Ukraine president's top task: hold his country together

Petro Poroshenko, the president-elect, faces a major battle on the global stage between the West and Russia. But first he is headed to his country's east to try to stem a separatist thrust.

Yannis Behrakis/Reuters
A couple passes a wrecked Kamaz truck, of the type rebels use to ferry troops, near the Donetsk airport today. Ukrainian forces fought with separatists in the city of Donetsk for a second day on Tuesday after inflicting heavy losses on the rebels. The government vowed to press on with a military offensive 'until not a single terrorist' was left.

Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko knows that confronting the geopolitical struggle his country has sparked will be a defining challenge – hence his likely visits soon to Poland and Moscow. But first, he says, he is headed to Ukraine's coal-mining region of Donbas in a bid to bridge a gaping domestic divide that has already claimed dozens of lives in battles with pro-Russian separatists.  

As Mr. Poroshenko set to work this week, rebels closed down the airport in the city of Donetsk, prompting the state to respond with paratroopers and warplanes and undoing any prospects of immediate peace. Up to 40 people have been killed in one day, authorities said Tuesday; Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said that the government had retaken the airport, though that could not be independently confirmed.

It may be a small minority of separatists – the numbers are unclear – who have wreaked havoc in eastern Ukraine, holding independence referendums in two locales in May, declaring sovereignty in both, and refusing to allow national elections to take place Sunday. Many Ukrainians are convinced that if it weren’t for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who annexed Crimea to worldwide condemnation and now is accused of stoking terrorism in the east, there would be no civil strife at all.

But after six months of conflict, which started as a protest against former President Viktor Yanukovych, distrust has grown and threatens to tear Ukraine apart. The lines are often understood as dividing east from west, but they are far from clear cut, with age and economics driving opinion as much as geography.

"Ukraine has reached a crucial test, about whether it survives as a democratic state in its current borders … or whether it will take a new shape,” says Hryhoriy Nemyria, a Ukrainian parliamentarian originally from the east who chairs the European integration committee. The key, he says, is to make “all citizens feel they are stakeholders of the Ukrainian state.”

Short distance, large divide

Only 350 miles separate Donetsk from the capital. But eastern Ukrainians often say they think differently than their western counterparts. During the Soviet Union, the Donbas was an important industrial area, with workers in the coal mines, metallurgy plants, and other heavy industries praised for their help in building the communist state.

The Soviet Union never gave western Ukraine the same industrial push, which, along with collectivized farming, fostered nationalism. If Lenin is a hero in the east, it is nationalist Stepan Bandera who finds fans in the west. At times part of both the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Polish-Lithuanian kingdoms, the west was always closer to Europe culturally.

“It is a different notion of history. They [in the east] are more ready to accept a positive Soviet experience, while in the west a lot of people are fonder of Bandera, and the national resistance against the Soviets,” says Felix Schnell, a professor of Eastern European history at Berlin's Humboldt University.  While identity has always been malleable in Ukraine, he says, “this whole question has very much been radicalized. There has been a lot of bloodshed, and people are extremely polarized.”

Divides have formed even within families. Vitaly Antunish, a 20-something from Donetsk who works for a nonprofit, was born in 1988, just a few years before the breakup of the Soviet Union. He now supports a united Ukraine, while his parents want the eastern regions to join Russia. “When we talk about the future, and I say we would be worse off if we join Russia, they just don’t want to hear it,” Mr. Antunish says. “We just start arguing. They think I support fascists because I want an independent Ukraine.”

Antunish’s father is a truck driver for a company that buys pre-fabricated homes in Europe and delivers them to Russia. When he describes Europe to his son, he calls it a place where he could never live because of the differences in mentality. "For my generation, we aren’t afraid of such differences. But for their generation, it’s really scary,” he says. “They are Soviet people and can’t imagine living another way.”

Indeed, nostalgia runs deep in the east for a more vibrant time, when the economy was strong, says Vladyslava Osmak, a professor of the history of Ukrainian culture in Kiev. "They do not identify themselves as Russians, but as Soviets,” she says. “What is going on today is not Russians against Ukrainians but a split between generations.”

Still, says Ms. Osmak, all sides co-existed relatively peacefully, until the conflict ignited in November. Many blame Mr. Putin for stirring the conflict up by launching a misinformation campaign, which portrayed the west as nationalist "fascists."

But others, including Col. Gen. Ihor Smeshko, the former head of the secret services in Ukraine, say the central government in Kiev didn't effectively counter the message or reach out enough to the east. The government "lost the information war," he says.

Presidential tasks

Poroshenko now promises to “put an end to war, chaos, crime, and bring peace to the Ukrainian land,” as he told the nation. He said that he will not negotiate with “terrorists,” but he is willing to talk with any unarmed representative from the east.

His first task is an end to deadly violence, but Poroshenko can also ease tensions by reinstating a bill to bolster the Russian language here and by working toward a degree of decentralization. The state can also literally build bridges with new infrastructure, argues political analyst Vadim Karasov in Kiev, to bring regions of the vast country physically closer together.

But some worry that psychological distance is growing. Natalia Petrenko, who works in a housing goods store in Kiev, says she fondly remembers the Soviet era of her youth as a force of stability. Like many Ukrainians, she switches easily between Russian and Ukrainian. Still, she loathes what Putin is doing, and she wants EU membership for her three grandchildren. 

She says she's saddened by radicalism that has grown on both sides. Customers often come in now, she says, and scoff at her Russian-made goods, the garden hoes and water canteens from the Soviet era that she calls the “best around.” “They say they hate Russians,” she says. “I didn’t believe something like this could happen, we all used to be so friendly."

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