Anti government supporters marching in Dnepropetrovsk. © 2014 Jacob Balzani Lööv. All rights reserved.

Fear and loathing in Dnepropetrovsk

A story I didn’t manage to publish. I do it here since I don’t want this little piece of history to be lost on my hard drive. It was still early February, the snow started to melt and nobody was sure of what would have happened in Kiev. Thanks Tusia for being my fixer down there, Alexandra for hosting, Olena and Olga for the support!

(pictures below after the long article)

Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, February 5-10 2014

Following the river Dnepr, 500 km east of Kiev, sits the city of Dnepropetrovsk with its million inhabitants. Famous for being, during Soviet time a forbidden city, where rockets and nuclear weapons were built, now, remaining heavily industrial, is one of the strongholds of Ukrainian president Yanukovich in Easter Ukraine.

Regardless of it a hundred of protesters meet every day in Europe square to show their support to the occupation of Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Indipendence square), the main square in the capital, which is occupied since end of November to protest the u-turn of Yanukovich on the signature of an association agreement in Vilnius, an important step toward European integration. What was initially a demand to reconsider the agreement, became a firm request to Yanukovich to resign.  Maxim, 25, just came back from Kiev where he brought support, together with 50 other fellow citizens who live in a tent on Maidan, during the violent riots of Hrushevskoho Street which costed the life of four protesters. The protests in Dnepropetrosk seem to be more peaceful, reminding the ones in Kiev during the month of december: actions include also picketing of some of Yanukovich properties, like the supermarket chain Epi-Centre. On the weekend the number of protesters can grows to several hundreds people, with women and children marching towards the City Hall and handing flowers to the riot policemen who surrounds it. To quantify their absolute number is difficult becasue, as Vitaly, 24, says, if already the people in Dnepropetrovsk have the habit not to share their opinion, now there is definitely fear to express them. Stepan, 37, normally a IT manager and acting as a blogger for the protest, was brought into a tent and beaten: “ They were Titushkas (nd. government hired thugs), they saw on which side I was and they wanted to give me a lesson.”

In the Regional Library every week, Anton, 28, gather several NGOs to guide a discussion about the current situation to try to prevent a further radicalization of the conflict, “We are not pro-government but we would like to have a stable one, our way of influencing politics is through dialogue, not through riots and disorders.” The reciprocal mistrust on both sides is growing and they both accuse the different media to be biased. Anton shows to the listeners a video of the main moment of violence in Dnepropetrovsk, the day when a group of anti-government “Ultras” tried to break into the City Hall, in which a person is wildly beaten by a group of masked man, “As you can see anti-government supporters show only the last part of the video, without the beginning in which a large number of anti-governments radical is slowly gathering together with peaceful anti-maidan protesters and nobody, even policemen did nothing.”

Egor, 25, a trainer expert in Mixed Martial Arts, raises his hands and said that the chairman was right, he was personally there with its group of friends, which he calls, People Militia (Narodonoe Opolcenie): “Our group, is for mainting peace and security in our city, we are not pro-government or with the right sector, we are neutral but we don’t want to have violence in the streets and we try to prevent it, that’s why we tried to stop armed people to mix with the peaceful protesters and we later help defending the city hall, people often called us Titushki but we are not, there are Titushki and the government uses them as provocators, but we don’t like them too.” This kind of support is particularly encouraged by the government and the Mayor of Dnepropetrovsk, Ivan Kulichenko, through a City Hall decree, regularized those sportsmen militia. There are now 82 different formations who have rights to ask for documents, bring people to the police stations and use any kind of traumatic weapons except guns.

The situation feels uncertain and in Eastern Ukraine, the richest part of the Country, where most of the large industries are located, many factory workers support Yanukovich as Eughenyi, 60, a recently retired employee of a large mechanical factory explains: “It makes more sense to us to have an economical relationship with Russia, we sell to them and we also get their energy to run our factories.” There is a large fear that these obsolete factories would have to close down, if entering in Europe, because they wouldn’t comply with European ISO standards. “I really don’t like what is happening in Kiev”, Eughenyi continues, “the protesters wants to be in Europe without using any European method at all and we need stability not chaos”.

Pavlov, 42, a university technician, is definitely for a strong government: “If I will not vote for Yanukovich again, it will be for the way he handled this protests. In Europe they would have never allowed to occupy the main square of the country, it would have been quickly repressed. Yanukovich is a self-made man, our American dream, and yes he has his own interest and he acts like an oligarch. But isn’t it the Italian ex-president Berlusconi an oligarch too? But people still vote for him and in a democracy you should respect this. I don’t like to live in an unstable situation like the present one and if safety come at the price of freedom then I really wouldn’t mind if Ukraine would be a dictatorship like Belarus.”

What is happening in Dnepropetrovsk still seems only a far away echo of what is happening in Kiev, where Independence Square became de facto a really ‘independent’ government in the hearth of the capital protected by a trained and equipped army of thousands self-defenders.  A woman raises a hand at the end of the discussion in the Regional Library of Dnepropetrovsk: “Are there no risks that it will end like October revolution, which was started only by few?” But nobody answered her question.

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