DONETSK — Yegor Firsov watches as bullets decide his future.
Gunmen have been steadily occupying government buildings in a string of towns in eastern Ukraine. The men, mostly masked, are demanding independence or union with Russia, and in the past few days, the Ukrainian military has been trying to drive them out.
Firsov, 25-year-old student, ardent democrat, Donetsk citizen, opposes joining Russia. Nearly everyone he knows is against it. But Firsov says that if the masked men — Ukrainian officials call them Kremlin-backed terrorists — prevail, or if Russia invades, the voices of the majority will be silenced.
The well-armed separatists have been insisting on holding a referendum Sunday on the status of eastern Ukraine. That would be the end, Firsov says, of the dream born on the Maidan — Kiev's Independence Square. There, he and thousands of other Ukrainians saw a window of opportunity opening, a chance to free the country of corruption and to create democracy.
Now the window is banging shut. “Do you think our referendum will be held the way things are done in America?” he asked. “No. The referendum results will be falsified. No one will ask us if we want to remain in Ukraine or become part of Russia. The argument of guns is stronger than anything else.”
Just before the occupations began so methodically on April 6, Firsov sat over a fragrant cup of hot chocolate, talking about his political journey. Donetsk was quiet at the time, but Firsov feared that the separatists were only regrouping. He was right. The latest turmoil, he said in a telephone conversation last week, has polarized the region. “The radicals are more confident they are right,” he said. “The liberals are more certain they are right.”
Firsov is typical of many in a generation born just as the Soviet Union was collapsing. Although he speaks Russian, he considers himself entirely Ukrainian. He wants more active local government but a united country.
About 35 percent of eastern Ukrainians and 26 percent of southerners favor more local-government autonomy, according to a poll carried out in mid-April under the auspices of the International Republican Institute, a U.S. nonprofit organization that promotes democracy by helping to develop political and civic institutions. But the poll found little support for a division of Ukraine: only 5 percent in the east and 2 percent in the south.
“People do not support it, of course,” said Firsov, who has been working as an organizer in the city of Donetsk for Vitali Klitschko, the boxer-turned-politician who emerged as an opposition leader during the Maidan demonstrations.
When the gunmen appear and take over a building, as they did at the Donetsk prosecutor’s office May 1, a mob of a thousand or so men and women forms to back them up. The United States accuses Russia of organizing and arming the separatists, and more than 40,000 Russian troops make for an intimidating presence on the border.
Some of the separatists are Russians, Firsov said, probably former servicemen. Some came from Crimea, he said. The mobs are mostly made up of local people, he thinks.
“They are a variety of people,” he said. “Some sold themselves for money.”
The gunmen have also attracted the impoverished elderly who have come to remember the era of the Soviet Union as a more prosperous time, when the state took care of their basic needs.
From childhood, Firsov had wanted to be a lawyer. He had his moment of truth three years and six months into his law school studies. “I studied fanatically,” he said, “and even now I can answer all the exam questions. But then I realized that what I was studying had no point. The students who didn’t even bother going to class would get good jobs in the prosecutor’s office, arranged by their fathers. Nothing is fair. Everything is deeply corrupt.”
Firsov dropped out of law school. He wanted to change the system. He became active politically. After the Maidan demonstrations began, he traveled to the square when he could. “I celebrated my 25th birthday there,” he said. “I learned about democracy there. Every single person knew why he was there. It was beautiful, self-organizing, no fighting. It was pure democracy.”
When the new government was formed at the end of February, he said, everyone knew there was a very short time to take serious steps, to begin reforming the courts, law enforcement, education — ridding every institution of corruption.
Instead, the crisis in Crimea and now in Ukraine’s east has sent the government into a spin, trying to keep the country together and Russia from invading. Firsov expected now to be working toward the May 25 presidential election, considered crucial to move the country ahead.
No one here is talking about the election now, he said.
“If things develop according to the Russian scenario, there will be no elections,” he said. “We’re not even thinking of whom to vote for.”
Instead of debating how to make the country democratic, Firsov and his friends are talking about how they can defend it. They feel helpless — no use even in marching if that provokes attacks from separatists, he said.
Rumors of imminent invasion persist. What happens then? Widespread arrests? What to do? Go to the office as if nothing had changed? Flee? Hide in the forest as partisan warfare begins?
When he saw that window on the Maidan open to democracy, Firsov said, a gun was not what he had in mind.