SVATOVE, UKRAINE – As thousands turned out Sunday for rebel-held independence referendums across swaths of eastern Ukraine, the small town of Svatove stood out as a brave refusnik — apparently the only one in the voting region.
In this town of some 20,000 inhabitants, the Ukrainian flag still flutters proudly over town hall, in contrast to the dozen towns and cities in eastern Ukraine that have been overrun by pro-Russian rebels.
The 48-year-old mayor, Evgeny Rybalko, said his town was boycotting the referendum, defying threats from armed thugs in a bow to law and order.
“My duty is to respect Ukrainian law. The people must be able to express their opinion in a legal framework. That is not the case for this referendum,” said the mayor, who took office in 2010.
Last week, around 40 armed men came from Luhansk to explain the “necessity” of holding the vote in Svatove, just 60 km from the Russian border.
Rybalko refused to yield even when the men came back a second time to try to change his mind.
The mayor can however count on some heavy armor of his own. Just a few kilometers outside town, the Ukrainian Army has two checkpoints defended with tanks, armored personnel carriers and even anti-aircraft guns.
In addition to this backup from Kiev, he also has at his disposal a militia of about 500 volunteers armed, officially at least, with nothing more lethal than hunting weapons.
“The majority of the people in the region around Svatove want a united Ukraine and are opposed to separation. Those who have joined our self-defense operation are patriots who wanted to be able to defend themselves against armed men coming from outside,” Rybalko said.
“We coordinate our actions with the police,” the mayor added.
Unlike in several towns in the east, where the police either stood by in the face of violence or even swapped sides and joined the pro-Russian separatists, the police there are loyal to the authorities.
However, Yulia Krassy, a 36-year-old local journalist and pro-Kiev activist, said that the self-defense groups had helped secure the town.
“At first, the 80 officers from the local police force weren’t enough to secure the barricades. It was the self-defense groups that stepped up, alongside the police,” she said.
Even in this bastion of pro-Kiev sentiment, there are nevertheless dissenting voices.
Around 15 people marched to the town hall carrying a large transparent container they wanted to use as a ballot box.
“Why can’t we vote? It’s sabotage. There isn’t a single polling station here,” complained a woman who gave her name only as Natalia.
Rybalko tackles these angry would-be voters head-on.
“What referendum? What authority decided this referendum?” the mayor asks.
Natalia, a 36-year-old housewife, refuses to give up. She wants to vote to realize her dream of an independent Luhansk province.
Asked how this would work in practice, she is less certain of herself. “I’m not sure we could survive, but we’ll see. In any case, we have to give it a shot.”
The mayor says that people like Natalia do not understand the implications of the referendum.
“They just don’t want to know. The district of Svatove gets 80 percent of its money from the state. Without money from Kiev, we couldn’t exist. But people don’t want to know that,” the mayor sighed.
However, he voiced some understanding for the separatist movement.
“No one listened to these people for years. Separatism is the response of a population that has had enough, of corruption above all,” he said.
Is Svatove really the only town in the two regions of Luhansk and Donetsk that is not holding a referendum?
Rybalko thinks there was also no referendum in the nearby town of Kremmenoie but police refused to give out any information and the few passers-by seemed either ignorant of or indifferent to the seismic events happening elsewhere in their region.