This weekend’s pro-Russian protests, which saw hundreds of agitators occupying government buildings in three eastern Ukraine cities, comes after a flurry of recent clandestine visits by former top aides of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych to several Ukrainian towns near the border with Russia, say former business associates of the onetime government advisers.
They say the aides from Yanukovych’s inner circle, most notable among the toppled leader’s former chief of staff, Andrei Klyuyev, who also served as secretary of the country’s national security council, held discussions with leaders of local ethnic Russian groups and offered laid-off factory workers money, if they joined pro-Russian protests and manned checkpoints set up to hinder Ukrainian military movements and preparation for any Russian military incursions.
The weekend protests in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv appeared well coordinated. Numbering less than 2000 in each city the protesters had clear plans on what they intended to do, managing in Donetsk after clashing with riot police to attack and occupy the regional government seat where they raised the Russian tricolor flag of white, blue and red. Local police say just a thousand protesters pulled off the occupation.
In Luhansk, police fired tear gas when dozens stormed the local security service building with the aim of freeing 15 pro-Russian activists arrested earlier. And similar scenes were repeated in Kharkiv when agitators broke through police lines forcing their way into regional government offices.
Kiev’s politicians claim Moscow has been infiltrating Russian provocateurs from the intelligence service the FSB to incite much of the agitation—an allegation also leveled by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The Kremlin denies this and has warned it is ready to send forces massed on the border to protect ethnic Russians—the initial reason given for seizing of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Local pro-Russian activists insist they are Ukrainian and flash their passports at reporters to prove their point.
Andei Klyuyev and his brother Serhiy are key Yanukovych associates. Politicians and businessmen, they were among the top 50 richest Ukrainians with an estimated wealth of $227 million. Ukraine’s new leaders have issued arrest warrants for both for alleged involvement in massive corruption. Andrei Klyuyev was last seen with Yanukovych in the Crimean city of Balaclava in February after fleeing Kiev on their way to exile in Russia.
That is, until the last week of March when Klyuyev was spotted first visiting his mother who lives in Donetsk and then in the smaller nearby city of Artemivsk, where he jointly owns a factory with Yanukovych’s son Oleksandr, who is also a fugitive.
“He told the workers they would get paid if they helped with the agitation,” a Donetsk businessman who has worked with Klyuyev told The Daily Beast. The businessman asked not to be named in this article, saying he feared for his safety. The onetime associate says Klyuyev left midweek last week.
The country’s new leaders, who replaced President Yanukovych’s regime ousted in February after months of street protests against his rule, are trying to dampen ethnic Russian agitation by offering reforms.
They are promising greater decentralization while preserving the unity of Ukraine, which will give the regions, cities, and districts broad powers and the funding needed for their development. But they fear a Kremlin demand of federalization, anxious that the Moscow would have no trouble in manipulating semi-autonomous regions near the border with large numbers of ethnic Russians.
Kiev has not played its hand well. One of the first moves by Ukraine’s parliament after Yanukovych fled to Russia still rankles in the east among ethnic Russians. The lawmakers passed legislation abolishing a law that allows regions to use Russian as a second official language. The acting president vetoed that abolition but pro-Russian protesters point to it as evidence showing what Kiev and west Ukraine really thinks of them.
Pro-Ukrainian activist leaders are critical of Ukraine’s new leaders for their handling of the east and pro-Russian sentiment, faulting the interim government for its failure to reach out—most of the top leaders, who are mainly west or central Ukrainians, have failed even to visit the east—and or countering effectively Kremlin propaganda in a region where many watch Russian television more than Ukrainian broadcasting.
Pro-Ukrainian activist Kate Benedict, a 23-year-old ethnic Russian student, says the legislation over language was a big mistake, one that offered her pro-Russian foes a propaganda opportunity. “Most people here want to speak Russian,” she says. Another problem is the emphasis placed on Europe. “Our opponents think anyone who supports Kiev and wants to stay Ukrainian is necessarily pro-European, but we have said a lot of us aren’t.”
She and other pro-Ukraine activists say they fear that the pro-Russian unrest is turning more violent—one of their supporters was stabbed to death last month—and that big business-linked organized crime is becoming increasingly involved determined to protect its interests.
The three regions most notorious for the closest relationships between gangsters, oligarchs and politicians—Crimea, Donetsk and Odessa—have been the most resistant to Yanukovych’s overthrow.
Taras Kuzio, a research associate at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta, told The Daily Beast last month that the internal political turmoil in Ukraine should be viewed partly through the lens of the hand-in-glove relationships between politicians, mobsters and the so-called “red directors,” managers-turned-businessmen who are steeped in the ways of Soviet-style public sector corruption and deal-making.
Last month The Daily Beast interviewed several young pro-Russian male activists in Donetsk’s Lenin Square, many of whom said they had worked for Oleksandr Yanukovych, but had lost their jobs when he fled to Russia.
The biggest fear of Kiev politicians is that the Moscow-encouraged unrest in east Ukraine will be used as a pretext for Russian military intervention. A fear of pro-Ukraine activists is that the unrest will provoke a heavy-handed government response or serious bloodshed, prompting a big ethnic Russian backlash.