A Bit of the Old Ultraviolence

On the streets of Eastern Ukraine, the droogs are loose and chaos reigns.

Ilya Pitalev/Kommersant Photo via Getty Images
Ilya Pitalev/Kommersant Photo via Getty Images

DONETSK, Ukraine—One sunny afternoon at the end of April, a group of youngsters made the short drive north from Kramatorsk, a small, industrial town in east Ukraine, to picnic by Lake Abazovka. For the group, it was a time to escape the violence that was consuming their hometown. There were eight of them: four men, three women, and a boy, ranging from eight years old to early thirties. They got to work setting up a barbecue. They’d just cracked open the first bottle of wine when six sturdy-looking men in sports attire approached looking for a fight.

One of the men, the first to speak, demanded to know whose side they were on, meaning were they for Russia, or Ukraine? Instinctively they knew that there’d be little to gain from expressing their pro-Ukrainian allegiance so Roman, 22, told them simply: "We’re on the side of peace." But pacifism was not an acceptable position in the New Donbass, the men told him, and they pressed the picnicking group again for an answer. When Roman and another of the men, Pavel, 32, reiterated a pacifist’s position, they were invited to "come for a walk," so that they could be "shown what peace really means." And then they led the four young men in the group a short distance away from the lake.

"They started beating us," says Roman, "which perhaps isn’t so unusual in Kramatorsk. It happens." But then, he says, he heard a deafening noise, a "clap — really loud, really sharp." At first he didn’t understand what had happened, but then he saw a hole had been shot clean through his friend’s hand. "Nobody saw the gun," Roman said. Even more frightening was how close his friend had been holding his hand to his body. "A few inches to the left and it would have gone into his stomach." The men left in a hurry, seemingly satisfied with their work. And the group of picnickers rushed their friend to a local hospital, where he was stitched up, bandaged, and given painkillers.

There was no question of reporting the incident to the Kramatorsk police. Ever since the chief of police, Vitaly Kolupai, was escorted out of the police station by armed pro-Russian forces on April 12, law enforcement in Kramatorsk has been on something of an extended holiday.

Calling the emergency number, 102, is an exercise in futility: The line will ring and ring without answer. Calling the non-emergency duty number, 6-99-73, yields similar results. The officers who remain on duty proudly wear their St. George ribbons — the adopted symbol of pro-Russian forces in the region. When asked, they say they wear them out of "patriotic duty." Those that don’t share their taste for such iconography are reported to be out "sick," which could mean anything from staying at home to being held against their will in neighboring Sloviansk. It’s been widely reported in Ukrainian media that Kolupai himself is being held in Sloviansk, the main operational base of the pro-Russian military in the region.

"It’s never been that easy getting through to the [Kramatorsk] police," says Svetlana, a journalist who works for the local newspaper. "But it’s never been this bad — that they don’t pick up the phone at all." She says that she plans on leaving town. Apart from the brewing confrontations and violence of the last few weeks, it’s been a difficult year for the paper. Falling sales and a lack of advertiser confidence has meant that last month’s wages dropped below $100, and there is little hope this month will be any better. One of the reporters says he has planted potatoes and beans just in case things get really bad. "It’s a good plan," says Svetlana. "Beans are meat." She fumbles in her handbag and produces a small, shot-sized bottle of Belarusian vodka, on sale locally for a few hyrvina. "This is where I am," she says. "Sometimes it’s the only way you can calm your nerves."

There was something surreal about the Kramatorsk streets in April. On the surface, people appeared to be going about their business like normal — women pushed prams, 20-somethings sat in cafes drinking Italian coffee, and excited toddlers pedaled around in rent-by-the-hour toy buggies. But just across the square, a dozen or so pro-Russian "little green men" wearing identical boots and fatigues were stationed in front at the occupied executive office building, every so often performing synchronized Kalashnikov drills for the handful of supporters gathered out front. The soldiers had been in place since April 21, when they came into town to take over from the mostly local militia, who had occupied the buildings since they were seized nine days earlier. It’s widely assumed that the new guard includes Russian citizens and trained soldiers; what is less clear is who is paying them, if indeed they are being paid at all.

It takes only a couple of targeted questions to bring the fear of ordinary people to the surface. Around the corner from the occupied police station, an elderly woman is selling newspapers from a small table. With a little coaxing, she opens up. "I’m scared," she said. "Not for myself — I’m just an old bird — but I don’t want the kids to go through what we went through 20 years ago." Indeed, just a few weeks ago, Kramatorsk was a reasonably stable and almost prosperous place, with working factories — a rarity in this part of the world. But during the 1990s, it was better known for its gangsters, who operated with impunity out of the 17th district in the old part of town. For those trying to lead honest lives here, the feeling of lawlessness on the streets has reignited fears that those wild years are returning.

The signs are worrying. Beginning April 27, groups of armed men began to walk coolly and confidently around town. There have now been reports of attacks on a showroom at a car dealership, and on a bank (specifically an armored truck). A week ago, leaflets were also distributed at the market in the old section of town, purportedly from the "Donetsk People’s Republic," claiming that traders would be required to pay "taxes" to the new authorities. Representatives of the Donetsk People’s Republic were quick to deny their involvement; indeed, why would anyone want to put these demands down on paper? But the pro-Russia militia’s response — visiting local newspaper offices in balaclavas and demanding that the paper print their denial (and that they be allowed to check all final proofs henceforth) — spoke volumes about their democratic intentions.

Some locals suggest Kramatorsk’s organized criminals may be supporting the pro-Russian militia. It was noted, for example, that "Sktrok" and "Komar," two recently-released gangsters from the 17th district, were in the supporting mob when the Kramatorsk police building was seized on April 12. Yet hard evidence beyond this is understandably vague. No local journalist dares to investigate the possible links. "You can pay with your head for such inquisitiveness," one said.

For any Ukrainian, the perils of investigative journalism are automatically associated with the name of Georgy Gongadze. Gongadze was a fearless, muckraking political journalist, abducted and brutally murdered in Kiev 14 years ago (some say on the orders of then-President Leonid Kuchma, though this has never been conclusively proven). Kramatorsk had its own "Gongadze" — a TV journalist by the name of Igor Aleksandrov. Prior to his untimely death in 2001, Aleksandrov was producing a series of programs that exposed the links between politicians, law enforcement, and organized crime in the town. The third episode of that series never went on air. According to witnesses, he was assaulted by three thugs carrying baseball bats as he entered his office in neighboring Sloviansk on July 3, leaving him with a cracked skull. He died in the hospital from the injuries
four days later.

Overseeing the investigation into his murder was regional prosecutor Viktor Pshonka, a major figure in the local Party of Regions hierarchy, and who would later become Ukraine’s prosecutor general under Yanukovych. A problem, however, was that Pshonka was one of two men Aleksandrov had identified as godfathering the Kramatorsk underworld. The initial investigation ended in a predictable whitewash, pinning blame for the journalist’s murder on a homeless man in December 2001. The innocent man was later acquitted in a local court of appeal six months later, but he was unable to enjoy freedom for long, dying under mysterious circumstances soon after; the same fate that befell the two witnesses and investigating police officer. When the case was re-opened by the general prosecutor in 2006, Aleksandrov’s likely killers were identified as members of the Rybaki gang — an organized criminal group working from the 17th district. They each received prison sentences of varying lengths.

If you want to understand police inaction, you need to first understand the pervasive intermingling of politics, business, and law enforcement in the region, says Oleksandr Kudinov, a former police inspector. Kudinov worked in the local force until 2003, and now heads a Donetsk-based NGO that fights wrongful imprisonment. He decided to leave, he says, when a system of winks and informal "understandings" had taken hold; when executive positions began to be routinely exchanged for cash or political favor; and when much of the system had become subordinate to the Party of Regions, the dominant political organization in the region, and its associated business clans. Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, the two militarized pro-Russian strongholds where government "anti-terrorist" operations are currently being undertaken, are notable for having particularly strong Party of Regions influence (in Kramatorsk via Pshonka and the former regional governor Anatoly Blizniuk; in Slavyansk via Mayor Nelya Shtepa and Oleksiy Azarov, the son of ex-Prime Minister Mykola Azarov). It is assumed that these administrative links had some say on the choice to for separatists to take over the towns, and the ease with which it happened.

Kudinov maintains good links with his former colleagues, and says that average official salaries of patrol officers in the region is just 2,500 hyrivna per month ($210). Unsurprisingly, much of the Donbass police rely on additional income from bribes and selling bureaucratic permissions to do business. For this reason, the force has never attracted the region’s most principled individuals, and shady deals with business are commonplace. As one local joke goes, the only way to tell a policeman from a criminal is the uniform. More charitably, one might say that economic factors keep police low on the regional power hierarchy, and often below political and criminal networks.

This is something I saw for myself two weeks ago, when a late night drink at a hotel bar in Donetsk was interrupted by six drunk and disgruntled men wearing wrestler masks and wielding metal rods. I recognized two of the men immediately, as they had been drinking at the bar 10 minutes earlier. The leader of the group, a short man who spent much time adjusting an ill-fitting mask, took the trouble of informing the waitress that there was a bounty of a $100 dollars for attacking journalists. It is impossible to know who might have been paying, or whether this was simply drunken bravado. Fortunately for me, the emergency number in the regional capital was still working, and our waitress had the courage to dial it. The police, who arrived within a few minutes, were able disperse the men. But they remained remarkably unconcerned throughout, and made no attempt to confiscate their weapons or make arrests.

I asked the officers why they took such a casual attitude toward the men who threatened us, and they gave a surprisingly honest answer: "If we arrest them, hundreds will come back, and we’d have a conversation of an entirely different nature."

When I asked if they knew who the assailants were, my question was initially met with silence, before one officer gave a slow nod of his head. "Don’t get too upset, my friend. You’re going to live," said he told me. "We’ve sorted things out without blood. Now, if we were to humiliate them with an arrest, that’s when you would really see them go crazy. Much better like this than any other way."

Over the weekend in Kramatorsk, government "anti-terrorist" divisions were reporting relative success in retaking part of the town — not an insignificant development in their battle to regain control of the region. This may, however, be a minor operation compared to the much larger process of undoing the networks that have provided cover for pro-Russian military operations to flourish.

For Sergei Furmanyuk, an investigative journalist, vice-chair of the Donetsk Public Council, and supporter of Yulia Tymoshenko (presidential candidate and arch-enemy of former President Yanukovych), recent events may, paradoxically, offer an opportunity for the region: the chance to identify who is honest and who is not. "It is a process that will have to start with appointments at the top," he says, though he quickly qualifies his statement: "Judging by the most recent rotation of regional police, however, it has yet to start."

That rotation saw critical positions (the regional head of police, the head of criminal investigations, and the head of criminal police) awarded to men working for Rinat Akhmetov, the controversial regional baron, whose ambiguous positions on the pro-Russian protests have raised many questions. Given the obvious failures in the jobs, Furmanyuk expects a fresh wave of appointments direct from Kiev, and, perhaps, a chance of a cleaner system in the region.

Some names have been changed for safety reasons.

Oliver Carroll is the managing editor of the Moscow Times. Follow him on Twitter at: @olliecarroll.