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10 March, 2014

Knockout in the Donbas

The word “knockout” aptly describes the sentiments now prevalent in the Donbas. Total confusion and shock. Alarming rumours about trainloads of heavily armed extremists from Western Ukraine heading for Donetsk. It is as if you are reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s White Guard.

The citizens of Donetsk, fuelled by the hysterical propaganda dished out by local bureaucrats, called for vigilante groups and self-defence units to be formed a week ago, but now they are left to handle their fears all alone. An army of hired goons was disbanded; bureaucrats suddenly changed their tone by calling Viktor Yanukovych a bloody usurper; only the Communist Party set up several tents in downtown Donetsk to channel, on the quiet, the protest potential of Donetsk residents in a desired direction.

A small group of people protecting the Lenin monument against destruction in downtown Donetsk is the only reminder of the confrontation. The so-called Eastern Front, comprised of the supporters of the Communist Party, Natalia Vitrenko, the Russian Bloc and other pro-Russian marginal forces, is likely to go away in the absence of a real threat. The truth is that no-one has actually tried or will try to storm Donetsk. The local opposition still does not have a critical number of people willing to take down the monument.

Of course, this is not 2004. Back then, Donetsk was indeed brewing, and the spectre of separatism roamed among grey Khrushchev-era residential buildings and factories. A decade ago, dozens of thousands of people came to rallies in the city and speakers came onstage with the most radical slogans and calls. Viktor Yushchenko was portrayed as a vampire who was about to ban Russian and burn Russian-language books in squares. The local elites rose as one to defend the falsified election results obtained by Yanukovych and continued to make waves for a long time afterwards.

Today, there are no signs of popular outrage. Just a handful of people show up for rallies in the absence of orders from above. Many of them are just willing to get a drink and shoot the breeze. Overnight, bureaucrats renounced Yanukovych as rubbish. The overthrown president is no longer an icon or superhero. The least offensive words he is called in the streets of Donetsk were “traitor” and “coward”. Some are lambasting Yanukovych for putting insufficient pressure on the Maidan, which the president tolerated for three months. Some are shocked by the luxury of Yanukovych’s mansion and the “golden loaf” which became an instant Internet sensation. Some were concerned about the fact that Party of Regions leaders pronounced Yanukovych usurper and murderer. The idol burst within days like a bubble, and even those who are joining the ranks of the Eastern Front are now spitting at him. The most frequently heard statement at the anti-Maidan in Donetsk is “We have been betrayed”.

In a sense, they have. Everything that has been said by Party of Regions spokespeople is now declared a bunch of lies.

“Yanukovych forced us. We told him that was not the way to do it, but he didn’t listen to us. We knew it would lead to a sad ending but couldn’t do anything about it. We thank you all for your support, people, and now go back to work. You remember that we always work, don’t you? We don’t have time for rallies. Didn’t we tell you this earlier?”

The vigilantes that have joined self-defence groups at the request of MPs from Donetsk and the governor of the region are now calling the city administration nonstop, but the bureaucrats are trying to shake them as obtrusive lunatics. “We have no say on these things. Go to the police,” they tell them.

The so-called “fanatic Banderites”, “extremists” and “the homeless from the Maidan” which had been held up as a bugaboo to the Donbas for so long, eventually came out victorious, and the Donetsk officials who called for the most decisive repulse suddenly swore allegiance to them, leaving their citizens astonished and confused. Where can they go now? Who can they appeal to? The Party of Regions, which only recently appeared to be an invincible force, has fallen apart and capitulated. The Communist Party has joined, as it has traditionally done, the most powerful force in the game and is now happily voting in favour of legislation sponsored by what was the opposition only yesterday. Treason, cowardice and deception are all around, as the last Russian tsar quipped. This is what usually happens when an autocratic vertical of power breaks down.

What will the Donbas do next? This remains unclear even to the Donbas itself. Politically, the region is badly demoralized, and what will happen to it depends directly on what the new government does. There are several possible scenarios. If the parties led by Yulia Tymoshenko, Arseniy Yatseniuk and Vitaliy Klitschko fail to finally bring the region under their control and start seriously working there, marginal political forces may sharply increase their power in the Donbas, true separatism will gradually become strong or the Party of Regions will manage to quickly restore its stained image on the wave of revanchist sentiments. In these cases, the Donbas will turn into a source of perennial headache for Ukraine and a kind of shackles preventing the country from making headway towards Europe.

Whether the new team has sufficient political will and stamina to finally come up with a wise solution to the “Donetsk issue” will become clear in the near future. If there are no major reshuffles among the Donbas leadership, if the local kingpins who have established a kind of feudal system in the region are not punished and put in prisons and if the charcoal mafia is not suppressed, Ukraine will definitely see another “Yanukovych from the east” in the future.

Over the past few days, Russian-backed forces continued to fuel separatist trends and arrange provocations in South-Eastern Ukraine while Russia’s military invasion rapidly unfolds in Crimea. Subsequently, a number of businessmen and oligarchs have called on the public to protecting territorial integrity of Ukraine. Serhiy Taruta, a Donetsk-based businessman, replaced Andriy Shyshatskyi as Head of the Donetsk Oblast State Administration on March 2. The next day, about 100 pro-Russian protesters occupied the premises blocking journalists and officials inside. Donetsk-based Facebook users plan to hold a rally against separatism this night in their city

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