Ukraine crisis: Is the east deserting President Yanukovych?

The view across the frozen Dnieper river, while entering Zaporizhya on a particularly cold, bleak day. Presidential support in eastern Ukraine was as solid as the frozen Dnieper river, but cracks are emerging

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.

Cracks emerging?

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.

Map showing location of Zaporizhya

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'

The BBC's Steve Rosenberg in Zaporizhya, said riot police were guarding a key government building

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."

Key dates

21 Nov 2013: Ukraine announces it will not sign a deal aimed at strengthening ties with the EU

30 Nov: Riot police detain dozens of anti-government protesters in a violent crackdown in Kiev

17 Dec: Russia agrees to buy $15bn of Ukrainian government bonds and slash the price of gas it sells to the country

16 Jan 2014: Parliament passes law restricting the right to protest

22 Jan: Two protesters die from bullet wounds during clashes with police in Kiev; protests spread across many cities

25 Jan: President Yanukovych offers senior jobs to the opposition, including that of prime minister, but these are rejected

"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.

Anti-government protestors in Kiev rest behind a burning barricade in front of riot police In the capital Kiev, there is still no sign of demonstrators leaving the streets

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