KHARKIV, Ukraine: In the industrial heartland of Ukraine’s pro-Russian east, those who dare rise up against President Viktor Yanukovych risk getting their eyes gouged out or legs broken.
Or so says Yevgeny Zhilin, the heavily publicized poster boy for a movement aiming to counter the anti-government protests that have swept the capital and western parts of this splintered ex-Soviet state over its rejection of an historic EU pact under Russian pressure.
“I want to warn these people [protesting] in Kiev. They have gone too far,” said Zhilin, a 38-year-old former policemen with a criminal record known for having organized unregulated wrestling matches in cages.
He told AFP that those who have occupied public buildings in Kiev or attempted to attack security forces were nothing but “criminals” who deserved being taught a lesson they would not forget.
“When my collaborators ask me what they can do to stop criminals, I explain to them: You can break an arm, break a leg or gouge out an eye. You risk nothing for this.”
The pro-EU protests have been raging for more than two months, garnering widespread publicity at home and abroad and morphing into a wider geopolitical tussle between Russia and the West.
But in Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million not far from the border with Russia, authorities are refusing to stand for this and have created a countermovement called the Ukrainian Front.
Its official aim – sanctioned by the local governor and approved by Yanukovych’s ruling Regions Party – is to “free” the nation of 46 million from an “occupation” similar to that experienced during World War II.
The movement counts on support from “NGOs and civil society activists” and will get its own “forces,” Kharkiv Governor Mykhailo Dobkin has said.
Zhilin, whose sports club Oplot is among the groups supporting the movement, has since emerged as one of the public faces of those opposed to Euromaidan, as the pro-West protests in Kiev are known, named after the capital’s main Maidan Square.
Speaking in his sports club against a background of punching balls and a map of the former Soviet Union, he says people “must come back to their senses.”
The capital of Soviet Ukraine from 1917 to 1934 before passing the relay to Kiev, this bustling city also has its own small Euromaidan that counts an estimated 2,500 people.
But Kharkiv Mayor Gennady Kernes has banned any public protests in the city since the beginning of the political crisis on Nov. 21, officially “to avoid the spread of infectious diseases.”
Few are those who dare challenge Kernes – who also has a criminal record for theft and fraud and is not known for tolerating dissent.
Pro-West activists are regularly assaulted. Some have seen their cars burned while others have been sprayed with a green liquid that is difficult to remove from the skin and impossible to remove from clothes.
Dmytro Pilipets, one of the Euromaidan leaders in Kharkiv, was beaten up and stabbed on Dec. 24 by unknown assailants on his way home from a protest.
“I have scars and memories to last me for the rest of my days,” he said.
“Authorities are looking to intimidate the residents of Kharkiv, but they are causing the opposite reaction,” the local protest leader said.
“Those who don’t dare go out on the streets in their own city are swelling the ranks of protesters in Kiev,” he said.
As a result of this intimidation, Kharkiv has remained relatively quiet compared to Kiev, where hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets.
At the end of January, clashes between demonstrators and police in the capital left several dead and hundreds injured.
Yanukovych, who until then had largely ignored the opposition’s demands, yielded some ground and dismissed the government.
The opposition is also asking for him to step down, for a new pro-West government to be appointed, and for lawmakers to slash presidential powers in favor of parliament.
But Yanukovych also has to appease Russia, which granted Ukraine a $15 billion bailout after he rejected the EU pact, but has effectively frozen the much-needed loan until the situation clears up.
“Kharkiv, a city of intelligentsia that played a significant role during the perestroika [Soviet economic and governmental reform policy launched by Mikhail Gorbachev] and even during [Ukraine’s] Orange Revolution in 2004, is not what it used to be,” said Yevgeny Zakharov, a local human rights defender. “People are scared of the authorities.”