A pro-Russian activist holds an icon in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, 9 April. Photo: Getty
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In eastern Ukraine, the protesters wait for Russia to take charge

Standing in front of the barricades, two pensioners held up a banner with “For ever with Russia” emblazoned across it. The sentiment was uniform and unambiguous.

To set out from the ancient city of Odessa to travel to Donetsk in eastern Ukraine is to cross both time and space. Having attended some low-key demonstrations in Odessa, I wanted to go into Ukraine’s pro-Russia heartlands, and managed to hitch a lift to make the 500-mile journey.

The drive on potholed roads was tough but instructive. As we travelled east, Russian – or more correctly Soviet – influence seeped into the landscape. Road signs just outside Odessa championing a “united Ukraine” gave way to Stalinist statues of heroes from the Great Patriotic War. Huge, grey industrial buildings dotted a flat countryside of sunflower crops and deserted fields. In Mykolaiv, a former Soviet shipbuilding town that we passed along the way, a Soviet tank stood out on a plinth near the city centre.

As we approached Donetsk, we were flagged down by several policemen wielding machine-guns. They wanted to know why we were going to the city and, more urgently, if we were journalists. They didn’t seem particularly satisfied by our answers but our documents were in order and the bureaucratic impulse common to all officials in Ukraine took over and they waved us on our way.

Donetsk is an industrial town about 80 miles from the border with Russia. It is predominantly Russian-speaking and home to a significant pro-Russia population. Since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Crimea in late February, supportive demonstrations have erupted in cities across Ukraine, particularly near the border.

On 6 April, pro-Kremlin activists seized Donetsk’s city hall just off Lenin Square and proclaimed the creation of a “people’s republic”. They called on Putin to send a “peacekeeping contingent of the Russian army” to support them and demanded that a referendum on secession from Ukraine be held by 11 May.

“Referendum” was the cry I heard everywhere on the morning of 7 April as I stood outside the seized building with as many as a thousand pro-Russia activists. The main square was a field of Russian and Soviet flags. The hammer and sickle was ubiquitous.

Standing just in front of the newly erected barricades that surrounded the building, two pensioners held up a banner with “For ever with Russia” emblazoned across it. The sentiment was uniform and unambiguous.

The scene was calm but the mood was hostile and suspicious. Several people demanded to know where I was from and some expressed contempt for the western media. Masked men with bats and sticks patrolled the crowds, mingling with old ladies who didn’t share their reticence. Indeed, they were eager to talk of their disgust with the “criminal government in Kyiv” and to argue that the presidential election scheduled for 25 May is illegitimate.

Language is perhaps the most important issue for the people here. On 23 February, the Ukrainian parliament adopted a bill repealing the law on minority languages, which gave Russian and other tongues “regional language” status. This allowed for their use in courts, schools and other government institutions, if certain criteria were fulfilled. The new bill in effect made Ukrainian the sole state language. People in Donetsk were desperate to tell me that the government in Kyiv was trying to eradicate their language from Ukraine. The bill was vetoed by Ukraine’s president – but the people here believe the sentiment behind it lives on in Kyiv.

Kyiv has accused Moscow of encouraging demonstrations in the east and of fomenting civil unrest in order to destabilise Ukraine further. Moscow has accused the new Ukrainian government of incompetence and illegitimacy. The feeling in Kyiv and in the nationalistic heartlands of western Ukraine is that Moscow wants to take control of more parts of the country. Significant numbers of the people I spoke to were convinced that the Russians will invade in the coming weeks.

Many of the protesters in Donetsk would welcome that invasion. They believe they are under siege and are looking to Russia to save them. Fuelled by a sense of superiority made worse by a persecution complex, they are unpredictable and quick to anger, as I discovered when I was mingling with the crowds.

Thousands of pro-Russia activists also seized state buildings in Kharkiv, as well as the security service headquarters in the eastern region of Lugansk. The Ukrainian government claims that most of the activists are paid-up Moscow stooges bussed in to the cities. Both sides are in a heightened state of readiness for what they think may be coming. Neither is going to back down and it is clear that Ukraine’s problems are just beginning.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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