Federalism and Its Discontents

Letter from Kharkiv

Over the last few weeks, as it became clearer that Crimea would end up joining Russia one way or another, a question mark has hung over Ukraine’s other largely Russia-speaking eastern regions. In cities such as Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Luhansk, tensions rose between pro-Russian protesters and those who backed Kiev’s “Euromaidan” protests and the departure of former President Viktor Yanukovych. Meanwhile, Moscow seemed determined to stir up trouble there, whether by pushing for federalism or, as many in Kiev now fear, military intervention. What happens in these cities over the coming weeks will be decisive for Ukraine and the region. 

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, is where former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko -- Yanukovych’s arch-nemesis -- was imprisoned until her release last February. It is also where Yanukovych first fled before disappearing and showing up later in Russia. The area defies black-and-white linguistic categorization: the 2001 census lists the city of Kharkiv as predominantly Russian-speaking, but Ukrainian is the main language in the surrounding region. “I don't think language is dividing us,” Serhiy Zhadan, a celebrated writer who hails from Kharkiv but writes in Ukrainian, said recently, after he and several dozen protesters were beaten up in Kharkiv.“It's what we say in these languages that is dividing us.”

In Kharkiv, the action has centered on the city’s vast Freedom Square, which is home to a particularly impressive statue of Lenin. As similar statues were toppled across Ukraine last month, pro-Russian demonstrators rallied to protect this one. On March 1, pro-Russian protesters stormed the regional administrative building (located on the far side of the square) and raised the Russian flag above it. Dozens of pro-Maidan demonstrators were injured; some were taken onto a stage in the square, where they were forced to kneel and kiss the Russian flag. Later that month, just a day ahead of the vote in Crimea to secede from Ukraine, two men were killed in a shootout in the city center.

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