Without “tourists” from Russia, the separatist movement in Kharkiv has quickly marginalised. If not for pro-Russian sympathies of the local authorities, it would hardly pose any threat at all
Alarming news has been coming from Kharkiv, a key city in Eastern Ukraine. Whoever follows reports in the media alone might think that it is on the verge of a separatist revolt. Reports come of occasional explosions here and there. Rumours of the flags of a “Kharkiv People’s Republic” sewn in underground workshops are spreading. Videos with appeals of “guerrillas” promising an end to the “junta” appear online. Is there really a threat? And will Kharkiv follow in the footsteps of Donetsk and Luhansk?
It is hard to feel any threat as I roam around the city. At first glance, life here is calm here. Traffic is dense on central roads; a happy throng of students hangs out on Ploshcha Svobody, the Freedom Square; and a tent collecting donations for the army stands before the building of the Oblast Council. Still, this quiet routine does not guarantee that the situation is actually completely under control. Just a few months ago, Donetsk too was hardly bothered by a handful of people occupying the Oblast State Administration (ODA) and lived its quiet parallel life. Very soon, it saw missiles raining over the city.
Keep calm and close the border
Kharkiv differs from Donetsk, like a worker from an old influential bureaucrat. The former is used to acting directly, on impulse, with force. The latter weighs things up and uses reasoning. One swears loudly, the other doesn’t, but remembers everything and chooses the appropriate time for manoeuvres. Kharkiv’s former status of a capital, grandiose architecture, cosmopolitan youth and the glory of an academic city obligate it to behave accordingly. When an uncontrolled pro-Russian crowd raged in downtown Kharkiv in March, it did not attract mass support and compassion of the locals, unlike in Donetsk. Kharkiv does not stand in the middle of mining villages with poor population that could have risen for a revolt.
“Actually, there were only Russians and Oplot (a pro-Russian Kharkiv-based fight club led by Yevhen Zhylin who fled Ukraine. Oplot reportedly participated in March attacks on Kharkiv EuroMaidan activists and journalists. It was when Serhiy Zhadan, a well-known modern writer from Kharkiv, was seriously injured – Ed.), everything was well organised, this was not a spontaneous popular revolt,” said Olena Levytska, a local EuroMaidan activist. “The muscular men who fought in front of the ODA and seized it, were brought here in minivans. The ‘assault force’ of the crowd that stormed the Oblast Administration building and kicked out Ukrainian activists that were inside, were athletes and professional fighters. The police did not get in their way.”
“The Russian border is just 38 kilometres away from Kharkiv. It’s about 80 km to Belgorod (the closest big city in Russia – Ed.). The presence of our eastern neighbour has always been very noticeable here. Kharkiv is actually a border city. There were lots of Russians here earlier – plenty of cars with Belgorod license plates on the roads. They bought food, clothes and other things at our Baraban (the Barabashovo Market), because shopping was always far cheaper in Ukraine. Many Russians have always worked in Kharkiv because Belgorod Oblast has high unemployment, so they would come to work here. The Russians also took part in (pro-Russian – Ed.) protests here, which is why they initially seemed so big. Even today, the Russians who live and work here, are clearly waiting for some commotion,” Levytska says. March and early April were uneasy in Kharkiv. During this period, separatists seized the building of the Oblast State Administration several times, but withdrew each time. After the Ukrainian-Russian border was almost closed, movement, anti-government rallies attracted fewer participants and became far less aggressive. The decisive battle for the Oblast Administration building took place on April 8. On this day, the police were able to regain the seized building and arrest about 70 pro-Russian fighters who for the most part, it later emerged, were members of Oplot. After this, street fights came to an end and calm reigned in the city.
Once the border between Ukraine and Russia was closed, it became calmer in Kharkiv. You won’t really see any cars with Russian licence plates on the streets and local separatists have become illegal and gone underground. But most of the patriots here feel that it’s not so underground, because the separatist movement is directly supported by the city Mayor, Hennady Kernes. Anti-Ukrainian sentiments are very wide-spread among people working at budget institutions, the prosecution office, the police as well as the local authority.
“I work at a medical university. In our department, all the employees of the older generation advocated Russia – aggressively so, but they have calmed down now. Perhaps something started to get through to them, I don’t know … There used to be propaganda in favour of the “Kharkiv People’s Republic” at the market, but people started to complain about these campaigners and they disappeared,” said Iryna Lytvynenko, a Kharkiv resident.
According to the locals, all panic-filled rumours are generally spread on the vast Barabashovo Market, but it is hard to say whether this is done deliberately, or whether people are just gossiping. Quite recently, someone said that “Kharkiv People’s Republic” flags were being sewn in underground workshops. This information spread like wildfire through the city, but it was impossible to find any confirmation.
Many of the traders on the market are sympathetic towards Russia and Putin, but at the same time, business owners do not need war. Kharkiv is more dependent on small business, which is very sensitive to turmoil, than Donetsk and Luhansk. No one wants the Donbas scenario there. The fact that the separatist uprising did not gain mass support in Kharkiv is possibly because it is largely a city of traders, not workers. But the movement has not been entirely crushed, it is simply in hiding, and no one can say when and how it will manifest itself again. The Ukrainian government have become stronger now and there are no longer any questions about its legitimacy, so the separatists have to wait for the next excuse for activity.
“The company where I work monitored sentiments in Kharkiv during and after the Maidan. The actual share of the pro-Russian crowd was 30%. This figure did not change from one opinion poll to another. Another 15% are active Ukrainian patriots. The rest are a very passive mass with limited interests and indifference about everything,” says Kharkiv resident Anton Vasylenko.
There is actually a confrontation in Kharkiv between separatist and patriotic-minded citizens. But it has not been really noticeable so far, taking place in gateways and in the courtyards of residential areas. Almost every night, the slogans “For Novorossiya”, “Novorossiya – is peace” and “Kharkiv is Russia” appear on the walls of buildings. Someone regularly paints over them, but they reappear. Walls have transformed into a kind of chat, where patriots and separatists leave messages for one another. The former draw the Ukrainian flag, while the latter slap red paint on them, symbolising the blood of the Donbas residents that Ukraine has shed in the East. To many, though, this blood-stained flag means quite the opposite: Ukraine bleeding to death as a result of the Kremlin’s aggression and terrorist attacks.
Even if the underground anti-Ukrainian movement exists, it is just that, not open massive separatist movement similar to that which unfolded in the Donbas this spring. The separatists in Kharkiv are small illegal groups, which do not really have any power or mass support from the locals. On the one hand, this is a troubling red flag: the Donbas, too, had separatism in the form of small marginal organisations before it finally exploded. On the other hand, such elements cannot succeed without the support of the local authority and silent sabotage of law enforcement. The main thing that differentiates Kharkiv from the Donbas is the loyalty of the local authority to Kyiv. The revolt in Kharkiv came to an immediate halt after the oblast and city councils refused to support the separatists, and the police cleaned out the seized ODA just once.
However, Kharkiv supporters of the EuroMaidan feel that such loyalty is temporary and opportunistic. Therefore, they are convinced that a relapse may occur unless the central government conducts lustration in the city and punishes those guilty of the organisation and support of anti-Ukrainian riots.
“The revolution has changed the colours of posters: in January and February they had “Kharkiv stands for stability” on a blue background, and now, they say “For peace and order” on a yellow-and-blue background (the colours of Ukrainian flag – Ed.). Meanwhile, former Oblast Administration Chairman Dobkin (at the end of January, Mykhailo Dobkin and Kharkiv Oblast Administration deputies wore T-shirts saying “Berkut” to show support of the notorious special-purpose police that shot at Maidan protesters in February – Ed.) is not regarded as separatist, and the mayor cannot be punished because he has health problems (Hennadiy Kernes survived an assassination attempt in April, leaving him partly paralyzed – Ed.). That’s it for the changes,” says Kharkiv resident Oleksiy Stepiuk pessimistically.
This situation concerns many others. The local patriotic community believes that Hennadiy Kernes is secretly behind the separatists’ actions and is merely waiting for the opportunity to declare Kharkiv a republic, with himself at the helm. “I shall not allow fighting in Kharkiv, we are taking a different path,” he once said reportedly. What path he has in mind, remains a mystery.
I can assure you that nothing happens in Kharkiv without Kernes’ participation. Remember this when you see something unfolding here. He has some well-fed EuroMaidan activists, as well as Communists under his control, all those conflicts here that were aired on TV, are largely a staged show. The Mayor wants to create the impression that Kharkiv is not calm, that the battle continues. Why is he doing this? Possibly to show Kyiv that he is the only one capable of maintaining order here – that he is useful. He is always playing some game of his own. But no one knows exactly what kind of game it is,” said Denys Tkachenko, a local publisher.
On September 18, there really was a minor scuffle between local Communists and football ultras in the city centre, which seemed much bigger on TV than it was in reality. About 30 mostly elderly people came out onto Ploshcha Svobody with Soviet flags and were attacked by a group of masked young men. At first, the police allowed the attackers to take and tear up several placards, before stepping in to end the conflict.
Mykola Pakhnin, Adviser to Ihor Baluta, current Chairman of the Kharkiv Oblast Administration, says that “Before the assassination attempt on Kernes, there were constantly disturbances and provocations in the city. They usually occurred on Saturdays and Sundays. The tactic was to besiege the Oblast Administration, just as in Donetsk. After the assassination attempt on the Mayor, protests came down to a minimum. This was very noticeable. While everyone expected disturbances on May 1, 9, and 11 (May 1 was celebrated as Labour Day in Soviet times, while May 9 is Victory Day – Ed.), the month passed very peacefully, we were surprised. But as soon as Hennadiy Kernes reappeared in Kharkiv in June, disorder reigned once more. There was a fight on May 22. In each case, the provocateurs were strange unknown people in masks.”
At the same time, Pakhnin is convinced that the Donetsk scenario is no longer an option for Kharkiv because the separatist movement in the city was crushed by the police.
“Can the Donetsk scenario be repeated here? I am convinced that it can’t. Why didn’t the police act in spring, in the wake of it all? Everyone was very demoralised. At that time, Kharkiv’s Berkut had only just returned from the Maidan; many local police officers were lying wounded in hospital, forgotten by everyone. Baluta took over the oblast in chaos. Chief of the Kharkiv police, Anatoliy Dmytriev, had difficult work ahead of him. More than 300 participants of mass conflict were arrested. The leaders were detained. The entire movement in Kharkiv was left completely without leaders. The “Kharkiv People’s Republic” project ended as a fiasco. As far as the last explosions (at least two occurred on September 26. Earlier in September, a few groups of diversionists acting upon instruction of the Russian secret services were detained in Kharkiv, the SBU reported. They were preparing to destabilize peaceful cities with explosions in administrative buildings – Ed.) and terrorist acts are concerned, I’m sure that they were organised by external forces and diversionist groups that are coming to us from the area of the anti-terrorist operation,” Pakhnin stated.
Of course, Kharkiv Oblast is not at all like Donetsk Oblast. The difference is the most striking in small towns. There are hardly any huge plants here, the architecture is different, as well as the language and people. But it appears that neither Putin nor Kernes intend to care about the locals’ opinion. So, whether Kharkiv remains part of Ukraine depends, first and foremost, on the Ukrainian government and its ability to protect territorial integrity and state sovereignty
For Ukrainians incarcerated in the occupied territories and in the Russian Federation itself, things could get much worse in 2018. Only serious international pressure is likely to make Moscow release these political prisoners