3 things I learned in eastern Ukraine

Editor’s note: Dan Peleschuk is GlobalPost’s senior correspondent based in Moscow.

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — With the pro-Russian uprising in eastern Ukraine showing no signs of abating, it’s becoming clear there’s little the new authorities in Kyiv can do to reverse the wave of discontent and pro-Russian sentiment washing over the region.

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After time spent in this eastern city, which has been almost completely seized by pro-Russian rebels who repelled Ukrainian soldiers on Wednesday, here’s a look at some of the issues.

1. Locals aren’t just spitting mad. They feel completely disenfranchised.

It would be a mistake to assume that everyone in Slovyansk and other defiant cities in the east desperately want to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

Many locals in the region who have spoken to GlobalPost in recent weeks say they’re actually in favor of remaining part of Ukraine as long as the authorities give them more power. The overriding mantra during the unrest — at least on the surface — has been a call for the country’s “federalization,” which would grant more autonomy to the regions.

Most of the more active protesters, who oscillate between calls for federalization and full-blown separatism, are in the minority.

Much of the rest of the population simply feels disenfranchised thanks to years of pervasive corruption, rampant unemployment, dismal standards of living and the general lack of any decent prospects for the future.

Locals resent the months-long protests in Kyiv that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych — whose support base was in eastern Ukraine — but most often, the anger stems from the years of official neglect of the country’s regions, no matter the political affiliation.

It’s written across the shattered landscape of Slovyansk and other depressed cities, where factories have been shuttered, roads are riddled with potholes and outlying streets littered with beer bottles and empty cigarette packs.

The discontent was perhaps best framed by an elderly pensioner who stood helpless and angry outside the barricaded city council earlier this week, demanding to know what would happen to her pension amid the political turmoil.

Fed up with both the Kyiv authorities and local officials in Slovyansk, she huffed about her already miserable economic state: Her pension is about 1,100 hryvnias per month ($85), she said, while her utilities fees add up to about 1,500 hryvnias.

“Do the math,” she said. “How are we supposed to survive?”

2. Checkpoints are no fun — especially when they’re run by unidentified men with guns.

The militant anti-government rage that’s swept cities like Slovyansk has manifested itself in many ways, but most prominently in the control local protesters and “self-defense” forces wield over the buildings they’ve seized and roads leading in and out of the city.

In the absence of any meaningful police force on the streets, young toughs wielding baseball bats whose faces are hidden behind surgical masks stop cars at checkpoints made of sandbags and tires whenever they want and inspect them however they want.

Most of the rebels are crudely armed, most with clubs and other blunt objects. Some, however, carry automatic rifles, and GlobalPost spotted at least one guard carefully aiming a rusty sawed-off shotgun at approaching cars.

It’s particularly menacing at night, when the city is ghastly empty. Drivers heading in or out of Slovyansk are likely to be stopped by gangs of “self-defense” guards roaming barricades in the dark outskirts, shining flashlights into cars.

They sometimes pull travelers out of their vehicles, inspect trunks and glove compartments, then direct them on their way. But that’s only before instructing them to drive through the barricades with headlights off, presumably for fear of giving away their positions.

3. Eastern Ukraine isn’t the best place for Westerners to visit these days.

Ask any Ukrainian from the Ukrainian-speaking west or the Russian-speaking east and they’ll agree there’s an information war being waged.

On one side, it’s the pro-Kyiv Ukrainian media, which has cast the unrest as a separatist movement engineered by the Kremlin. On the other, it’s the Russian state-owned media, which insists the armed uprising is a peaceful and righteous movement against a fascist junta propped up by Western intelligence services.

That narrative dominates in eastern Ukraine, especially in provincial towns such as Slovyansk, where a largely working-class population relies on Russian television for most information.

More from GlobalPost: Loathing and lawlessness in occupied eastern Ukraine

Almost any protester one speaks to is likely to slam the United States for its alleged role in orchestrating the Kyiv protests, enabling a regime they fear will crack down on Russian-speakers in Ukraine’s east, and guiding a propaganda campaign that casts locals here as terrorists.

That widespread belief makes it potentially unfriendly territory for Westerners, especially American journalists. While many residents generally restrain themselves from open hostility, they nevertheless regularly issue the same angry plea: “Don’t lie about us.”

But some are more hostile.

That was the case on Tuesday, when after identifying himself as an American, this reporter was forcibly escorted away from Slovyansk’s seized city council building by a heavily armed rebel.

The best way to learn about the local pro-Russian spirit, he suggested sarcastically and somewhat cryptically, was to “go see a priest.”

In case that message wasn’t clear, he added: “You’re not welcome here.” 

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