ZAPORIZHZHYA, Ukraine (Reuters) - A city in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine built on industry and blue collar workers, Zaporizhzhya is not normally a place of revolution.
Its population of 700,000 values employment and stability highly. In a 2010 election, 71 percent of voters there backed President Viktor Yanukovich, and it has long been a bastion of support for his Party of Regions.
But in a rare display of dissent in Ukraine’s sixth city, up to 5,000 anti-government protesters picketed the regional government headquarters last Sunday and demanded the resignation of the president-appointed local governor.
Alexander Peklushenko defied the crowds. Only “cowards and traitors resign ... I am a soldier of the president,” he is reported to have said.
Angry protesters pushed forward. Police responded with teargas and stun grenades. Those who refused to flee were attacked by elite Berkut riot police and hired “titushki” thugs, local witnesses said.
“These were normal, law-abiding people,” said protester Sergei Babkin, who watched as the clashes unfolded. “We are not the criminals or hooligans they say we are.”
The demonstration, triggered by growing anger at a government crackdown on demonstrations in Kiev some 700 km (440 miles) to the northwest, was tiny in comparison to events in the capital.
There rallies regularly attract tens of thousands of people, and protesters and riot police have clashed in sometimes fierce street battles. At least six people have been killed and hundreds injured during three months of turmoil.
But any sign of cracks in Yanukovich’s support in traditional strongholds like Zaporizhzhya will further undermine the embattled 63-year-old as he seeks to hold on to his job in the teeth of a determined opposition movement.
Ukraine has been gripped by a wave of social and political unrest since November, when Yanukovich walked away from an EU trade deal to pursue closer ties with Russia by agreeing on a $15 billion loan package.
The move drew strong reactions in both West and East Ukraine, which are traditionally split on ideology.
In the east, subject to centuries of Russian rule, many people see Moscow and its representatives in Ukraine as a source of stability. In the European-leaning West, many consider Russia an imperialist influence oppressing their native heritage.
Babkin, 24, says Zaporizhzhya has come to symbolize the kind of political game-playing that has exasperated the public and helped fuel protests.
The mayor of Zaporizhzhya, Oleksandr Sin, was elected in 2010 as a candidate of jailed former President Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party.
Just three months later he left the party and has since sided with Yanukovich’s ruling Party of Regions.
“They are all in each other’s pockets. The governor, the mayor, the chief of police - they are all in the ‘family’,” says Babkin, referring to those closest to Yanukovich.
“This makes people angry. Finally people here understand that it cannot go on.”
Both the mayor and governor’s offices declined to give interviews to Reuters. “We have no comment because of the difficult political situation and bad weather,” a spokeswoman for the governor said.
A hardcore group of anti-government protesters, known colloquially as Euromaidan, have occupied Kiev city centre, storming government building and clashing violently with police.
The movement may now be spreading to the traditionally pro-Yanukovich east, with protesters massed outside government headquarters in five large eastern cities in the last week.
“Zaporizhzhya is a mirror of what is happening in Kiev,” said Professor Oleg Bohuslavskyj, Director of Social Sciences at Zaporizhzhya Institute of Journalism and Mass Communications.
“Now there is a feeling that something should change. Normally the Party of Regions can rely on the East in elections, but in 2015 (presidential elections) they won’t be so secure.”
But not everyone feels the fervor of revolution, and by Thursday, the main local administration square in Zaporizhzhya was conspicuously void of any sign of dissent.
“Most people just don’t care,” says Taras Bilka, 26, a journalist and musician. “Inertia is a sickness here.”
A line of riot police guard the building entrance, stamping in the snow to keep warm. Otherwise they have little to do.
Bilka, who works for private TV station ALEKS, has not told his boss he writes for an opposition newspaper. Zaporizhzhya’s protests only attracted the educated middle class, he says.
“Unfortunately, Euromaidan’s appeal is very limited here. The people who support change have already gone to Kiev.”
Further down the 10 km (6 mile)-long Lenin Prospekt, a small group of government supporters huddle in the cold outside Kiev City hall. The daytime temperature is minus 20 degrees celsius. Blue Party of Regions flags have been planted in the snow.
Svetlana Sharmalova, 40, says she wants to protect the democratically elected government.
“We chose these people to lead us, and now we stand by them,” she says loudly, drawing looks from five policemen standing nearby. “I stand for stability and peace. This ‘Euromaidan’ is leading us to war.”
Reporting and writing by Jack Stubbs; Editing by Mike Collett-White