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A Free Donetsk?

Want more proof of the fact that the Yanukovych regime is crumbling? Take a look at recent goings-on in his bastion, Donetsk.

Communists ruled the city with an iron fist for decades; then the equally thuggish and equally corrupt Regionnaires took over. The Yanukovych Family, their cronies, and Ukraine’s richest man—indeed one of the world’s richest men—Rinat Akhmetov control everything, making sure that the majority of the population reads, hears, and sees only what they want them to read, hear, and see and snuffing out opposition by means of intimidation, coercion, and violence.

Think of poor Donetsk as a mafia town that is also a company town. Small wonder that, while privately expressed criticism is rampant—especially by the city’s sizable educated elite—open opposition is minimal. To protest publicly could mean sacrificing your career, your family’s life chances, and, possibly, your health. With the population cowed, why shouldn’t the Regionnaires feel confident? Until now.

There have been rumblings of discontent in the past, but nothing—and I mean absolutely nothing—like what’s been going on since the Euro Revolution was launched in Kyiv. The people have spoken, and Donetsk will never again be the Regionnaire stronghold it used to be.

At first, it was only a small group of about 20 to 30 demonstrators who repeatedly assembled at the Shevchenko monument in central Donetsk. Then, a few weeks ago, several hundred brave protesters—young and old, male and female, Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers—carried pro-democracy, pro-Europe, and anti-Yanukovych banners in a march through downtown. Some intemperate babushkas denounced them in the manner of white supremacists reacting to 1950s civil rights marchers in the American South. Most people just watched. About 20 percent applauded, smiled, or flashed victory signs. 

As if so much downright chutzpah weren’t enough, the demonstrators went on to produce a New Year’s video greeting to Yanukovych, in which they calmly, coolly, civilly, and bilingually restated their democratic, pro-European aspirations, thanked Yanukovych for “uniting the country around one idea,” and encouraged him to make a “heroic decision and resign,” a move that “all Ukraine and all its citizens” would greet “with applause.”

For 500 marchers to assemble in Donetsk is the equivalent of 50,000 in Lviv or 500,000 in Kyiv. This is an earthshattering development, almost as important as the Euro Revolution itself. Think about it: Regionnaire hegemony in Donetsk has been broken. The place will never be the same again.

Watching the marchers, I couldn’t help but think of the three 1965 marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama, from Selma to Montgomery. The civil rights activists, both black and white, marched into the belly of the beast—and emerged triumphant.

Like the American racists who could respond to the marchers only with violence and intimidation, so too the Regionnaires and their hired thugs have been responding to the democratic activists throughout Ukraine with violence and intimidation. But violence and intimidation are the weapons of the terrified, of the desperate, of the weak. Strong, self-confident, and popular rulers know they have nothing to fear from dialogue, concessions, and negotiations.

As a matter of fact, the Donetsk power-holders appear to be panicking. And nothing demonstrates that better than Akhmetov’s bizarre exchange on December 31st with picketers and journalists outside his estate. They had been reporting that he was absent, presumably in his luxury apartment in London. And then something remarkable happened. Ukraine’s richest man actually drove up to them in his own car—without his guards and wearing a running tracksuit (which suggests that he made the move spontaneously)—and started haranguing them about “promoting lies.” Which lies? That he was in London. (Uh, Rinat, that’s usually called a mistake, not a lie.) “Come to me with the truth, and I’m with you.” And on and on he went, in what can only be termed an intemperate rant, without permitting any comments from the people with whom he claimed to want a conversation.

The most striking thing about the performance was that Akhmetov had so visibly lost his cool. He was agitated and rambled on in an embarrassingly defensive manner. And if it’s true, as I suggested above, that he interrupted whatever he was doing to confront the picketers and journalists, then he must have been agitated indeed. After all, it’s not normally the case that a multibillionaire feels impelled to defend himself before a handful of the hoi polloi. Clearly, Akhmetov feels threatened by the Euro Revolution. Just as clearly, he knows that handful represents the coming Euro Revolution in Donetsk. Akhmetov, the ultimate survivor, knows the wind is blowing in a different direction.

He’s right. Donetsk is changing. Donetsk is becoming free. And a free Donetsk, maybe even more than a free Ukraine, spells the end for the Yanukovych mafia regime.

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