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

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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