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Kharkiv torn between Europe and Russia

Most people in Kharkiv want nothing but peace. However, the metropolis in Ukraine's east, close to the Russian border, has recently seen violent protests aimed at the new regional government. Tensions are running high.

Ukraine's blue and yellow flag is flying again at Kharkiv's administrative headquarters in the country's east. A dozen police officers in full armor have been blocking off the building's entrance. Hundreds of security forces line up in the courtyard and on Kharkiv's Freedom Square; they are sitting in buses, some are standing at the roadside. Kharkiv's authorities want to show power.

Pediatrician and newly appointed governor Ihor Baluta, 43, has needed police protection since he took on the task of heading the regional administration in this part of eastern Ukraine. Just a few days ago, Baluta was part of the regional council - he was a member of opposition party Fatherland, led by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. After the recent government change in Kyiv, former supporters of Tymoshenko have taken over many key positions in Ukraine.

Violent pro-Russian demonstrators

Kharkiv, which was founded some 360 years ago, has a population of 1.5 million and is the second largest city in Ukraine. It has always been influenced by Russia - the Russian border is just 40 kilometers (25 miles) away. Russian is the native language for most of Kharkiv's citizens. During Soviet times, Kharkiv was a thriving city known for its arms industry, among others. Today, though, most of the manufacturers here struggle to survive.

Ukraine police (photo: DW/R.Goncharenko)

Police are all over Kharkiv's Freedom Square

Newly appointed governor Baluta cannot feel safe in Kharkiv, because this city - unlike Kyiv - is not a stronghold for pro-Western supporters. Many have been in favor of toppled President Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions. But when Yanukovych fled from Kyiv to Kharkiv, hardly anyone took to the streets to support him. His politics seem to have disappointed people here.

Just a couple of days ago, thousands of radical demonstrators beat up the hopelessly outnumbered supporters of the new leadership in Kyiv. The region's headquarters came under attack and a Russian flag was installed on the administrative building. Many people were injured. According to reports by Ukrainian media, at least parts of the demonstrators came by bus - from Russia.

Things have calmed down by now. Here and there, there are demonstrations against the new power in Kyiv and those supporting them. Half a dozen pensioners stand at the edge of the Freedom Square. They call themselves "Kharkiv resistance" and are on the lookout for new activists. But the opponents of governor Baluta don't have much success as many passers-by don't even look at them when they stroll by.

Tensions high in the city-center

Tensions are high here on the square. They don't want to talk to a journalist from Germany, either. "Get lost, everyone in the West is a liar anyway," said a woman full of hatred. Slowly, they agree to talk. "We don't accept the new government and the interim president in Kyiv," an older man said. "They are all fascists and nationalists," he added, pointing to right-wing populists from Western Ukraine. The man doesn't care that most of Ukrainians don't share their view when it comes to the protest movement against Yanukovych. The new regional government in Kharkiv is not a legitimate one, either, he said.

Ukraine communists demonstrating in Kharkiv (photo: DW/R. Goncharenko)

Ukraine's communists have set up camp, calling for closer ties with Russia

His view is echoed by a couple of women who are standing at a Lenin memorial close by. It's where Ukrainian communists have put up a tent to drum up support for closer ties with Russia. "We don't want to be in Europe," an older lady screamed. "You Europeans want to force our children to get sex education when they are four years old." She is very upset and deadly serious.

Russia did nothing wrong when it comes to Crimea, the group said. They don't believe that Ukraine and Russia will go to war.

Andrij, a man in his mid-30s, also doesn't believe that Russian troops will invade Kharkiv. He introduces himself as one of the protests' organizers. He wears a ribbon with orange and black stripes on his right arm - this Saint George ribbon is used by people mostly in Russia who claim to be patriots. It's a well-known symbol for military valor in Russia. However, Andrij doesn't want Kharkiv to split from Ukraine and become a part of Russia. "We want more autonomy," he said. Ukraine should become a federation.

Message of peace

Those are the opinions of a few single activists. Most people in Kharkiv share the view of two students of physics here at the Freedom Square: "We don't really care much for politics," they said, adding that all politicians were corrupt anyway. "Europe doesn't want to admit Ukraine, but Russia does," the young woman said. But she wants Ukraine to have good relations with both of them.

Kharkiv's Theater for Russian Drama has a similar message for its audience: "We want peace," actors said in a video message. That's a rather unusual step for the traditional theater, art director Anatoli Kubanzew told DW. "We believe there are powers that want to see Ukraine weakened or torn to pieces," he said.

That's why he and his actors appeal to all people in Kharkiv to keep calm and preserve peace.

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