Political turmoil, Crimea annexation enflames underlying divisions in Eastern Ukraine


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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: how the people in eastern Ukraine are reacting to the Russian takeover of Crimea.

Our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner, is in Donetsk tonight, where loyalties to both Ukraine and Russia run deep.

MARGARET WARNER: Shoppers strolled through the Donetsk city mall last night, a gleaming island in this gritty industrial hub of Eastern Ukraine, to tunes of piped-in pop music, until exactly at 6:30. A small flash mob of Ukrainian activists materialized, waving flags and singing the national anthem.

But there were almost as many cameras as carolers. Afterward, organizer Diana Berg said these small-scale shows of Ukrainian identity and unity were safer than large demonstrations.

DIANA BERG: There are reasons to be afraid after the 13th of March, when one of our people was killed by pro-Russian activists.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you feel there’s much of a threat of Russian intervention here?

DIANA BERG: Well, now that we see what is happening in Crimea, of course there is a threat.

MARGARET WARNER: On March 1, just as Putin’s troops took over Crimea, dueling protests erupted in Southeastern Ukraine too between supporters and opponents of joining with Russia.

The death came in this melee last Thursday. Pro-Russian protests continued through last weekend, as demonstrators briefly occupied government buildings.

Did these divisions exist before, before the last six months?

ALEKSEY RYABCHYN, Economist: No, we never had this kind of division.

MARGARET WARNER: As economist and analyst Aleksey Ryabchyn points out, unlike predominantly Russian Crimea, the Donetsk region is almost entirely divided between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, with many of mixed heritage, who have lived peacefully together.

But the winter Maidan uprising in Kiev, triggering the ouster of Russia-backed President Viktor Yanukovych, tapped into undercurrents that had simmered here.

ALEKSEY RYABCHYN: The Ukraine society is divided. We have western people that is more close to Europe; we have here east that is more close to Russia. Ukraine is not so globalized-conscious, so here people here are not tolerant.

MARGARET WARNER: That intolerance is rooted partly in a powerful collective memory of World War II. Soldiers in Eastern Ukraine fought and died with the Soviet army against the Germans, while many Easterners say some in the west collaborated with the Nazis.

Now the new government in Kiev and its Western allies fear Putin is trying to exploit that history and the present unrest as a pretext to move on this part of Ukraine too. In announcing the incorporation of Crimea into Russia, Putin vowed again that Moscow will protect oppressed ethnic Russians living elsewhere, but he insisted he has no designs on Southeastern Ukraine.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia (through interpreter): Do not believe those who try to frighten you with Russia, who scream that Crimea will be followed by other regions. We do not want the division of Ukraine.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you believe Putin when he says that?

SERGEY TARUTA, Governor, Donetsk Region (through interpreter): I think he’s a serious politician and his statements should be backed up by his actions. But I do not know the man.

MARGARET WARNER: Industrialist magnate Sergey Taruta was appointed governor of the Donetsk region two weeks ago by the new Kiev government. The billionaire oligarch’s first job? Restore quiet to the streets.

SERGEY TARUTA (through interpreter): When I arrived, this building was blocked and the Russian flag was flying on the roof. Today, the situation is quite different. The squares are empty. And that is a result of the work that’s been done in two weeks.

MARGARET WARNER: He maintains that the violent protests are fueled by professional instigators from Russia.

SERGEY TARUTA (through interpreter): Part of the people in the protests are Russian-born, not natives here. Our security apparatus came to this conclusion. They noticed the presence of numerous Russian tourists.

MARGARET WARNER: Taruta was so alarmed by Russia’s designs, that he paid for an insurance policy of sorts out of his own family’s pocket.

SERGEY TARUTA (through interpreter): This is a line they will not cross.

MARGARET WARNER: This is the line he’s talking about carved into this vast plain, the site of epic tank battles during World War II: an eight-foot-wide, eight-foot-deep trench that the governor and his brother had dug along the entire 90-mile-long border between Donetsk and Russia.

Farmer Yevgeniy Voedenko, who left his hog wallow to take us to the trench line, believes Putin is up to no good.

Does it make you feel more protected?

YEVGENIY VOEDENKO, Pig Farmer (through interpreter): I don’t know. The modern tanks would cross this easily. We’re fearful. The future is uncertain.

MARGARET WARNER: But there are forces already inside this line that threaten the stability of Ukraine.

Donbass news Web site editor Oleksiy Matsuka says there is substantial pro-Russia feeling in this park of Ukraine, fed in large part by economic disparities.

OLEKSIY MATSUKA, Donbass News (through translator): The division is based on the poor and the rich. But that’s not because it’s western or eastern Ukraine. The east-west division is profitable for the politicians.

MARGARET WARNER: This industrial heartland area generates one-quarter of Ukraine’s GDP, yet many workers live in miserable conditions, the result of corruption and government neglect.

Just north of Donetsk in Dimitrov, where coal mines dot the rolling land, we met 25-year-old Yaroslav Yarmolenko, a third-generation miner whose grandparents moved here during the Soviet era of lifetime jobs.

YAROSLAV TARMOLENKO (through interpreter): Salaries and life standards were much higher then. But in 20 years of independent Ukraine, everything was destroyed. And when I am asked what kind of salary I have, I am ashamed to tell. We are not living here, just surviving.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you feel your life would be better if this region were a part of Russia?

YAROSLAV TARMOLENKO (through translator): I think yes, from the economic stand point of view.

MARGARET WARNER: But that nostalgia for more secure days is not shared by many young people, says editor Oleksiy Matsuka. He sees a large generational divide between young people who came of age after Ukraine broke free of the collapsed Soviet Union in 1991 and their parents and grandparents.

OLEKSIY MATSUKA (through translator): But, meanwhile, they are forgetting about gulags, about repressions. They remember only partially, something good in the social matter and something good about their youth. And the logic of the double standard is deep down in our society, not only in past memories, but in the present actions.

MARGARET WARNER: Whatever the myriad causes, this vital southeast part of Ukraine remains a tinderbox.

Aleksandr, who wouldn’t give his last name, is the self-styled leader of a pro-Russia roadblock brigade, on the lookout for vehicles carrying what he calls instigators from the west. He ferried us to two lookouts near the city, one near a crossroads and another next to a Ukrainian police traffic outpost.

MAN (through interpreter): The big mistake Kiev made, Kiev cannot threaten our blood ties with Russia. Let us decide our own future.

MARGARET WARNER: Back in the city, Donetsk University Professor Kirill Cherkashin devotes his free time to coordinating the pro-Russia demonstrations. He says his feelings of separatism have grown.

KIRILL CHERKASHIN (through translator): I actually always thought of myself as being Russian, and I always thought that Ukraine should integrate within Russia; now I think it should be our part of Ukraine first.

MARGARET WARNER: Demonstrations by locals are not difficult to organize, he said, and he acknowledged that there are Russians involved too, who often egg on the crowds.

KIRILL CHERKASHIN (through translator): Yes, there are some people coming from Russia. They are extremists that just love to do revolution inside their own country. People are becoming quite aggressive. We can stop it if our government would listen to their people. But I predict this weekend, we will see more violent clashes.

MARGARET WARNER: An ominous forecast from a region of Ukraine not known for such strife before.

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