, which has been supplying Russia's helicopters with engines? "We are in contact with South America. They need helicopters there for the Andes region."
When asked whether he was respecting the ban on weapons deliveries to Russia, Baranov remains evasive -- and with good reason. Motor Sich has a contract with Russia obligating it to deliver $1.2 billion worth of helicopter and aircraft engines -- and the company is in fact continuing to export to the country. A top executive at Motor Sich says that the leaders in Kiev think that national interests are more important than the economy. "But then they should also talk with the workers who are losing their jobs. We are patriots, too, but we are dependent upon Russia."
The plant doesn't want to end up like the rocket manufacturer Yuzhmash, in the neighboring town of Dnipropetrovsk. It engineered the Russian SS-18 intercontinental missile and has continued to provide maintenance services for the rockets. Yuzhmash has already reduced its work week to three days.
"Things here could have been different," says Governor Baranov. "We were a nuclear power, but international pressure made us hand over our missiles 20 years ago. The US, Russia and Germany have deceived us. We want our weapons back."
Then the governor returns to a more pressing issue: Ukraine's survival. Baranov is a fierce opponent of Putin's vision of a new Russia that includes Zaporizhia. But there is no doubt in his mind that Kiev must grant a greater degree of independence to Ukraine's regions: "Until now, only 15 percent of the money that we earn stays in the region."
When asked if he is optimistic, he replies: "A government that was appointed on the Maidan doesn't have a clue about reality. It's about time we had some professionals," says Baranov.
Confidence and Skepticism
The message is the same all over the country, and Zaporizhia is no exception: People feel left in the lurch after the Maidan protests; they're afraid that the economy could completely collapse over the coming months. If that happens, it would send people out onto the streets all over again.
It has already been seven months since the rebellion on the Maidan shook the country's power structure, and the majority of the population seems to believe that the country can remain in one piece. But comparisons with Russia's fateful year of 1917, specifically the period between February and the October Revolution, are being made everywhere. The Czar was toppled in February 1917, but Russia's failure to introduce reforms led the radicals to seize power in the ensuing power vacuum.
Ukraine's biggest problem isn't the loss of Crimea or the war in the east -- it's people's skepticism that the new leadership in Kiev can turn things around domestically, and finally give the country a functioning state.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
- Part 1: A Fractured Ukraine, United in Uncertainty
- Part 2: Kharkhiv: 'Prepared for Aggression'