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21 March, 2014  ▪  Kostyantin Skorkіn

The Vacuum in Luhansk Oblast

How pro-Russian forces are trying to fill the emptiness created by the fall of Yanukovych

Most people in Luhansk are disoriented. Having supported Yanukovych in 2010, the local community was somewhat disillusioned by his policies. But the specific features of the region (predominantly Russian-speaking, mass nostalgia for the Soviet era, mentally oriented towards Russia) have led to the fact that the decline in the rating of the fourth president and the Party of Regions has evoked openly pro-Kremlin sentiments. Paradoxically, the decline in Yanukovych’s popularity was significantly influenced by his “pro-European” manoeuvres, which were interpreted as a “betrayal of the friendship with Russia”.

After Yanukovych’s overthrow, public sentiment in Luhansk Oblast became one of panic: the emergence of a new government was seen as a victory of the politicians that were hostile towards the East. There is no such unanimity on the issue of Russian intervention in the internal affairs of Ukraine. One of the most popular actions in recent times was the anti-war meeting of the Luhansk community.

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The local branch of the Party of Regions that includes Oleksandr Yefremov, Head of the Party of Regions’ parliamentary faction; Valeriy Holenko, Head of the Luhansk Oblast Council and Volodymyr Prystiuk, former Head of the Luhansk Oblast State Administration (during the Soviet era, they all held top positions in the local Oblast Komsomol Committee), is using this confusion for its own interests. Until now, they restrained and controlled pro-Russian radicalism, but have now given it the green light. The movement supporting Russia is headed by the supporters of the notoriously pro-Russian Natalia Vitrenko, representatives of the Ukrainian Choice, a pro-Russian project implemented by Viktor Medvedchuk who is close to Russia, and small pro-Kremlin parties. According to unofficial information, Yefremov’s group is thus trying to blackmail the authorities in Kyiv, in an effort to maintain key positions in the region. However, by playing with fire, Party of Regions’ members in Luhansk no longer have full control of the “Russian Spring”, which is coordinated by the Russian special services.

At the same time, the political forces that personify the current government in Kyiv are weak and fragmented. During Yanukovych’s rule, representatives of the local elite, who had previously supported pro-Ukrainian forces, distanced themselves from them, in order to avoid business problems.

During the conflict on the Maidan, the most unswerving and principled position, upholding the struggle of Ukrainians against Yanukovych, was demonstrated by the nonpartisan Civic Sector of the EuroMaidan. It was this group that personified the EuroMaidan in Luhansk and set an example of peaceful resistance. What is even more characteristic is that “colleagues” from the former opposition are the ones making every effort to push representatives of the Civic Sector of the EuroMaidan from forming a new authority.

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The Communist Party holds a specific position in the Luhansk political landscape; its leader, MP Spiridon Kilinkarov, has been at war with the Yefremov Group, which governs the region, since it lost the 2010 local Mayoral election under the pressure exerted on it. So in spite of the collaboration between the Communist Party and the Party of Regions in Parliament, on the Luhansk level, these political forces are deadly enemies in the battle for control in the region, which was once the core of Ukraine’s industrial “red belt”. During the political crisis, ritually criticising the “American hirelings on the Maidan”, the Communists did not resort to action in support of the government, preferring to await the results of the conflict. They will now undoubtedly become more active, by trying to ride and control the wave of protests against the new leadership. This political manoeuvre could be successful, since the PR’s authority has irrevocably diminished since Yanukovych’s flight, and the pro-Russian sentiments of Luhansk are truly closely intertwined with the Soviet era.

Another factor of influence on the future electoral situation in the oblast, is the local elite who were kept out of power by Yefremov and his people during the Yanukovych regime, and now want revenge. Such people could try to find a compromise with Kyiv and influence the stabilisation of the situation in the region for the sake of their own interests.

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The main issue remains unresolved: the residents of the easternmost region of Ukraine feel the lack of a force that would represent their interests on the national level. This kind of political vacuum that is a very nourishing environment for anti-Ukrainian provocations, panic sentiments and social frustration. Overcoming the alienation of Luhansk Oblast is one of the main tasks facing the new government, if it wants to hold on to this region.

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