Caught between guns and disgust in east Ukraine

by Marc Champion

Bloomberg

The road from Donetsk to Mariupol offered a useful allegory for this part of Ukraine on Sunday, as the country elected a new president.

The first checkpoint at the edge of Donetsk, the de facto capital of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, was manned by swaggering men in balaclavas carrying Kalashnikovs. Armed intimidation over a period of weeks ensured that not one polling station was able to open in the city of 1 million on Sunday. Across the Donetsk region, fewer than a quarter of all polling stations opened.

The next checkpoint, about 50 km to the south, was manned by troops from the Ukrainian army. A tank faced in each direction, as did the soldiers in a half dozen sandbagged positions. They had their cheeks pressed to the breeches of long-barreled rifles, or in one case a rocket propelled grenade launcher, which they trained on approaching vehicles. They were tense and no wonder: On Thursday, at least 16 Ukrainian soldiers were killed at a checkpoint near the town of Volnovukha, about three miles away.

The final checkpoint, at Mariupol, was also run by Ukrainian military, but in between were two ordinary traffic police posts conducting their business as usual: shamelessly shaking down passing drivers — including this one, twice — on grounds of fabricated infringements.

Throughout eastern Ukraine, ordinary Ukrainians are caught between these three ugly forces: the armed thugs of what some here call “The Donetsk Criminal Republic”; a threatening Ukrainian military; and a terminally corrupt state. Most have no desire to join Russia or separate from Ukraine, but they feel as little enthusiasm for the new post-revolutionary order.

“Since 2004, people have just become sick of politics,” said Vyacheslav, a foreman at Mariupol’s Ilyich steel plant, referring to the disappointments that followed the so-called Orange Revolution. He said he had volunteered with some colleagues to provide security at the city’s polling station number 237. He asked that his surname not be published, for reasons of security.

Like many others I spoke to around Donetsk and in Kiev alike, he complained that Ukrainian politics had become synonymous with corruption and that Sunday’s presidential candidates gave him little cause for hope. He wanted to vote solely because, in his view, any president and constitutional order would be preferable to chaos.

“If people are wandering around the city with semi-automatics, how can I let my wife and son go outside?” he asked. “What kind of life will we have?”

Mariupol is lucky to have Vyacheslav and his friends. After the city descended into violence earlier this month, Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, decided to choose sides and intervene. He sent the steelworkers into the streets from the factories that dominate employment here. The separatists remain, but they no longer have free rein. Although Akhmetov’s headquarters are in the center of Donetsk, he has no factories there to empty into the streets.

In the first of Mariupol’s two districts, each of which normally has 100 polling stations, the district election commission chairman Viktor Kovba said he had managed to open all but eight. Even so, turnout appeared to be low — 6 percent and 8 percent by noon at two stations I visited, and 13 percent by 2 p.m. at number 237. Turnout appears to have been reduced by a mix of fear, disgust and genuine opposition.

That level of participation won’t do much to reunite the country. Nor will it prevent the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic — and if it chooses, Russia — from claiming that the new president of Ukraine lacks a mandate in the east; exit polls showed billionaire Petro Poroshenko as the clear winner. As an exercise in democracy, though, Sunday’s vote looks a lot more impressive than the independence referendum the separatists staged on May 11.

On that day, the budding Donetsk Republic opened just four of the 200 polling stations in Mariupol, a city of 460,000 people. The resulting bottleneck produced video footage of people lining up outside polling stations for use on Russian TV channels, but meaningless results.

Based in London, Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal.