Ukrainian city stays quiet amid war


A girl smiles next to a Ukrainian flag painted at the banks of the Dnepr river in Dnipropetrovsk. (FILIP SINGER/EPA)

— The battlefields of eastern Ukraine are barely 100 miles from this city, but there is no visible sign of the militant separatism that has roiled neighboring regions.

Traffic hums as usual down Karl Marx Street, the main thoroughfare lined with cafes serving cappuccinos and macarons, and boutiques selling Italian clothing.

Blue and yellow bunting, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, is wrapped around a fence encircling the main government building. The flag is on conspicuous display from cars, balconies and rooftops.

Dnipropetrovsk is a firewall of pro-government sentiment in a restive region, and local officials aim to keep it that way.

They have co-opted critics, given office space to supporters, offered bounties for pro-Russian provocateurs and established their own militarized force to set up checkpoints throughout the region and beyond.

Most controversially, they have employed bare-knuckle tactics with those who harbor pro-Russian opinions, warning them of harsh consequences should they try to take over government buildings as separatists did in the nearby cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

“I called them in and told them there is a red line,” said Borys Filatov, the deputy governor who made a fortune as a corporate lawyer and now flies around the region in his private helicopter fulfilling his official duties. “I said, you can wave your flags and shout anything you want. But if you try to take over the building, there won’t be any of this ‘Please leave,’ like in Donetsk. We will shoot without warning. We will kill you.”

He paused and seemed to ponder how his take-no-prisoners message sounds to an outsider.

“I am sorry if I sound brutal,” he said.

It is too late to know whether such strategies would have prevented separatist takeovers elsewhere. But officials here say their experience stands as a rebuke to less decisive officials in other regions. While some were reeling, uncertain how to stanch the separatist takeovers of entire cities and regions, government officials here brought the unrest to a screeching halt by neutralizing the pro-Russian agitators and strong-arming them.

Dnipropetrovsk takes part of its name from its location on the banks of the Dnieper River and part of it from Grigory Petrovsky, a Russian revolutionary of Ukrainian origin who was chairman of the Central Executive Committee during the Soviet era.

Today, the city of 1 million people is filled with engineers who design and make rocket launchers for sale to countries around the world.

‘One day, it just stopped’

The first stirrings of separatist anger here flared early this year.

Men who supported pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych rushed out of the regional administrative building and beat demonstrators who were part of the movement that eventually ousted him in February. The interim government that took over appointed a new governor, Igor Kolomoisky, who is Ukraine’s third-richest man and had been living in Switzerland.

With a billionaire at the top and several millionaires pressed into service as his deputies, the government adopted a sort of free-market management approach.

They gathered dozens of civic groups together, including environmentalists, feminists and pro-government activists, and provided them office space in the regional government building.

They also reached out to radical groups they suspected might favor the idea of joining Russia and addressed some of their concerns. They promised Communists that they would not demolish a monument of Vladimir Lenin and told veterans who served in the Soviet military before it disintegrated in 1991 that they would introduce school lessons extolling their patriotic accomplishments. They even talked with neo-Nazis, who wanted a crackdown on drug dealers.

In return, Filatov said, he got them to sign a document promising not to promote separatism or otherwise break the law.

With consultations out of the way, the new governing elite set about scrubbing the city of separatist sympathizers they considered a threat.

They gave seed money to a fund, quickly supplemented by local businessmen, that paid $10,000 bounties for people suspected of being Russian agents. They also offered cash for military-style weapons off the streets — $1,500 for a Kalashnikov rifle, $2,000 for a heavy machine gun, $3,000 for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

The government expropriated a vacant house owned by a prominent Moscow sympathizer and converted it into housing for refugees fleeing the conflict in other regions.

They also set up a militia called the Dnipro Battalion, now composed of 2,000 men who tool around town in late-model black Nissan pickup trucks painted with a blue and yellow stripe and guard the lobbies of government buildings.

Some Ukrainians suspect the Dnipro Battalion of involvement in violent clashes with separatists in other cities outside the region, a charge the leaders deny.

The militia is, however, branching far afield with dozens of checkpoints on the major roads leading to the city, even those that are technically in another region.

“We have four checkpoints in Donetsk, and everything around Dnipropetrovsk is under our control,” said Svyatoslav Oliynyk, another deputy governor, who keeps a military map on his conference table and samples of flak jackets on his office couch.

Reaction is mixed. Some residents are so relieved that the separatists are out of sight that they don’t question how they were declawed.

“One day, there were a lot of pro-Russia meetings,” said the manager of a sporting goods store who gave his name as Igor. “And one day, it just stopped.”

But the assistant manager said he wishes Dnipropetrovsk had a governor who focused on economic development.

“I don’t want to protect Ukraine,” he said. “I want to protect my business.”

Filatov said that until recently, he believed that Dnipropetrovsk’s tactics would succeed anywhere in Ukraine. Now he’s not so sure. He said he heard that a businessman he had tried to reason with joined the separatists in the Donetsk People’s Republic, and he wonders whether he just exported his problem.

“For a while I felt it was my failure,” he said. “But I've come to believe that with some people, no dialogue is possible. We have to kill them, or make them move to Russia. My conscience is clear. I did my best, and some people left anyway.”

Alex Ryabchyn contributed to this report.

Carol Morello writes about demographics and the census, as well as a lot of other stuff that comes down the pike. She has worked at the Washington Post since 2000.
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