14 Apr 2014

Telling the truth in Ukraine’s land of mirrors

The fat man in the balaclava, on the bridge leading into Slaviansk, was quite clear. We could film the checkpoint, as long as we allowed his pet local TV team to film us.

And so we did. And then we filmed them filming us. Sometimes it seems that Ukraine is a land of mirrors and propaganda.

There were a dozen old ladies holding crucifixes, praying behind an icon in front of tyres at the checkpoint. Some 20 Molotov cocktails were hidden behind the tyres.

“Tell the truth,” shouted the man in the balaclava. “You can come in, but if you don’t tell the truth I will take you to court.” He pointed at the local TV team and said: “They are my witnesses.”

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Who is telling the truth? Last night the acting Ukrainian president, Oleksander Turchynov, said that the pro-Russian men (mostly in balaclavas) who have occupied government buildings in several towns in the Donetsk region must leave by 9am this morning. Then he said a major anti-terror operation would start.

9am came and went. Armed, masked men took another government building in another town, Horlivka. There was no sign of the Ukrainian government offensive.

It’s not the first deadline that the government in Kiev has given, and every time it makes a threat it does not fulfil, it looks weaker. In fact, Mr Turchynov, about an hour after the deadline, said he was not against the idea of holding a national referendum that might result in greater autonomy for Ukraine’s eastern regions.

The authorities in Kiev know that President Putin is trying to undermine themĀ – and that’s not difficult. They seized power after former president Yanukovych fled in February, and until there is an election they have no real legitimacy.
By announcing they agree a referendum on the status of the east, they may hope to placate Russian speakersĀ – but they may then alienate their core support in western Ukraine.

When we got to Horlivka it didn’t look at if those who had defied the deadline and seized the Interior Ministry building were going to be interested in any referendum or edict from Kiev. They had chased away other journalists, accusing them of being American spies.

We parked around the corner and got our driver to check whether it would be safe for us to film. After 10 minutes he came back, shaking his head. The crowd of men, many armed with sticks, were rabidly anti-western and saw any European journalist as a supporter of the hated government in Kiev.

It’s not clear whether President Putin really wants to annex eastern Ukraine, as he did Crimea. But if his aim is to put the government in Kiev and its western backers on the defensive, and make them look weak and indecisive, then he is succeeding in his aim.

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