DONETSK, UKRAINE — At first glance it looks like most other images of Ukrainian turmoil of the past two weeks: An emotional throng surges through a public square, speakers slam authorities and allege a stolen election, the crowd interrupts to chant the name of the candidate they insist was the real winner.
But this is Donetsk, heart of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, and the blue banner-waving protesters here are incensed over Friday's Supreme Court decision that overturned the official victory of its native son, Viktor Yanukovich. Many blame the orange-ribboned "revolutionary mob" that has camped in the streets of Kiev and paralyzed the government, for the reversal that has compelled Mr. Yanukovich to accept a planned Dec. 26 rerun of the disputed Nov. 21 election against the pro-Western liberal challenger, Viktor Yushchenko.
The political crisis of the past two weeks has stung people here and has local leaders threatening their own exercise in "people power" - a referendum on declaring Donetsk an "autonomous republic" is slated for Jan. 9. The referendum does not amount to separatism but, if passed, could deeply aggravate Ukraine's yawning east-west divide.
"We have our own point of view here, even if no one is listening to us," says Yury Pervushkin, a retired physics professor, who sports a pro-Yanukovich lapel pin. "We know who we voted for, and we're not going to sit still because a bunch of radicals invaded the capital and intimidated the court. You can have as many elections as you like, and we're still going to vote for Yanukovich."
Miners at the Trudovskya coal mine outside Donetsk weren't at the pro-Yanukovich rally Sunday but their message for the crowds in Kiev was equally bitter. "Tell them we're working here, not sitting on the barricades eating oranges," says Alexandra Tzybuliuk, a lift operator. "We elected a president already, and we can't understand why he's not the president now. Everyone here feels deeply offended."
Rejection of the democratic "orange revolution" by stubborn majorities in eastern Ukraine is a key reason pro-Yushchenko forces have failed to impose a clear resolution to the two-week crisis, despite controlling the streets of Kiev and winning important legal and legislative victories.
Ukraine's Rada, or parliament, was called into urgent weekend session to pass enabling laws for the new elections. However, they adjourned for a 10-day recess without doing so on Saturday after progovernment deputies accused the Yushchenko side of reneging on its agreement to implement constitutional reforms that would weaken the powers of the presidency and strengthen parliament. The breakdown could threaten the new elections.
Outgoing president Leonid Kuchma met with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week and agreed that entirely new elections - with new candidates - should be held in three months' time instead of the swift replay of the polls that would enable Yushchenko to capitalize on the momentum of the "orange revolution."
Pro-Yanukovich politicians also accuse Mr. Kuchma of betraying their candidate and conspiring to remain in power after his constitutional term is over. "The president is playing his own game," says Vassily Khara, chair of the Donetsk trade union federation and Rada deputy. "Kuchma should have acted at once, to restore order in Kiev and see that Yanukovich was given power after being elected. The country is being pushed into anarchy while a few people intrigue for power."
About half of Ukraine's 48 million people live in a cluster of eastern provinces, where the Ukrainian language is seldom heard and the biggest employers are Soviet-era industries that depend on raw materials and markets in the Moscow-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States. Historically, these areas were part of Russia and the USSR for over 300 years.
Just about everyone here claims to have voted for Yanukovich and to know nothing of the widespread ballot-stuffing and fraud documented by international observers, which many experts believe secured Yanukovich's official 3-point win over Yushchenko. "Most of the wealth is produced here in eastern Ukraine, but policies are too often dictated to us by nationalist politicians from west Ukraine who congregate in the capital," says Mr. Khara. "Now the mob is ruling in Kiev, and people here are extremely worried. We feel we have to take steps to protect our interests."
It's hard to find Yushchenko supporters in Donetsk, but one reason for that is that speaking up could be dangerous. A small pro-Yushchenko rally in the city center last week quickly found itself surrounded by hundreds of fist-shaking Yanukovich supporters.
"I like Yushchenko and what he stands for, but I would never say so even to my friends around here," says Lena, a student who asked not to use her family name. "People here have a Soviet mentality, and they like unanimity," she says.
The deputy chief of the Yanukovich campaign in Donetsk, Vyacheslav Lukyanov, admits there might have been some "sloppy work" on the part of local election commissions, but denies the charges of fraud - even though they were confirmed by last week's Supreme Court decision. He claims voter intimidation and falsification were widespread in the elections, but only in pro-Yushchenko western Ukraine. "We ran the election with white gloves, everything was done properly," he says. "Now there will be another round and - you'll see - everyone in eastern Ukraine will vote for Yanukovich again."
Among the measures being discussed in the referendum are special protections for Russian - which is the first language of most here - against Kiev-based politicians who want to increase the use of Ukrainian in the schools and media, and withholding up to 70 percent of locally generated taxes from the national budget. "People in Donetsk feel like they produce the lion's share of the country's wealth and should have some say it the shape of the government," says Yury Makogon, an economist at the Institute of Industrial Economics in Donetsk.
"The real danger in this situation is that these political upheavals will bring one political group to power in Kiev and rupture the balance we've had for over a decade. The east will not accept a radical nationalist government that tries to move us into NATO, or take other ideology-based decisions. It's time for politicians on both sides to set aside their personal ambitions and seek compromise, or the consequences can be very serious."