Since Ukraine’s Supreme Court decided to repeat the presidential vote, opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko has focused his efforts on the country’s East, which stubbornly sticks to Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.
Not everyone in Ukraine waves orange flags for the opposition
In the run-up to next Sunday’s restaging of the presidential elections, the widely popular Yushchenko has spent a great deal of time traveling through the mostly Russian speaking eastern part of Ukraine. Although he is generally favored to win the election, his opponent, Kremlin-backed Yanukovych, has a loyal following among the miners in the eastern coal region of Donbas.
Half of the country’s 48 million population lives in the industrial east, where Russia still exerts a strong influence on the politics and economy and many regard the “orange revolution” in Kiev with a good deal of skepticism. During the initial campaign and in the aftermath as the country sunk into crisis, Yanukovych was the more popular candidate here, as miners and factory workers took to the streets to protest Kiev’s overturning of the initial election results.
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Now with only a week to go before the population returns to the ballot, Yuschenko is campaigning hard in Donbas. He wants to make sure his message gets out to these people and that they understand he aims to represent their interests as well. So far the mine workers aren’t buying it.
The enemy from the West
For the majority of the miners in eastern Ukraine, pro-western Yushchenko is an enemy. He was the country’s prime minister in the 1990s when the Donbas was shaken by a severe economic crisis.
"At the time the miners would go down the mine with empty stomachs. This only changed when Yanukovych came to power," said Sascha, a young coal worker, who traveled to Kiev to demonstrate for his favorite candidate.
A supporter of Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych during a meeting in Donetsk, an industrial city in eastern Ukraine
As prime minister, Yanukovych made sure that coal mining was subsidized and prevented the mines from closing and thousands of people losing their jobs. He is virtually a hero in the East.
"Since then we’ve had stability here. You can ask anyone in the region. Pensioners are able to take out loans and buy themselves TV-sets and refrigerators. But now this stability is at stake again because of this orange revolution," Sascha lamented.
Anatoli Gungarov, director of the Gaegova mine, which only seven years ago faced imminent closure, praises Yanukovych, who personally intervened to save the mine. Gungarov now worries about the future of mining if Yushchenko wins.
"It is possible to have a mine shaft working profitably. The government, the state, just has to fix the prices," he said. "It would be a crime to kill the goose just because it is not laying any more golden eggs. That would be the end of the mines."
A question of propaganda and survival
Supporters of opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko carry a huge sheaf of orange balloons, during mass rally in downtown, Kiev, Ukraine, Thursday, Dec. 2, 2004.
Sascha and his friends are so thoroughly behind Yanokovych that they went to Kiev to wave blue flags in the middle of orange-waving Yuschenko supporters. They knew they would be in the minority, but they felt it was important to show their views.
"I met the opposition. They have slogans like 'Miners you are being lied to' and I asked them: 'Sorry, what do you mean'," he said. "It was my own decision to go to Kiev; I wasn’t forced or paid for it. You have to be aware of the difference between truth and propaganda."
Sascha, like others in pro-Russian East Ukraine, believe the Yuschenko supporters are financed by the West. They say the opposition received money for all the orange-colored propaganda, the oranges and tangerines. They say the "orange mob" will eventually disappear once the money runs out and the capital Kiev will be clean again.
Ukraine's opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, left, and Pro-Moscow presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych shake hands after talks in Kiev, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2004.
The anger of the miners is being fuelled by the propaganda of the regional media, which report that if elected, Yushchenko will close down the mines. The local press also claims that the opposition candidate, who speaks Ukrainian, wants to force the national language on the region where Russian dominates.
In the Gaegova mine, the outcome of the election is clear. "If Yanukovych is elected, we will live," the miners chanted. "If Yushchenko comes to power, we can pack up and go."