Ukraine students seek a middle way

A new colour has emerged in Ukraine’s polarised political spectrum. Students in Kharkov, worried by the escalating confrontation between Viktor Yushchenko’s orange revolutionaries and the blue-and-white supporters of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, have established a “green’’ movement called We Are for Peace! with the aim of bringing the two sides together.

Camped out on Kharkov’s freezing central square since Saturday night, the students have organised a football match between mixed teams from both sides and distributed more than 1 000 green ribbons each day.

On Wednesday they erected a Christmas tree on the square, inviting each side to knot orange and blue ribbons on its branches.

“We were concerned to prevent a physical clash between the two groups,’’ said Dmitry Tkachev (22), a postgraduate student at Kharkov State University. “It had reached the stage where 12-year-old children were having fights in school over the candidates.

“We want to make people think whether they are being used by politicians to achieve their self-interested aims.’‘

Seen from Kharkov, the capital of Ukraine until 1934, events in Kiev look very different.
People feel that insults thrown at Yanukovich by the opposition are also directed personally at them.

About 44% of the region’s three million people consider themselves Russian — the figure is even higher in the city — and feel threatened by what they see as the opposition’s hostility to Russia and insistence on the primacy of the Ukrainian language.

On Friday a meeting of regional political and industrial bosses in the city issued a call for autonomy for eastern Ukraine. The idea of breaking away from western Ukraine strikes a chord with many people in Kharkov, who see the orange opposition as giving them no alternative.

“I’m not in favour of autonomy, but if Yushchenko and Yanukovich can’t sort things out between themselves then I wouldn’t vote against, it’s the only way to avoid civil war,’’ said Oleg (27), a dentist whose first language is Russian. “I am a Ukrainian, yet western Ukrainians say I am not. They want division along linguistic lines.’’

Since 1991 teaching in schools has moved almost entirely to Ukrainian. Children and teachers speak it in class but switch to Russian in the playground and at home.

Yevgeniya (33), a stallholder, said she speaks Ukrainian badly but is glad her son is being taught in it at school. “There should be a single state language. But I don’t want to be forced to speak Ukrainian myself.  Dividing the country is wrong, but if it comes to a referendum then I’ll vote yes to autonomy.’‘

These are moderate opinions. A reader’s letter to the city’s largest newspaper, Vremya, says: “The western regions only joined our country in 1939. If they want so much to be with the west, let them ‘disunite’ once more. Why do western Ukrainians want to deny democracy to workers in the east who voted for Yanukovich?’‘

The “Russian question” has a recent history in Kharkov. In 1994 Leonid Kuchma, now the outgoing President, promised to make Russian the country’s second state language. He then dropped the issue until Yanukovich raised it again in the election campaign, reopening old wounds.

But autonomy is fraught with dangers for Ukraine. On Monday a meeting of 200 city councillors, backed by a large crowd outside, voted overwhelmingly to condemn talk of separation. A group of leading businessmen in the neighbouring Donetsk region also issued a call to stop all talk of breaking away, though the regional legislature on Wednesday scheduled a referendum next month on greater autonomy from central government.

Yevgen Kushnaryov, Kharkov’s regional governor who sparked the autonomy debate, has been back-pedalling fast. Days later he claimed the issue was now a damp squib.

“On Friday there was a threat that things were going the same way as in west Ukraine and I would be removed from my post,’’ he told The Guardian newspaper.

“So I had to take measures to ensure that the administration could continue to function. We didn’t want what happened in Kiev to be repeated in Kharkov.’’ — Â

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