DONETSK, Ukraine — Katarina Butko smiled Monday evening as she looked at what she’d organized: a line of 15 cars decorated with the yellow and blue flag of Ukraine. They were seconds away from leaving on a motoring campaign around town, “to wake the sleeping pro-Ukrainian people.”
The idea was simple: Polls consistently show that residents of this region of southeastern Ukraine bordering Russia overwhelmingly believe in a united Ukraine. But a small, loud and violent minority has grabbed international headlines and scared residents into hiding their beliefs.
The driving, honking tour was scheduled to last an hour. It had to be abandoned about 30 minutes later, though, when pro-Russian separatists, some wearing masks, some not, some stumbling from drink, attacked the caravan with baseball bats and more. Butko’s car was put out of service when a Molotov cocktail smashed the front window.
But a later rally attracted what Ukrainian media reported to be 5,000 people, a reflection of a reality that many here believe the international media misses by focusing on the violence with which such gatherings have ended.
“There really aren’t many active pro-Russians around Donetsk these days,” said Yuri Temirov, vice dean of international relations at Donetsk National University. “But those few are very aggressive. The aggressive pro-Ukrainian side tends to focus more on petitions and legal frameworks for ending the crisis here. This doesn’t make for very exciting newscasts.”
There have been two recent polls of Donetsk residents on the notion of separating their region from Ukraine and joining Russia. Both indicated that 27 percent of locals support seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia (or for all of Ukraine to be consumed by Russia). Both also founded that the majority of respondents (53 percent in a poll done by a national group, 66 percent in a poll done by a regional group) support remaining part of a united Ukraine.
The 66 percent number was collected in late March, the 53 percent number in April; the latter poll didn’t show an increase in support for joining Russia, but it did indicate that a greater number of people had fallen into the “don’t know” category, an indication that months of protest and the flight of former President Viktor Yanukovych, who is from Donetsk, had shaken confidence in Kiev.
Those numbers, however, are the only ones likely to come out of this tense situation.
Pro-Russian separatists have insisted they will hold a Crimea-style referendum on joining Russia on May 11. But at this point there have been no concrete moves to organize a vote, and there is no evidence that the separatists control the workings of governance, even though they now occupy several government buildings.
In Crimea, Russian forces nicknamed “little green men” controlled city streets, airports and government offices. But those offices remained open and operational. Two weeks before the March 27 referendum that Russian President Vladimir Putin said proved Crimea was Russian, workers and volunteers were printing ballots and arranging to open and staff polling places, while across the region billboards were covered by election slogans.
None of that sort of groundwork has happened here.
“There is zero chance the separatists will actually pull off a vote here,” said Temirov. “The difference between Donetsk and Crimea is that there, the separatists appeared to have a plan and a plan of action. Here, they’re just looking to destabilize.”
Still, Viktor Sokolov, first vice president of the Gorshenin Institute, a political research group in Kiev, said he finds it worrying that the number of people who favor joining Russia in the states of Donetsk and nearby Lugansk — where 30 percent favor joining Russia — while still a minority, appears to be growing.
“We can see that internal problems in Ukraine and pro-Russian propaganda increased these numbers,” he wrote. “Pro-Ukrainian residents are more passive and more peaceful. They can hardly withstand attacks of pro-Russians.”
Experts on the situation here agree that the most active, and violent, pro-Russians appear to be paid for their efforts. The local legend is that regional business and political leaders actually had a hand in beginning the separatist movement, thinking they could use it as a bargaining chip in negotiations for more local autonomy, particularly over government spending. Greater control of the budget could both enrich businesses and score points for politicians, experts noted.
“But after creating the monster, they lost control,” said Volodymr Kipen, head of the Donetsk Institute for Social Research and Policy Analysis, which conducted the March survey.
Kipen said the common belief is that the separatists, who locals insist have a surprising amount of money to spend in local bars on vodka, are now being bankrolled by Yanukovych and his family. Media reports and experts say Ukrainian intelligence forces have intercepted a number of couriers, each carrying millions of Ukrainian hryvnia (11 hryvnia equal $1) and credit cards tied to Yanukovych family banks, intended for the separatists.
Separatists now controlling a number of village and state buildings around Donetsk are thought to total just a few hundred, according to Ukrainian officials and media reports. Ukrainian officials insist that the separatists have been trained and directed by as many as 100 Russian special forces. But those numbers are far fewer than local residents who support staying in Ukraine, analysts here believe.
Among those favoring Ukraine, apparently, is the country’s Muslim community, which is the largest religious minority in a country where most people are Christians. Said Ismagilov, who’s the top religious figure in the Religious Administration of Ukrainian Muslims, an organization that oversees Islamic religious matters, said the reasons are simple.
“We remember well what life was like for a Muslim in the Soviet Union, where we were outlawed and our leaders were hunted down,” he said. “It’s now Russia, and not the Soviet Union, but is there much difference? We don’t want that life again. Ukraine, to us, means freedom. Dictatorships destroy even our history.”
In the Islamic community, imams give weekly pro-Ukraine messages during Friday prayers, and many area Muslims have volunteered to work with groups spreading that message. Ismagilov took part in the driving tour Monday. He said he wasn’t injured, though his car sustained some damage.
“The route we took was probably a tactical error,” he said.
The attack, after all, came on a major downtown street, a block from the Donetsk state administration building that pro-Russian separatists have occupied.
When the caravan had passed that same spot at the start of the tour, there had been a brief skirmish when a single pro-Russian young man had raced past three police officers at a traffic light and tried to rip a Ukrainian flag from a car window.
Those in the car pulled back, so he started beating on the car. A passenger opened a car door and sprayed what looked to be mace at him. As the man stumbled backward he tried to grab a flag from a second car, where a passenger grabbed the thick flagpole and whacked him on the head twice.
The caravan moved on, to both honks of support and shouts of derision, just as a group of three masked and several unmasked pro-Russia supporters neared the spot. Down the block at the administration building, more pro-Russians began moving toward the street, several in a weaving, stumbling run that seemed to indicate that the vodka they’d been drinking that afternoon had taken hold.
“When we came back by, they were waiting for us,” Ismagilov said.
“There weren’t that many of them, but they did a lot of damage,” Ismagilov said. “Still, that kind of sums up the situation here.”