Pro-Russian activists guard a barricade at the Ukrainian regional Security Service building in Donetsk. Photo: Getty
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In eastern Ukraine, protestors are chanting “New Russia” – an old term that’s back in fashion

Separatists in Donetsk and elsewhere are harking back to the 18th century territory of Novorossiya, as Moscow seems to be making moves to federalise Ukraine.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Over the weekend, pro-Russian protesters rioted in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkov. They took over government buildings and arms caches, waving Russian flags and chanting things like “Novorossiya” (“New Russia”). Their aim: to declare independence from Ukraine and, perhaps, become federal provinces (oblasts) of Russia. Early on Monday, separatists in Donetsk declared the creation of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and set a referendum date for 11 May. “If we’re impeded in holding a referendum, we will turn to Russia and ask them to move in their troops,” one separatist said.

The protests are almost certainly Kremlin-backed, part of Russia’s longstanding plan to “federalise” Ukraine, and to reassert control over the territory that used to be called Novorossiya. “The events in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv are coordinated from the same center,” the Kyiv Post reports. Crowds are singing the Russian national anthem in streets of eastern Ukraine; some call themselves the “anti-Maidan,” advocating for the creation of “the spiritually patriotic union“ of Novorossiya. The Twitter account @NOVORUSSIA2014 gained thousands of followers over the weekend, and #RussianSpring and #AntiMaidan are trending.

Novorossiya is the name of the formerly Ottoman territory that Catherine the Great conquered in the Russo-Turkish Wars, which is now much of southern and eastern Ukraine. Led by Prince Grigory Potemkin, Russian forces colonised the land in the late 18th century and established the cities of Sevastopol, Simferopol, Tiraspol, and Odessa.

Catherine the Great conquers Novorossiya in Stefano Torelli's 
The Allegory of Catherine the Great 's Victory over the Turks (1772).
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The area became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and the term “Novorossiya” resurfaced after the Soviet Union fell in 1991. In 1994, Transnistria, the breakaway state between Moldova and Ukraine, declared that it was “an inalienable part of the Russian state’s southern region, [which] also includes Crimea, Odessa oblast, and a number of other [Ukrainian] oblasts, [and is] known as Novorossiya.” When it looked like NATO might expand to include Ukraine in 2003, “some not entirely academic quarters in Moscow played with the idea of a major geopolitical redesign of the northern Black Sea area, under which southern Ukraine, from the Crimea to Odessa, would secede from Kiev and form a Moscow-friendly buffer state, ‘Novorossiya’ – New Russia,” writes Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre. Now, the swathe of land spanning from Transnistria to Donetsk is increasingly referred to by that name. 

If the Kremlin isn’t after re-establishing Novorossiya, it’s certainly looking to create something like it – and the first step in that direction is federalising Ukraine. In an interview last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that federalisation is the only “absolutely correct way” to proceed, and that it’s “what the eastern and southern regions request.” If the Kremlin has its way, Ukraine might either become a federation of regional governments, each with wide-ranging authority to act virtually autonomously, or the “independent” southern and eastern regions would become Russian oblasts. “Federalisation would give some pro-Russian regions in Ukraine the de facto right to block crucial decisions, including future moves toward integration with the EU. . . Moscow is likely to find it easier to manage Ukraine and to increase Kyiv’s dependency on its eastern neighbor,” Ukraine scholar Wojciech Konończuk writes

The Kremlin has tried to federalise a handful of former Soviet republics. In the early 2000s, Putin proposed that Belarus should become part of Russia in the form of six oblasts (Belarus rejected the offer) and put forward a similar plan for Moldova, Marcel Van Herpen explains in Putin’s WarsIn Ukraine, the prospect of federalisation emerged during the 2004 Orange Revolution when former President Viktor Yanukovych proposed a referendum on the matter. He pursued federalisation again in 2010, but it was tabled again after Yanukovych’s pro-Russia Party of Regions deemed it “too expensive and problematic.” 

Today, only 14 per cent of Ukrainians support federalisation, according to a recent poll. As the Washington Post points out, the idea is more popular in the southern and eastern regions, where 22 per cent and 26 per cent, respectively, support the creation of a federal state, compared to 3 per cent in the west. But if the Kremlin-backed separatists continue this weekend’s provocations, federalisation could actually happen, especially given the extent to which the Ukrainian government was caught off-guard by the Donetsk declaration

“Frankly speaking, we do not see any other ways for sustainable development of the Ukrainian state other than a federal state,” Lavrov said last week. “Maybe, some people know better and some magic formula can be found within a unitarian state. However, when the west, the east and the south celebrate different holidays, honour different heroes, have different economies, speak different languages, think differently and are attracted by the culture of different European civilisations, it is very hard to live in a unitary state in such conditions.”  

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.