Ukraine fault line on joining Russia runs through Pittsburgh sister city

| Saturday, March 22, 2014, 10:15 p.m.

DONETSK, Ukraine — Where Pushkin and Shevchenko boulevards converge, about 5,000 pro-Russia separatists massed on Saturday outside the regional governor's office.

Chanting and waving blue, white and red Russian flags, they demanded that the new billionaire governor, Serhiy Taruta, resign. Riot police with silver-colored shields blocked them from the building.

The boulevards — named in Soviet days for Russia's and Ukraine's great poets, Alexander Pushkin and Taras Shevchenko — symbolize the countries' historic ties.

They may be the site of the next confrontation between the two.

A week after Crimea voted to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation, some in this eastern Ukrainian city are agitating for their own referendum; others fear such protests will hand Russian President Vladimir Putin a pretext to invade eastern and southern Ukraine.

“We don't want the EU. We want to be part of Russia,” a female speaker shouted in Donetsk's Lenin Square as the mostly elderly crowd chanted, “Russia! Russia!”

They waved a mixture of flags — those of Russia, Ukrainian Communists, the old Soviet Union's red hammer-and-sickle banner and Donetsk.

A sign on a heroic-sized Lenin statue proclaimed that Viktor Yanukovych, ousted a month ago by street protests in Kiev, “is our legal president.”

“We want him to come back to our country,” said businesswoman Anna Annaykova, 41.

Claiming Yanukovych's ouster “was paid for by the U.S. and the EU,” Annaykova said Ukraine has been “divided by other countries, and Russia is our old friend.”

Supporters of Yanukovych, now exiled in Russia, “could make a human-chain corridor to take him back to his place of work, and even die for him,” she vowed.

Around her, other demonstrators chanted: “Crimea is Russian” and “Crimea, Donbass, Russia.”

Donbass is this region of factories and mines. Donetsk's nearly 1 million residents consider themselves to be eastern Ukraine's capital, with a motto — “Power and Beauty” — and a “sister city” link to Pittsburgh.

Most of them are angry with the interim government in Kiev. Yet many say they want to remain in a unified Ukraine; some want independence from both the European Union and Russia.

“I don't want to join Russia. I am for Ukraine, but not with this government,” said Sergey Strelnikov, 29, a radio station manager. “I think this government is illegal. … I think they are corrupt and fascist.”

Olena Korol, 22, a journalist at the station, believes anti-Yanukovych fervor in Kiev ignited pro-Russia sentiment here.

Co-worker Ulia Rubanenko agrees but pleads that “Ukraine can't be divided. We already lost Crimea.”

Fellow journalist Anastasia Galasyuk, 24, is “pro-EU … and against Ukraine being part of Russia.”

Many of her friends joined Kiev's uprising; she hopes other countries “help us keep a united Ukraine, because (Russia) stole our beautiful Crimea, and now they are talking about Donetsk. We don't want this.”

Russia was always popular here, according to Ihor Todorov, an international relations professor at Donetsk National University — and so was Yanukovych.

“But the separatists who are trying to make Donetsk part of Russia, they were more hidden, and we are unsure of what exactly they want,” Todorov said.

Russian intelligence agents arrived in Donetsk this month to stir up trouble, he said. “The operation had a name — the ‘Russian Spring,' as an analogy to the Arab Spring.”

Most people here are “very affected by the Russian media and support Putin's policy,” he said, and that crowd of elderly demonstrators in Lenin Square reflects “nostalgia for the Soviet Union.”

Todorov hopes Ukraine remains united. But that “depends on the central and regional government. We also have this Putin and Russia trying to destabilize the world, and there is this possibility of the occupation of eastern and southern Ukraine.

“We just have to hope for unified actions from the U.S., EU and NATO,” he said. “If they lost Ukraine, it will be just as they lost Czechoslovakia in 1938.

“Putin won't stop with just east and south — Putin wants all of Ukraine.”

Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at

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