In recent weeks Eastern Ukraine have become steadily more violent and intolerant. Journalists have been kidnapped, politicians murdered, protests broken up and now seven foreign observers are being held hostage. These are not actions carried out by ‘peaceful protesters’, as Russia Today would call them. So what exactly happened in all these incidents? And what does it say about the future of Eastern Ukraine?
Kidnapping of journalists
The most high profile journalist to be kidnapped in the region was Simon Ostrovsky of VICE News, who has become known worldwide for his series of reports from Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. His reporting was honest and fair, allowing people on both sides of the conflict to speak for themselves, and he seems to have an amazing ability to turn up at the right place at the right time. Due to his reporting, he was picked up by separatists and held captive for three days. While being held captive he was beaten and held handcuffed and blindfolded. Other journalists have been harassed, had guns held to their heads, or also been detained. It’s a clear effort by the separatists to scare off journalists and allow their version of events to dominate.
However, it’s worth noting that the Ukrainian government has not been innocent in this either. Numerous Russian journalists have been stopped from entering the country. The Ukrainian state institution itself also has a bad history of oppressing journalists. In the 90s, just like in Russia today, journalists were a common target for assassination.
Murder of politicians
The worst case of this so far has been the murder of a city councilman in Horlivka. By all accounts Vladimir Rybak was an outspoken man who was active in the city, and was known to be against the separatists. He made the ‘mistake’ of trying to take down a rebel flag flying in Horlivka, and was last seen been led away by masked separatists. Days later his body was found in a river – he had been tortured to death. His murder sends a terrible message to anyone else considering speaking out for a united Ukraine.
The attempted murder of the mayor of Kharkiv is a much murkier story. Unlike Vladimir Rybak, it’s unclear who shot Gennady Kernes in the back while he was out cycling. Known for allegedly being linked to organised crime, he was formerly anti-Maidan, but switched after the revolution to supporting a united Ukraine. The mayor is still alive, and is being treated in Israel, but the assassination attempt is another sign of the increasing lawlessness in the East.
Attacks on unity protests
Throughout this crisis, protests for Ukrainian unity have been repeatedly attacked. Early in the Crimea crisis a unity protests in central Donetsk was attacked by a large group of pro-Russians. Video taken by Vice News shows how protesters were surrounded by a mob and then attacked. One man was stabbed to death.
On Monday events repeated themselves, when a peaceful pro-unity protest was confronted by pro-Russians armed with clubs. One journalist live-tweeted the attack, as people were forced to run to avoid being beaten. Many riot police stood idly by while the Ukrainians were attacked, and over a dozen people were wounded. Despite opinion polls showing a majority of people in Donetsk want to remain with Ukraine, events such as this make it harder for that message to get out.
One of the most bizarre events in the last week has been the holding of seven foreign observers for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (Russia is a member). The observers were held by separatists while visiting Sloviansk, and one of the separatists’ leaders has accused them of being spies. He also indicated they could be swapped for arrested separatists. Furthermore, the observers were forced to appear before international media, who irresponsibly failed to ask if the observers had agreed to the conference. It’s a move that makes the separatists look even more illegitimate, and will further anger European leaders. The German foreign minister has called the press conference ‘repulsive’.
While many Eastern Ukrainians were against the Euromaidan movement, these recent separatist revolts are undeniably extremist and not supported by a majority of people. Russia and its local allies have cynically stirred the region up, and people like Vladimir Rybak have paid the price. And with the government admitting it is “helpless” to stop the unrest, it looks like Donetsk will remain a region of violence and fear for the foreseeable future.