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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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.