Pro-Ukraine activists defy harassment to rally in border town of Khartsyzk

A woman holds a bouquet during a pro-Ukrainian rally in Khartsyzk, close to the border with Russia, on Monday. Photograph: Manu Brabo...

A woman holds a bouquet during a pro-Ukrainian rally in Khartsyzk, close to the border with Russia, on Monday. Photograph: Manu Brabo/AP
It was a classic political rally. There were emotional speeches, flags and homemade banners. But the small middle-class crowd that gathered on Monday in the eastern town of Khartsyzk, close to the border with Russia, had turned up to support Ukraine. They waved blue and yellow flags. They showed placards. One read: "Goodwill to all". Another held aloft by two smiling white-haired ladies read: "Make love not war".
Pro-Russian groups have seized a string of town halls across eastern Ukraine. They have occupied and barricaded the administration building in Khartsyzk, a town of 65,000 people 25 miles (40km) from Donetsk, and known for its giant tube factory. The separatists are demanding a referendum. They have proclaimed a "Donetsk people's republic" whose goals include separation from Kiev and – it appears – swift union with Russia.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, appears to be threatening to send in troops. On Monday Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, accused the government in Kiev of violating a deal struck in Geneva last week under which illegal groups were supposed to give up their arms. Lavrov said Kiev had failed to protect ethnic Russians from far-right extremists. His comments follow a murky shootout over the weekend in the town of Slavyansk, occupied by angry anti-western gunmen.

Link to video: Russia accuses Kiev of violating Geneva agreement on Ukraine
The US vice-president, Joe Biden, arrived in Kiev on Monday for a two day trip. He is due to meet the prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and the president, Olexander Turchynov, on Tuesday. But with international attempts to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine effectively shredded, Biden's visit appears largely symbolic. It takes place against a backdrop of ominous Kremlin rhetoric.
The pro-Ukrainians at the rally on Monday claimed that separatists in the east enjoyed only minority support. A majority in the Russian-speaking Donbass region were actually in favour of Ukrainian unity, they said. Peaceful residents regarded the appearance of "little green men" in Slavyansk – allegedly undercover Russian soldiers – with horror. So why were only about 200 people, a mixture of students, professionals and pedagogues, at Khartsyzk's pro-Ukraine rally?
"A lot of people here are frightened," Ludmilla Pogromskaya, a 53-year-old English teacher, answered. "Some of those who have seized our town hall are thugs. Others are being paid. They don't have a single political idea beyond referendum."
Pogromskaya described Putin as "the aggressor" and said: "We want a decent society. We'd like an honest judicial system. Russia means crime and corruption."
Irma Krat Blindfolded journalist Irma Krat is convoyed to her news conference in Slavyansk after she was detained by militia. Photograph: Pochuyev Mikhail/Itar-Tass Photo/Corbis
There have been examples of civic activists who support Ukraine facing harassment and worse. On Sunday Slavyansk's militia kidnapped Irma Krat, a 29-year-old Kiev activist who was working in the town as a journalist. On Monday they seized three more reporters, two Italians and a Belarusian, later releasing them. The gunmen blindfolded Krat and paraded her on Russian television and outside the town hall. She said she was not being mistreated, but she has yet to be freed.
Separately, a mediator from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe met Slavyansk's self-appointed "people's mayor", Vyacheslav Ponomaryov.
The mediator asked whether the heavily armed rebels in the town would comply with the Geneva agreement and give up their weapons. The mayor's reply was not made public. But other separatists have said they have no intention of disarming.
Svitlana Oleinikova, who runs an NGO in the town of Torez, close to Khartsyzk, said it was becoming increasingly dangerous to express pro-Ukraine views. She said a teenage boy was badly beaten on Sunday for shouting "Glory to Ukraine" in a park.
Separatists had broken the windows of Torez's progressive newspaper and tossed in a firebomb, she said. She added: "I don't call it the Donetsk people's republic. I call it the Donetsk Nazi republic. They're the fascists."
Oleinikova said she too had received threats, delivered by phone and via the internet. She added that local mafia elements were exploiting the crisis to rob shops, including two chemists. "What frustrates me most is that the police don't do anything. There is an absence of authority. Neighbours accuse me of being a traitor. But how can I be a traitor if I show my own flag?"
Monday's rally began with the Ukrainian national anthem, played out next to the town's statue of Lenin. Everybody sang. The organiser, local businessman Vyacheslav Redko, then invited people to speak. One teacher read a Ukrainian poem. Khartsyzk's mayor vanished on holiday eight days ago when separatists took over his building. Another local official, Igor Kolodey, was bold enough to address the modest crowd.
"Why isn't the Ukrainian flag flying from the town hall?" someone shouted at him.
"It's still up inside the offices. The Ukrainian trident is there too," he replied. There were boos. "I didn't take the flag down," he said. More boos.
"You steal money!" someone shouted.
"No I don't," he replied. "I've never stolen anything."
Viktor YanukovychViktor Yanukovych. Photograph: Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images
Alexander Gricay, an entrepreneur, was unimpressed by this. He described the town council as "corrupted and pro-Russian".
"Russia has artificially created this current crisis," Gricay declared. He said the Kremlin was trying to get revenge on the west after the departure of the president, Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia in February. On Monday Yanukovych called on Kiev to pull its army out of eastern Ukraine and engage in "peaceful dialogue".
Speaking in Donetsk, Alexander Bukalov, the head of the human rights organisation Memorial, said rights campaigners were in a difficult situation. Pro-Russian feelings in the east were strong, he said, but that did not translate as support for separatist positions. "It sounds a paradox. But a lot of people say: 'I support Russia but want to live in Ukraine.' What they mean is they want Russian money and Russian help."
Bukalov was gloomy about the prospect of a further Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, with Moscow seemingly looking for a pretext to go to war. He said curious events on the ground – including scarcely believable "attacks" by Ukrainian fascists – appeared to be following a Kremlin script. "It's like watching theatre. This feels like a performance done for Russian TV," he observed.
He described the febrile Donbass region as a "splinter from the Soviet Union". Many people yearned for the paternalist certainties of Soviet life, he said.
"We need to free ourselves from the past. We need to move on from myths about Stalin and Putin." Was he an optimist? "I'm sure something good can be done here. But there may be tragedy first."


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