Home no longer sweet for Yanukovich

Pro-Russian protesters attend a rally in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

DONETSK, Ukraine: In Viktor Yanukovich’s party headquarters in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, a stain on the wall marks where a framed picture of the ousted president used to hang.

It is not only the photograph that has gone since Ukraine’s parliament stripped Yanukovich of his powers Saturday. So has the support he once enjoyed in his home region, his power base as he moved from minor Soviet bureaucracy into local politics in the 1990s and rose to become the governor of the coal-mining region around Donetsk, prime minister and eventually Ukraine’s president – at the second attempt – in 2010.

Easterners turning against a president accused of shooting demonstrators and of lavish self-enrichment may notch down the tension over his fall between the east and west of the country, which world leaders fear could start pulling Ukraine apart.

But Russian-speakers, a powerful electoral force in the big, eastern, industrial cities, remain wary of new leaders promoting nationalism and ties to the European Union.

Nikolay Zagoruyko, leader of the Party of the Regions group in the regional parliament in Donetsk, makes no apology for his long support of Yanukovich – nor for turning against him now.

“He was a good governor, prime minister and president,” Zaguruyko told Reuters at his party office. “I worked actively in his 2010 election campaign. I never regretted that. I was sure I made the right choice all along the way, until Jan. 19.”

That was the day when violent clashes began in Kiev between riot police and protesters. Several deaths ensued, culminating in bloodshed a week ago that killed over 80 people.

Though he has known Yanukovich since the 1980s, Zagoruyko has no hesitation in saying: “Of course he is guilty.

“He was the president,” he said. “The guilt for what happened lies with Yanukovich.”

The 63-year-old Yanukovich was indicted by his opponents for “mass murder” over the shooting of demonstrators by police. He is now on the run, with the national parliament resolving to refer him to the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

Having left Kiev by helicopter Friday, he was prevented from flying out of the country from Donetsk and was last seen Sunday on the Russian-speaking Crimea peninsula.

Some Ukrainians believe he may now be hiding in Donetsk or the surrounding Donbass coal and steel region, where he was born and worked as an electrician after a troubled childhood and lengthy spells in jail for assault and petty theft.

The area was the bedrock of his election victory over Yulia Tymoshenko, then the darling of the Ukrainian-speaking west.

But many of his most loyal political allies distanced themselves from their former patron as he found himself condemned by Moscow for failing to end the protests and by his backers among wealthy business “oligarchs” over the bloodshed.

His attempt to concentrate power and wealth among relatives and close friends may have fatally narrowed his support base.

Like other Ukrainians, some former loyalists say they were shocked by the gaudy opulence of Yanukovich’s residence outside Kiev, its chandeliers, statues and ostrich farm now thrown open to public view. Talk of corruption and cronyism also offends.

There seemed a chance the east might stand by its man when regional leaders meeting in Kharkiv backed a resolution Saturday challenging the authority of the national parliament.

But thousands of anti-Yanukovich protesters on the streets outside forced them to back down. Only in Crimea is there a significant movement among ethnic Russians against rule from Kiev and for a takeover by Moscow.

Many Party of the Regions officials have called for national unity and oppose military intervention from Russia.

Ihor Todorov, a professor at Donetsk National University, said that makes good business sense: “Any split of the country would in fact be trouble for Donbass businessmen,” he said.

“Who would recognize any separate ‘east Ukraine’ apart from Russia? That would mean trade sanctions.

“Local elites want to have carte blanche in the region, as they always have, and they will be ready to officially declare their allegiance to the new power in Kiev in return for that.”

Donetsk is home to Ukraine’s richest man Rinat Akhmetov, who bankrolled Yanukovich and his party. His imprint is visible all over the city of a million, a grimy patchwork of Soviet apartment blocks, mines and factories on the banks of the Don.

Akhmetov’s involvement includes a luxury hotel and the new Donbass Arena, home to UEFA Cup-winning football club Shakhtar. Through System Capital Management, he controls more than 100 companies, from mining to telecoms to grocery stores.

On Feb. 18, as violence escalated, the billionaire issued a pointed public statement saying that the loss of human lives in Kiev was “an unacceptable price for political mistakes.”

Akhmetov issued a statement to employees in which he urged them to keep business moving:

“Today many are asking what is next? My answer is continue to live and work honestly.”

Yanukovich critics long accused him of being a political pawn for big business, serving the interests of tycoons from the Donbass who helped him climb the ladder of power.

“It’s pure business thinking,” said Sergiy Shtukarin, head of a Donetsk-based civil rights organization, the Center for Political Studies. “The oligarchs and the party followed his lead because that gave them most benefits.

“If the new authorities in Kiev let them be, the oligarchs will go on doing their business. That is what they want – to prevent any protests, any ferment, keep people at home, keep the status quo.”

Shtukarin also said Yanukovich had tried after taking office to reduce the influence on him of Akhmetov and others in the Donbass, seeking to amass wealth within an inner circle of relatives and friends that came to be known as “The Family.”

That may also have narrowed his support base, both among the rich and powerful and among ordinary voters who backed him in 2010, as his both among the rich and powerful and among ordinary voters who backed him in 2010, as his adversaries took to the streets in November.

Zagoruyko echoed these comments, saying that even though Yanukovich did take many of his Donbass aides to Kiev, local party officials had long complained of a lack of access to him.

Yanukovich’s drive last year to sign trade and political agreements with the European Union – which he reversed under Russian pressure, triggering the Kiev protests – had been resisted in the Donbass. There, businesses feared losing out to Western firms if restrictions on EU imports were lifted.

Many still look east, to Russia for trade and culture.

This week, people are still keeping overnight vigil’s on Donetsk’s main square to protect its giant statue of Lenin, after similar monuments to the founder of the Soviet state were toppled last week by Ukrainians resentful of Moscow.

“Lenin is part of our history, our ties with Russia,” said Olga, a 25-year-old economist standing below the statue, who feared there could be job losses from free trade with the EU.

Yet after Yanukovich’s policy zig-zag and failure to find a strategy to see off the protests, she lost faith in him. “It’s clear we are better off making friends with Russia. But there’s no point in Yanukovich any more. He failed us, he proved weak,” she said. “I am for stability, peace and order.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 27, 2014, on page 11.




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