A Ukraine City Spins Beyond the Government’s Reach

Feb 17th, 2014 | By | Category: Events, In Depth, National Security, News, Politics, Protests, Ukraine


Young masked men guarding the entrance to the Lviv Region State Administration. They seized the offices of the governor, Oleh Salo, and do not let him enter. Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Young masked men guarding the entrance to the Lviv Region State Administration. They seized the offices of the governor, Oleh Salo, and do not let him enter. Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

LVIV, UKRAINE — Oleh Salo, the Ukrainian state’s senior representative in this western region, was hard at work keeping up appearances. He had just completed a new budget, he explained, and had an urgent meeting with the newly appointed local chief of Ukraine’s security service.

Yet, Mr. Salo, the governor, expelled by protesters from his suite of offices on the second floor of the Lviv Region State Administration, is virtually powerless, scurrying between makeshift temporary quarters as he struggles to maintain an increasingly threadbare illusion that his boss, Ukraine’s embattled President Viktor F. Yanukovych, is still running this breakaway part of the country.

“We now have two powers here, a formal one that is not real and is not recognized by anyone, and people power,” said Andriy Sokolev, a local trade union head who led about 2,000 antigovernment protesters in storming the governor’s offices in late January.

In a cosmopolitan city of beguiling beauty that has been tossed over the centuries between Polish, Austrian and Russian overlords, these are tumultuous times.

Three months after the outbreak of demonstrations in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, over Mr. Yanukovych’s decision to spurn a trade deal with Europe and tilt toward Russia, power has shifted decisively here in the western half of this divided country, where the president has never had much support.

Seeking to ease a volatile stalemate in the capital, the authorities in Kiev on Friday said they had freed all 234 people who had been arrested, mostly for taking part in violent clashes last month with the police.

The opposition has also sought to ease tensions, with a leading opposition party, Svoboda, saying on Saturday that it was ready to end its occupation of Kiev City Hall. But other groups like Right Sector, a coalition of hard-line forces with deep roots in western Ukraine, said seized buildings should remain occupied until Mr. Yanukovych resigned and all criminal proceedings against protesters were halted.

In sharp contrast to Kiev, where the Soviet-built center of the city has been taken over by noisy protesters and throbs night and day to the din of fiery speeches and chants for Mr. Yanukovych to step down, there are few outward signs of turmoil on Lviv’s cobblestone streets. The architecture traces the city’s past, from the colonnaded relics of the Hapsburg Empire, to the mansions of long-gone Polish nobles and the homes of vanished Jewish and Armenian traders.

The state, its administration under siege, is having trouble paying pensions and other welfare payments but the police patrol the streets and even Mr. Salo, the widely detested governor, says he can walk around the city without fear.

The regional council, or legislature, firmly in the hands of the opposition, on Thursday passed the budget prepared by Mr. Salo, a sign, the president’s allies in Kiev say, that common ground can still be found.

The calm reflects the fact that the city and the surrounding Lviv Region have largely achieved what protesters in Kiev have been demanding since November: the end, at least for now, of the authority of Mr. Yanukovych.

Nearly three weeks after being ejected from his offices, the governor still cannot enter the administration building, where the entrance is now guarded by young masked men with wooden clubs and sealed off by a high barricade of rubber tires. A statue in the lobby is draped with the flag of the European Union.

In an interview in a room hastily borrowed from the regional cultural department, the governor said that he was away from his office when the protesters stormed in and that he received a panicked call on his mobile phone. “Please save us. You have to do something to save us,” he recalled a staff member screaming.

The governor rushed back to see what was going on and, confronted by the angry crowd, resigned. He later withdrew his resignation, saying it had been given under duress.

No one was hurt in the attack, which followed a December decision by the regional council to cancel the governor’s office lease, a move initially meant as only a symbolic act of protest against President Yanukovych. Administration buildings have also been seized in at least two other western regions, and more radical elements, like Mr. Sokolev who led the occupation in Lviv, warn of fierce resistance if the authorities deploy weapons against protesters.

“If they use force, we would use counterforce,” Mr. Sokolev said, noting that hunting rifles are easy to find. The government in Kiev has accused the opposition of stockpiling weapons.

Mr. Sokolev, who declared himself “commandant” after the January seizing of the regional administration, has stumbled in rallying support for his militant line. Hit by a bout of bronchitis, he now sits at home with his family, fuming that what he thought was a revolution has not yet secured a more decisive victory across the whole country.

But so strong is the tide running against the president in Lviv that even his local supporters are jumping ship. “People appointed by Yanukovych are not accepted here at all,” said Petro Pysarchuk, a wealthy Lviv businessman and chairman of the now-moribund Lviv branch of the president’s Party of Regions.

Such sentiments highlight just how few options Mr. Yanukovych has as he struggles to survive a political crisis that has ballooned into a Cold War-style struggle between East and West. He traveled to Sochi, Russia, last Friday for the opening of the Winter Olympic Games and talks with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin. The Kremlin has indicated it wants Mr. Yanukovych to take firm action against the protesters.

Oleh Salo, the governor, has to shuttle between makeshift quarters in Lviv, an opposition stronghold in western Ukraine. Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Oleh Salo, the governor, has to shuttle between makeshift quarters in Lviv, an opposition stronghold in western Ukraine. Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

The battle, however, has already been lost in Lviv, a bastion of nationalist resistance to control by Moscow during the Soviet Union and, in recent months, a powerful engine driving the insurgency against Mr. Yanukovych.

“How can you give orders when nobody is listening?” asked Lviv’s elected mayor, Andriy Sadovyy, a firm ally of the president’s pro-Europe foes. Aligned with protesters, the municipal administration, unlike that of the governor, still functions normally.

Mr. Yanukovych’s last potent lever of influence here, the troops of the Interior Ministry’s western region command, has been disabled by barricades set up by antigovernment activists to prevent soldiers from leaving their barracks.

Andriy Porodko, a 29-year-old fairground concession-holder in command of the barricades, acknowledged that the flimsy barriers could easily be swept aside by a single armored personnel carrier. But he is gambling that, despite declarations of loyalty to Mr. Yanukovych from the Defense and Interior Ministries, troops in Lviv will balk at following any orders that risk spilling blood.

Fueled by bitter memories of Soviet repression, the anger at Mr. Yanukovych is so deep in western Ukraine that “some suggest we should separate to try and maintain some form of normal life,” said Myroslav Marynovych, vice rector of the Lviv-based Ukrainian Catholic University.

A former dissident who spent 10 years in Soviet prison camps, Mr. Marynovych said Ukrainian nationalists like himself had no desire to rip apart the nation they struggled so long to achieve, but would do whatever it took to avoid being dragged back into Russia’s orbit, which they see as Mr. Yanukovych’s objective.

Separating from mainly Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine to the east, he added, is “certainly not part of our program, but we have to have a plan B, a plan C and even a plan D.”

In many ways, however, Lviv has already seceded as authority has drained away from Mr. Yanukovych and his government in Kiev, still without a prime minister more than two weeks after the last one resigned.

Mr. Salo, the governor without an office, predicted that, one way or another, the central government would restore its grip but noted that Lviv’s “insurgent spirit” has always made it resistant to outside authority. “This struggle has been going on for 400 years,” he said. “Our region has never accepted authority.”

Some of the president’s longtime opponents here have taken an increasingly radical line.

Offering inspiration and advice has been Yuriy Shukhevych, a blind veteran nationalist who spent 31 years in Soviet prisons and labor camps and whose father, Roman, led the Ukrainian Insurgent Army against Polish and then Soviet rule.

Mr. Shukhevych, 80, who lost his sight during his time in the Soviet gulag, helped guide the formation of Right Sector, an unruly organization whose fighters now man barricades around Independence Square, the epicenter of the protest movement in Kiev.

Mr. Sadovyy, Lviv’s mayor, said Mr. Yanukovych and his supporters had exaggerated the risk of extremism to scare people into submission. But he added that they should not ignore the region’s passions to join Europe and to stay out of the orbit of Russia, which, well into the 1950s, was still hunting down Ukrainian nationalist fighters sheltering in the forests around the city.

“There is not a single family in Lviv that doesn’t remember the repression, that doesn’t have relatives who were killed, sent to the camps or forced to emigrate,” he said.

He acknowledged that many people have unrealistic hopes for what Europe can bring, noting that “everyone is waiting for a miracle but miracles happen only in fairy tales.”

But unlike Ukrainians living in the east of the country, people in the west have seen with their own eyes how nearby towns across the border in Poland that were poor and miserable when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 have been transformed by subsidies and investment from the European Union.

“Poland is only an hour away by car,” Mr. Sadovyy said. “People can see the changes there and ask, ‘Why has nothing changed here?’ ”

Source: The New York Times

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