The Russian-speaking eastern industrial city of Dnipropetrovsk is just 150 miles from the separatist capital of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Yet, in strong contrast to war-torn Donetsk, it is quiet and peaceful, “calm as a cemetery,” says a taxi driver on the ride into town from the train station. Dubbed the “Lviv of the East” by the Ukrainian press, the city has instead seen a resurgence of patriotism in the last months. Ukrainian flags fly from balconies, some residents have painted their cars in national colors, and a supersize blue-and-yellow Ukrainian trident graces the entire side of a multi-story building on the Dnieper river.
The pro-Ukrainian revanche in this key swing city in eastern Ukraine has been made possible by the brash tactics of the region’s new governor, Igor Kolomoisky, an oligarch who also owns PrivatBank, the nation’s largest bank. Since being appointed governor by the transitional Kiev government in March, Kolomoisky moved swiftly to snip separatist sentiments in the bud. The leaders of the 1,500-strong pro-Russian demonstrations in the city center were quickly appeased with offers of more patriotic education, protection of Communist-era monuments, and promises of more power sharing with Kiev.
Meanwhile, Kolomoisky’s bank also offered a highly publicized reward of $10,000 for the capture of pro-Russian separatists. The pro-Russian demonstrations swiftly dwindled in number, until none were being organized. Hard-core Moscow supporters like Oleg Tsarev, a local parliament member, were chased out of town with bounties their heads. With a $500,000 reward being offered by PrivatBank for Tsarev’s capture, he has decided to cool his heels in Moscow. His palatial residence in the center of the city has been taken over by the government and turned into a refugee center for displaced citizens from the East.
“Dnipropetrovsk will become a Second Stalingrad for those who want war here. And the Ukrainians will win,” threatened Deputy Governor Gennady Korban on local television.
While these bold initiatives have stanched the separatist threat for now, Kolomoisky is not taking any chances. He has also spent over $10 million creating his own citizen militia, the Dnipro Battalion, which has been supplied with SUVs, semi-automatics, and new uniforms. The governor’s private army has set up armed checkpoints around the city, and now controls traffic into and out of the city. It also makes forays into separatist territory, and was reportedly behind the separatist massacre in nearby Mariupol after pro-Russians took control of a police station. The entire station was burned down, along with those inside.
While these strong-arm tactics have been criticized by some, the governor enjoys strong support from the local population. “I don’t care if he’s like Hitler, as long as he prevents war coming here,” says a local restaurateur. With more refugees from the troubled East arriving every day, and ominous reports of war dominating the news, residents are counting their blessings and hoping that their city stays unscathed.
“Julia Timoshenko [former prime minister and presidential candidate] was our local hero. Now it’s Kolomoisky, no question about it,” says Tsenia Tokaruik, a journalist with the Evening Dnipropetrovsk, which won an award last week for the country’s best regional paper.
It’s interesting that Kolomoisky himself is Jewish, putting the lie to the Kremlin’s propaganda about the “fascists and neo-Nazis” behind the revolution in Kiev. Although not openly religious, he was instrumental in building Menorah, a seven-towered Jewish community center in Dnipropetrovsk, said to be the largest in the world. The city is home to Ukraine’s largest Jewish community, which has spawned many of the country’s prominent oligarchs, including Victor Pinchuk. Residents are quick to point out the city’s multi-cultural nature to visiting journalists like myself, counting Georgians, Armenians, Turks, and others among its citizens.
It’s possibly this culture of tolerance—along with Kolomoisky’s gung-ho tactics—that has saved this city from the fate of its eastern neighbors. However, the spraying of an incoming train from Donetsk with machine gun fire last week, and the fatal stabbing of a pro-Ukrainian in the center of the city, have jangled nerves. Many fear that Kolomoisky, who has boldly called Putin a “schizophrenic of short stature,” might suffer the same fate as Kharkiv’s former mayor, Gennady Kernes, who was shot in the back while out for a swim.
“He has to tread very carefully,” says Tokaruik. “There are still many pro-Russians amongst us. The situation could change for the worse in the blink of an eye.”