Walled off: In non-rebel eastern Ukraine, frustrations with Kiev mount

No one in Russian-speaking Kharkiv wants to follow rebels into open revolt. But locals say Kiev has no idea how badly it's aggravating the region with its initiatives, including the 'Great Wall of Ukraine.'

Fred Weir/The Christian Science Monitor
Col. Alexander Kruk, commander of Kharkiv region border guards, stands amid a completed section of the planned border wall. On one side, barbed-wire topped fence, watchtowers with cameras and motion detectors. On the other, berms and tank traps to slow down invading forces. He says it will stop smugglers, illegal immigrants, subversives and, in a pinch, slow down an armored assault for a few minutes. "It's a border. It has to be defended, doesn't it?" he says.

It's been nicknamed the "Great Wall of Ukraine." Its planned combination of barbed-wire fences, watchtowers, berms, and tank traps along Ukraine's 1,300-mile border with Russia look like something you'd find on one of Israel's borders with its hostile neighbors.

If it's ever completed, the wall will seal a frontier that, until last year, had always been wide open. Inaugurating construction here last fall, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk indicated that much more than just a physical barrier was intended. "This will be the eastern border of Europe," he said.

But in nearby Kharkiv, an overwhelmingly Russian-speaking city of one-and-a-half million, mention of the wall is mostly greeted with snorts of irritation. The idea of splitting permanently and irrevocably from Russia wins virtually no acceptance. Many people here have family and friends in Russia, the local economy is heavily dependent on trade with Russia, and some say they just can't wrap their heads around the idea of a frontier being there in the first place.

"The Russian city of Belgorod is an hour's drive away; until recently there were almost no border formalities. It's a scene of my childhood; I love that place," says Yury Smirnov, a taxi driver. "Now the border inspections take hours, and it's humiliating. Belgorod might as well be on the moon."

The tension between Kharkiv and Kiev is all too obvious these days. While pro-Kiev patriots are visible – groups of activists tore down three prominent Soviet-era monuments under cover of night last week – most conversations with people quickly reveal varying degrees of anger and disillusionment with the new revolutionary government. Everybody here, on both sides of the barricades, agrees that they are horrified by what's happening in next door Donbass and do not want to see the war come to Kharkiv. But experts from both sides of the argument admit it will be an uphill slog for Kiev to win their hearts, in part because of the economic crisis that many here blame on a government they never voted for.

"People in the western Ukraine are inclined to tighten their belts and think 'we're at war with Russia, of course there must be sacrifices.' But people here say, 'we lived better under [deposed President Viktor] Yanukovych, before these new people came,'" says Alexander Kirsch, a deputy of the Rada, Ukraine's parliament, who is from Kharkiv and an adviser to Prime Minister Yatsenyuk.

A balancing act

People here overwhelmingly voted for Mr. Yanukovych in 2010. When he was overthrown, separatists started raising their banners and occupying buildings even before unrest broke out in Donbass, where the rebel oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk lie. But the city's popularly elected mayor, Gennady Kernes, after briefly flirting with separatism, started strongly advocating reconciliation with the new government, and passions calmed.

Still, when parliamentary elections were held last October, barely 45 percent of people here turned out to vote – remarkably, nowhere in the entire Russian-speaking east and south of Ukraine did voter turnout reach 50 percent. And those who did mostly backed the newly recreated version of Yanukovych's party, now known as the Opposition Bloc.

In a still unsolved assassination attempt, Mr. Kernes was shot while jogging in Kharkiv a year ago. He spent several weeks recuperating in Israel but, now in a wheelchair, he is back at the city's helm and more than ever at loggerheads with the Kiev authorities. Later this month he faces trial on charges of abduction brought by the Kiev prosecutor. His supporters insist the charges are without foundation and were trumped up to punish the mayor for his independent stance.

He may be in even more trouble over his defiance of a resolution unanimously passed in January by the Rada that makes it illegal to deny that Russia is an "aggressor" state. Asked point blank by a journalist whether he agrees, Kernes answered, "Personally, I do not consider Russia to be an aggressor."

Due to his ill health, Kernes was not available to talk with the Monitor recently. But the spokesman for the pro-mayor city council, Yury Sidorenko, said the mayor is doing his best to keep the lid on in a city where people are not only being battered by the most severe economic crisis since the 1990s, but are also being riled up by Kiev initiatives that they do not see any need for.

"Kiev is risking a social explosion here," Mr. Sidorenko says. "It's as if they have no understanding whatsoever in Kiev of how people think and feel in Kharkiv. They behave like revolutionaries, treating us like putty to be molded into their new form. They don't have the vaguest idea of how badly they are aggravating things here."

Grim outlook

A new set of laws passed earlier this month will ban Soviet-era symbols and grant "hero of Ukraine" status to anti-Soviet fighters whom east Ukrainians have been brought up to think of as enemies. It will also add May 8 – World War II "Victory in Europe" Day – to the traditional May 9 Victory Day celebration.

"We are really dreading May 9 this year," Sidorenko says. "There are many thousands of people who are Red Army war veterans, their children or supporters, who are going to march, and they are going to be carrying Soviet symbols and flags. This is usually a happy day. But this year it could be trouble."

The longer term outlook is even worse. Like most cities of the eastern Ukraine, Kharkiv was tightly integrated into the Soviet industrial machine. Trade with Russia has fallen by almost half amid mutual sanctions over the past year. The city has a huge plant that makes electrical turbines, most of which were formerly sold to Russia. An assembly plant for Antonov aircraft is near bankruptcy, with most workers furloughed, for similar reasons. The only local factory that does seem to be prospering is the Malyshev Works, which makes tanks for the Ukrainian army.

"The war in Donbass will be over one day, and normalizing relations with Russia will be a priority," says Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev. "But by that time, we may have lost our industrial base. Ukraine had positions in aviation, space industry, and we were a big arms producer. All of it depended heavily on the Russian market. The way things are going, a one-time great industrial power is going to end up joining Europe as an agricultural country."

But Mr. Kirsch, the only member of the prime minister's party to get elected in the entire eastern Ukraine, says these industries are part of Russia's stranglehold on Ukraine, and they must be broken up and sold off so that smaller, independent businesses can grow amid their ruins.

"Deindustrialization is not the goal. The point is to make business profitable and efficient. The market will decide," he says. The huge and badly paid work forces of those dying factories, along with their corrupt managers, are holding Ukraine back, he says. Yes, it will be painful. "But the alternative, to leave everything as it was and remain friends with Russia, is much worse."

Unlike many Kiev officials, Kirsch admits there is a sharp public split between east and west Ukraine, and it may prove very difficult to heal.

"Since the beginning of the war, changes in attitude have occurred, but it's happening too slowly," he says. "We're all headed toward Europe, but Kharkiv is bringing up the rear, and griping all the way."

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