The Fifth Column on Ukraine’s Front Line
In Ukraine’s besieged strategic port of Mariupol, much of the population sympathizes with the pro-Russian separatists.
MARIUPOL — A group of angry people chatted in a tight circle under a poplar tree near the wrecked building that used to be the center of government in this besieged port city on the Azov Sea. Its broken, soot-blackened windows are a sad monument to last year’s violent clashes between patriots loyal to Kiev and those who wanted pro-Russian forces to take over the city. The Ukrainian patriots won, and ever since in this city of 500,000 people those sympathetic to the pro-Russian partisans of the Donbas region are liable to arrest. But these old protesters don’t seem to care.
From time to time one of the demonstrators in the group will turn around, spit, utter a sizzling curse word and flip a middle finger at a nearby tent camp that Ukrainian patriots have decorated with the blue-and-yellow national flags. “Don’t think we are old and sick, there are hundreds of thousands of us, a majority of Mariupol,” a middle-aged man on crutches, sputtering through missing teeth, tells The Daily Beast. “But it is too dangerous for our young supporters to come out on this square, they immediately get thrown in jail.”
The commandant of the nearby tent camp, Vladimir Kisel, tells The Daily Beast that this gathering of “the fifth column” a few steps away is a bigger problem for Mariupol than one might think. “Over 50 percent of the population in Mariupol population has separatist views today. They are very aggressive.” Kisel stretched out his arm to show a blue-and-yellow bracelet around his wrist. “They can cut my hand off for this,” he said.
So the potential for internal unrest grows as war continues, bit by bit, to encroach on the city’s external defenses.
Every morning Mariupol wakes up to news of more artillery fire on the outskirts of town. Thursday night, for instance, there were six artillery blasts less than 20 kilometers away from the city center, according to a report issued by city hall. There were three civilians killed and six wounded, and over 50 buildings damaged in the shelling of Mariupol the previous weekend.
Not many people believe any longer in February’s ceasefire agreement. Everyone, from a market seller to a military commander, volunteers and even the city’s mayor blame Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and Renat Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine (and Mariupol’s biggest employer) for all of Mariupol’s troubles.
Meanwhile, this group the authorities call “the separatists of Mariupol” is calling for thousands of Ukrainian military defending the city to withdraw from Mariupol’s outskirts. “We want our boys, who are fighting for united Donbas on the other side of the front line, to return back home,” says Valentina, a blond woman with a bright scarf around her shoulders. She and her friends Lyuba, Alexander, and six other retired men and women never miss the daily meetings between 1 and 3 p.m., they said.
When the head of local police recently approached the group, the activists sent him to hell or, as Russians say, “to three letters.”
The situation with daily anti-Ukrainian protests in the heart of Mariupol upsets the city’s 71-year-old mayor, Yuri Khotlubei. He sees last year’s conflict developing again before his eyes. But it’s not a matter for him to handle, he says.
“I hope our security service will react—such gatherings of old people resulted in adisastrous revolt and clashes that killed over 20 people last year, and left dozens wounded,” Khotlubei tells The Daily Beast. “As if we did not learn the lesson last year.” The mayor remembers all too well when “separatist militants” appointed themselves leading positions at city hall, threatening the lives of public servants in his administration.
But as Khotlubei prepares to retire in less than two months, after 17 years in office, he doesn’t hesitate to criticize Ukrainian leaders and tycoons as well, especially Renat Akhmetov, who owns many factories in the Donetsk region. “The talk of the town is that this tycoon Akhmetov will appoint all our deputies and a new mayor of Mariupol at the October election,” Khotlubei told The Daily Beast.
Like many others in the city, he resents what he sees as Kiev’s indifference. “We did not hear a word of condolence from our leadership, neither on state television nor in print media—no sympathy for civilians killed last weekend—as if the shelling of Mariupol has become some ordinary thing. People complain of injustice, they lose their trust, they criticize us bitterly,” the mayor said.
Ukrainian military commanders also criticized Kiev. “We counted and registered hundreds of trucks with contraband goods going both to Europe on the Western border and to the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist territories,” the commander of the Donbas Battalion, who goes by the name Gal, told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “Poroshenko and [Prime Minister Arseniy] Yatesenyuk must be making money on contraband goods, on this war. … The biggest fifth column is not on the square of Mariupol but among the leadership in Kiev.”
Peace in Mariupol depends on political will and the results of the upcoming October elections, volunteers at the pro-Ukraine tent camp told The Daily Beast. In the past year the city, with a budget of less than $100 million, took in over 70,000 displaced persons, 40,000 of whom were pensioners and about 500 of whom were kindergarten children. “Unfortunately, young professionals prefer to leave Mariupol, as they see no prospects here,” said Galina Odnorog, a local leader of volunteers.
She and her supporters set up the tent camp of Ukrainian patriots in front of the burned administration building to collect signatures against “demilitarization.” They want to make sure the army is not withdrawn from Mariupol. And Odnorog managed to grab President Poroshenko twice at public meetings and get his word that Mariupol would not be abandoned. A banner stretched between the trees by the camp reads: “Mariupol people achieved their goal: demilitarization is not going to happen.” In these perilous times, it was a little victory that made the volunteers proud.