Parallels
4:16 pm
Tue March 25, 2014

In A Divided Donetsk, Russians And Ukrainians Vie For Support

Originally published on Tue March 25, 2014 8:51 pm

Two rallies took place recently on Lenin Square in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine.

At the first, a pro-Ukranian rally on March 5, thousands marched with Ukranian flags, shouting, "Down With Putin! Donetsk is Ukraine!" They were attacked by pro-Russia supporters.

A football fan club called the Ultras defended the demonstrators, but the next day, Russian media reported that a pro-Russian demonstration was attacked by soccer hooligans.

"It was the opposite!" says demonstrator Enrique Menendez, an internet marketer. (Despite his name, Enrique was born in Donetsk. His grandfather fled Spain after the Spanish Civil War.) "It was such big example of propaganda."

At the second rally, a pro-Russia demonstration that took place last weekend, thousands marched with Russian flags, calling for a referendum for autonomy for eastern Ukraine. As happened with Crimea, it would be the first step to join Russia.

Russian TV channels, of course, covered it, as did Western media. But Ukranian channels?

"In Ukrainian channels, we didn't see this," says Cyril Cherkashyn, a junior professor of political science at Donetsk National University. "Only that a few separatists and tourists from Russia came to Donetsk to have a demonstration and have some meeting!"

"But now our mass media television channels give only only very specific information," he says. "Not real facts. Propaganada."

With its linguistic and cultural ties to Russia, most people in eastern Ukraine prefer Russian channels. But that doesn't mean they all believe all what they see on them.

Cherkashyn happily admits that Russia is not democratic and its media lies. "We know about propanganda on Russian channels," he says.

But, he counters, the Ukranian channels are worse: They pretend to be fair and balanced.

"The biggest problem for Ukraine," says Enrique Menendez, "is we have pro-Russian politics, pro-Western politics, but we don't have pro-Ukranian politics."

Pro-Ukrainian, he says would mean dealing frankly with the real debate in Ukraine, instead of each side accusing the other of being Hitler. Instead, he says, Ukranian TV channels are mostly owned by oligarchs who push their own political agenda.

These information wars are especially perplexing for people in Donetsk, who have, because of geography and culture, historically played both sides — their links to Russia and their presence in Ukraine. Menendez's marketing company has contracts with both Google and the Russian search engine, Yandex. There's an expression here: The smart calf drinks from two cows.

Alex, a police officer who only gave his first name because his supervisor hadn't given him permission to speak, said that until recently he wasn't very political, but what he sees as the blame-all-on-Russia rhetoric from Kiev is pushing him the opposite way.

"My family lives in Russia," he says. "I have brother in Russia. My wife, from Russia. Why we must fight with Russia?"

It's a question that millions of people in Eastern Ukraine are feeling forced by their televisions to answer.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is Ukraine today, at least as seen by most Russian news media: the government is run by anti-Semitic fascists, Russian-speakers are being attacked by nationalists in Kiev, and the West is behind it all. That is inspiring fear and a growing separatist movement in the Russian-speaking regions of Eastern Ukraine, with many people calling for the area to follow Crimea's lead and join Russia. Ukrainian TV, on the other hand, presents a different story: Russian provocateurs trying to stir up conflict as a pretense for Russian forces to intervene.

NPR's Gregory Warner reports from the eastern city of Donetsk.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: A few weeks ago, on Lenin Square here in Donetsk, about 5,000 people peacefully marched with Ukrainian flags. They shouted: Down With Putin, Donetsk is Ukraine. One of those demonstrators was Enrique Menendez. He's an Internet marketer who, despite his name, was born here in Donetsk. His grandfather fled Spain after the Spanish Civil War.

ENRIQUE MENENDEZ: When the demonstration ends, people just wanted to go home and, at that moment, they were attacked by groups of organized pro-Russian supporters.

WARNER: Seven people were injured, one hospitalized. The demonstrators, though, had brought defenders, members of the Ultras, its fan club for a local soccer team called the Shakhtar, they fought back.

MENENDEZ: But on Russian media the next day, we heard that Russian demonstration was attacked by Ultras of (unintelligible) Shakhtar. So it was the opposite. And all the the pro-Ukrainian supporters, they are brought from Western Ukraine. It was not the citizens of Donetsk.

WARNER: And that's the version that most people watched in Eastern Ukraine. With its linguistic and cultural ties to Russia, most people here prefer Russian channels, which doesn't necessarily mean that they all believe everything that they see there.

CYRIL CHERKASHYN: Because we know about propaganda in Russian channels, for example.

WARNER: Cyril Cherkashyn is a junior professor of political science at Donetsk National University. Russia, he happily admits, is not democratic and its media lies. But he counters that the Ukrainian channels are worse. They pretend to be fair and balanced.

CHERKASHYN: But now our mass media give only political information, not real effects, but it's propaganda.

WARNER: Cherkashyn tells me about another rally, this one a pro-Russia rally this weekend. He and thousands of people marched in a call for a referendum on autonomy for Eastern Ukraine, like Crimea. It's the first step to joining Russia. This rally was covered, of course, on Russian TV, but also Western media.

CHERKASHYN: But in Ukrainian channels, we didn't see this. Only a few separatists and tourists from Russia come to Donetsk and to have some demonstration or have some meeting.

WARNER: Imagine you joined thousands of neighbors to exercise your right of protest and your own country's networks ignore it, or twist it as foreign puppetry. Enrique Menendez, the pro-Kiev internet marketer, says that the Ukrainian TV channels are mostly owned by oligarchs. They push their own politics.

MENENDEZ: The biggest problem of Ukraine that we have pro-Russian politics, pro-Western politics and we don't have pro-Ukrainian politics.

WARNER: Pro-Ukrainian, he says, would mean dealing frankly with the real debate in Ukraine, instead of each side accusing the other of being Hitler. And that's especially problematic for people in Donetsk who have, because of geography and culture, historically played both sides - their links to Russia and their presence in Ukraine.

Menendez's marketing company has contracts with Google and with Yandex, the Russian search engine. There's an expression here. The smart calf drinks from two cows.

ALEX: My father from Russia, mother from Ukraine.

WARNER: Alex, who only gave his first name because he's a police officer and not free to speak, says that a month ago he wasn't political, but this blame-it-all-on-Russia rhetoric from Kiev is pushing him the opposite way.

ALEX: Part of my family lives in Russia. I have brother in Russia. My wife from Russia. Why we must fight with Russia?

WARNER: It's a question that millions of people in Eastern Ukraine are feeling forced by their televisions to answer. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Donetsk.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

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