DONETSK/LVIV, Ukraine (Reuters) - Kiev is the stage for Ukraine’s political drama, but the script was written in its borderlands.
While the capital is convulsed by protests, the East-West tensions tugging at Ukraine are perhaps felt most in Donetsk and Lviv, two cities more than 1,000 km (600 miles) apart which are divided by history and - for some - a sense of the future.
In the one city, the demonstrations against President Viktor Yanukovich are a threat to the nation. In the other, opposition to his decision to reject a deal with the European Union and turn to Moscow is a struggle for self-preservation.
“These protests are a disgrace,” said Viktor Chernov, a mechanic at a steel factory in Donetsk, a gritty industrial city near the eastern frontier with Russia. “If they go on for another two weeks, there will be no pensions, no wages, the whole economy will collapse.”
Chernov’s mixed feelings of scorn and anxiety are widely shared in Donetsk, Yanukovich’s powerbase where cultural, linguistic and economic ties with Russia are deep.
They contrast starkly with the overwhelming mood in Lviv, about 60 km from Ukraine’s western border with EU member Poland. There, Andriy Kornat, a deputy in Lviv’s provincial parliament, spends his days sending men to Kiev to join the protests which have rocked the capital for the past two weeks.
About 7,000 people have gone in the last week, he said, mainly men with military experience over the age of 21. White fabric adorns Lviv’s central square, painted with a local expression of hope: “Christmas without Yanukovich!”
Kornat contrasts western Ukraine, much of which lived under the Habsburg monarchy until the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed after World War One, with the east.
“We have a totally different mentality,” he told Reuters. “We were part of the Habsburg Empire. To our east were always the Russians. We’ve always felt pressure from them, but now it’s reached the point at which we have to fight for self- preservation.”
Though native Russian speakers make up nearly 40 percent of the eastern Donbass region where Donetsk lies, the East-West divide is less an issue of ethnicity than of thinking.
“We are all Ukrainians” is a common refrain across the country, and protesters in Kiev chanted this week: “East and West together!”
But differences among Ukrainians over their world view have been increasingly exposed since the 2004-05 Orange Revolution tilted policy westward for the first time since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. This goes back generations.
In the east, subject to the Russian empire for centuries, many people speak Russian as their first language and see Moscow as a source of stability. In the west, some see Russians as imperialists who oppressed their country in the Soviet era.
Yanukovich, cast by his critics as the villain of 2004-05 when protesters overturned a fraudulent election he had won, finally took the presidency in 2010 largely with the votes of eastern Ukraine.
A Russian-speaker, Yanukovich infuriated his opponents last month when he backed out - under pressure from Moscow - of the EU trade and integration pact that had been years in the making.
About 350,000 people poured into the streets of Kiev at the weekend and thousands continue to blockade the downtown in what Yanukovich’s foes hope will become a re-run of the Orange Revolution. Many of those manning the barricades are from western Ukraine.
Yanukovich says he still wants his sprawling country of 46 million people to move closer to Europe, but that the cost of implementing the pact now would ravage the economy. It would be better to deepen trade relations with Russia, he argued.
“Now we have to take a break and seek a compromise that balances our ties with Europe and with Russia,” said Tatiana Orekhova, a professor of economics at Donetsk University. “We need both markets, and the protesters’ slogans provide no answers.”
Donbass region, which accounts for about a fifth of Ukraine’s industrial production and export revenues, sold $3.1 billion worth of goods each to Europe and to Russia in 2012.
The EU, led by Italy, buys mostly metals and other commodities from Ukraine, while Russia is an important customer for machinery and other manufactured goods.
Heavy industry in Donbass once attracted people from all over the Soviet Union, including the family of local oligarch Rinat Akhmedov, a Tatar and one of the world’s 50 richest men.
“Historically this region is Russian. National borders drawn up by the Bolsheviks after the founding of the Soviet Union were completely artificial,” said Lyudmila Gordeyeva, deputy leader of an organization representing ethnic Russians in Ukraine.
Mykola Zagoruyko, a senior city official of Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, said the president had no choice but to turn to Russia for help and to secure trade. “Factories and mines would have closed within six months, the working class of the country would have suffered,” he told Reuters. “Those students out protesting on the square in Kiev have never had to earn a penny.”
The demonstrators do have sympathizers in Donetsk, a city of almost one million people founded in the 19th century by Welsh businessman John Hughes. But the couple of dozen people who gathered one cold evening this week to sing the national anthem and collect donations for the Kiev protesters were a sorry sight compared with the huge crowds in the capital.
“We do feel a bit isolated here,” said one of the Donetsk protesters, lawyer Volga Sheyko. She insisted more people would join, but said they feared losing their jobs in a city dominated by Party of Regions.
In Lviv, baroque and neo-classical architecture gives the city the air of a central European capital and contrasts with Soviet-era buildings of Kiev. Some residents use history to explain their grievances.
“The difference between us and the rest of Ukraine is that we knew that the Soviets were lying to us, just the way that this bandit government is lying to us today,” complained 53-year-old pensioner Slavik Khushchik, who said his grandfather fought with nationalist guerrillas against Soviet forces during World War Two.
One popular Lviv restaurant takes its theme from the guerrillas; World War Two uniforms and weapons adorn the walls, alongside a picture of Stalin bearing a target on his forehead.
At the mayor’s office, the EU flag flies from the window. Mayor Andriy Sadovyy raised it shortly before the central government announced on November 21 that the EU pact would not be signed. Ukraine’s present is explained by its past, he said.
“We have different stories but we are still Ukrainians. We are ... one of the youngest states in the world and we are going through a very difficult time.”
Writing by Matt Robinson; editing by David Stamp