Ukraine crisis: Is the east deserting President Yanukovych?
- 28 January 2014
- From the section Europe
To reach Zaporizhya, I drive across a bridge over the wide, frozen River Dnieper.
I can see ice fishermen down below, waiting for a catch. They look tiny compared to the concrete giant that dominates the landscape: the Lenin Hydroelectric Dam. As tall as a 20-story building and half a mile long, it helped power the USSR.
This cold, grey place is in Ukraine's industrial heartland: it is a city of giant enterprises, heavy industry and blue collar workers. Like many regions in eastern Ukraine, Zaporizhya is traditionally loyal to President Yanukovych, who is from the east himself. That makes what happened here at the weekend so unusual.
On Sunday, thousands of protesters gathered outside the regional administration building to demand political change. They condemned the president and called on the local governor, appointed by the president, to resign.
The defiant governor, Alexander Peklushenko, emerged to announce that only "cowards and traitors" resign. He vowed to retain his Party of Regions membership card "until the day I die". Then he disappeared back inside.
The angry crowd tried to push past the lines of riot police and into the building. The police fired tear gas and stun grenades.
"We don't want fighting, we don't have guns," says Alex, who was in the crowd that night. He says he had gone to protest against corruption, against the law restricting public protest and to demand more democracy.
"In the evening, the police, with help from their 'friends', started fighting young protesters," Alex tells me. "People don't want Yanukovych to stay in Ukraine as our president. We are not extremists. We are not crazy people. We only want to live in a normal country."
'It's all the West's fault'
When I arrive at the administration building, I find two lines of riot police guarding the entrances. By the steps, around 100 supporters of the president are making their opinions known.
"We already have a president who has been elected by the people," Irina tells me. "When Viktor Yushchenko was president, there were many people in eastern Ukraine who didn't like him. But we put up with him and waited for his term to end. Today the three opposition leaders in Ukraine are like a three-headed serpent. They're just dying to seize power."
"When protesters throw Molotov cocktails, they call that democracy," a man called Viktor points out to me. "Well, in that case, firing rubber bullets at them is democracy, too. Those extremists are funded by the West. Why doesn't the West mind its own business? First Syria, then Libya and Kosovo, and now Ukraine: it's all the West's fault."
We request an interview with Governor Peklushenko, but he declines. On Friday, he reportedly told a meeting at the administration building that the authorities had prevented the city from being shut down. "If Zaporizhya comes to a standstill," he reportedly said, "so will the entire country".
By the evening there is a blizzard in the centre of Zaporizhya and there are police reinforcements on the square outside the governor's office. They're banging their truncheons against their riot shields to scare off another group of anti-government protesters, which has just arrived. The activists sing the national anthem and then disperse.
It appears that Viktor Yanukovych still enjoys support in eastern Ukraine and there are some here who believe he should rule out concessions to his opponents. But the fact that unrest has spread here, and to nearby cities like Dnipropetrovsk, which are normally viewed as a central part of his powerbase, will be of major concern to the embattled president.