Home turf turns shaky for Ukraine premier
The Washington Post
KHARKIV, Ukraine – Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych faced opposition in his own stronghold of eastern Ukraine on Friday as he campaigned in the rerun of a presidential election pitting him against his rival Viktor Yushchenko.
As the two candidates crossed paths in this industrial city, the presence of Yushchenko’s supporters and the signature color of his “Orange Revolution” were evidence of the changed political landscape. Mass demonstrations in the capital of Kiev have cascaded into areas once considered to be solidly in Yanukovych’s camp.
Several hundred people chanted Yushchenko’s name as Yanukovych spoke at one rally, drawing the ire of his supporters and forcing police to form a line to separate the two groups. There was no violence, but Yanukovych’s supporters hurled insults at their foes.
At a series of rallies in Kharkiv and neighboring towns Friday, Yanukovych battled the riptide against him. In short speeches, none longer than 10 minutes, he tried to galvanize his supporters with the message that Ukraine is on the verge of occupation by unnamed foreigners.
“They want us to be penniless,” he said at one rally. “They want people who can be manipulated.”
At one point he told his supporters there was no Orange Revolution – only “orange rats.” But elsewhere he sounded a more conciliatory note, saying during an interview on local television, for example, “I sympathize with the so-called protest electorate.”
“They felt they were cheated,” he said.
Kharkiv is mostly Russian-speaking and lies just 30 miles from the Russian border. In the election on Nov. 21, which was declared fraudulent by local and international election monitors, Yanukovych won 71 percent of the vote to Yushchenko’s 24 percent, according to official returns.
Some people interviewed on Friday said they had been intimidated during the previous voting and were now willing to demonstrate in favor of Yushchenko.
“I’m 57 years of age and I feel free,” said Yekaterina Kotolodnaya, a retired accountant who wore an orange scarf as she walked down the city’s main shopping street after listening to Yushchenko speak. “Isn’t that wonderful?”
Just four weeks ago, Kotolodnaya said, she wouldn’t have dared to wear such colors, fearing retribution against her family for her political choice.
On Nov. 23, a day after Yushchenko’s supporters filled Independence Square in Kiev, tens of thousands of Kharkiv residents also packed this city’s giant Liberty Square beneath an imposing sculpture of Lenin. Kharkiv was the first capital of Ukraine when it was part of the former Soviet Union.
After the demonstration, the mayor of the city, whose administration had previously banned Yushchenko from holding a rally on Liberty Square, declared his political neutrality. His action defied not only Yanukovych, but also the local governor, Yevgeny Kushnariov, who was among the first regional leaders to raise the specter of eastern regions seceding from Ukraine if Yushchenko won.
A local university president, previously in Yanukovych’s camp, said his students had not been free to publicly back Yushchenko and wear orange clothes. Local television stations and newspapers that had trumpeted Yanukovych and bashed his opponent said they were adopting of a new ethic of objectivity.
“I was persona non grata on local television and in the last two weeks I’ve been on live shows five times,” said Olga Miroshnik, director of the Center for Local Democracy in Kharkiv, advocating fair elections.
On Friday, Yushchenko visited a tank factory, and then addressed his supporters at a park just several hundred yards from where Yanukovych spoke. He urged supporters to exercise their right to vote on Dec. 26, a message that some of his campaign team say is becoming increasingly important as they fear some of their followers think the election is guaranteed.
Yushchenko campaign officials said they want their vote in this region to climb to 50 percent or more, and believe that new regional and local election boards should ensure fair elections. The campaign and other observers cautioned, however, that there already have been reports of local state workers, including teachers, being summoned to meetings where they were warned they had to vote for Yanukovych.
“We still have to very vigilant,” said Miroshnik.
Many Yanukovych supporters said in interviews here and in neighboring towns Friday that they reluctantly would accept a win by Yushchenko, saying they had no interest in launching a post-election campaign of civil disobedience. Yanukovych said in an interview Thursday that his supporters would not accept his defeat and he would not be able to control their reaction if he lost in what he said was a process already stacked against him.
“I’m sick and tired of all these elections,” said Sergei Stepanov, who said he would be voting for Yanukovych because he believes he is a strong leader. “But if Yushchenko wins, I want peace.”
And some people wearing the blue color of Yanukovych’s campaign at his rallies said they wouldn’t even vote for him.
“I was brought here from work,” whispered a woman in her thirties at a rally in the town of Balakliya about an hour from Kharkiv. “I had no choice. This is not democracy. This is not Europe. We don’t live in Europe yet.”
About 10,000 people showed up at the main Yanukovych rally Friday in Kharkiv, a city of 1.1 million people. There were dozens of buses with Luhansk license plates, suggesting that local leaders could not mobilize enough people among the local population. Luhansk is an area east of Kharkiv where Yanukovych’s support is still solid.
“We should not be divided,” said Roman Markov, 25, a machine workerwearing both orange and blue ribbons as he stood between the two shouting camps. “Ukraine should never be divided.”