In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s biggest pro-Russian city, a question of who is in charge

More than four days have gone by since a crowd of protesters occupied the regional government office here in Kharkiv, bringing the Maidan revolution to the biggest city in pro-Russian eastern Ukraine.

But Maxim Kolenkov, assistant to the chairman of the Kharkiv regional council, is still showing up for work in the grandiose Stalin-era building in the city’s Freedom Square.

“I don’t know who they are. I don’t talk to them. I’m not interested,” he said, standing among the disabled fire extinguishers that litter the corridor outside his third floor office. “The government is not leaving the building.”

It looked as if Kharkiv might erupt in violence over the weekend when taxi drivers pushed away a crowd of some 2,000 protestors trying to decapitate the statue of Lenin that sits at the opposite side of freedom square.

The protestors then seized the regional government building. Many wear the red arm bands of the right wing Pravy Sektor movement that was the militant backbone of the Maidan uprising in the capital.

Freedom Square is now the scene of an uneasy stand-off between two rival camps: residents encamped at the Lenin monument and revolutionary protestors fresh from victory in Kiev.

To some extent the divide between the two sides is generational. The nationalists are predominantly disaffected youths who have been radicalized by the corrupt practices of ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s government.

Many of the supporters at the Lenin monument grew up in the harsh years of World War II and are scarred by memories of how western Ukraine collaborated with invading Nazi forces while the fiercely patriotic east battled through two years of enemy occupation.

Ukraine’s new leaders may have underestimated the challenges they would meet as the revolution was carried to the traditionally passive, pro-Russian eastern regions of the country or of how the growing strength of the Pravy Sektor would exacerbate tensions.

It’s not clear who is in charge in Kharkiv. Mikhail Dobkin, the governor of Kharkiv region, and a long time Yanukovych ally , has announced plans to run in the presidential election in May but has not been seen since he addressed the crowd defending the Lenin monument at the weekend, has not been seen in public for several days.

Gennady Kernes, the mayor of Kharkiv, and another Yanukovych ally, is trying to assert authority. However, there were scuffles when Kernes showed up in the square and appealed to anti-nationalist picket not to follow the path of Crimea, where armed pro-Russian groups took over government buildings on Thursday as tensions rose in that southern region. Eventually the picket agreed to stop flying the Russian flag.

Although largely absent from the city center early in the week, police appear to be regrouping and have taken up positions round the government building where masked nationalists protestors trade insults with local residents.

Inside the government building protesters do not appear to have a leader, but are observing some kind of order. Young women serve tea and sandwiches free of charge and there is a stack of baseball bats and jagged floor boards at the entrance - weapons, it appears, are not allowed indoors.

For the most part, the protesters stick to the ground floor, leaving government workers to go about their business elsewhere.

Some mill about apparently without purpose, others are stretched out asleep on the floor still wearing their masks and balaclavas.

The nationalists don’t necessarily support the pro-European agenda of Ukraine’s new government. But there is a consensus that Russia must not be allowed to interfere in Ukrainian affairs.

Some of the nationalists are incensed that European countries have given shelter to Ukrainian oligarchs who have fled in the wake of the revolution. “If the European Commission really wants to help us it should draw up a list of the oligarchs and force them to give up the money stashed in European bank accounts,” said one masked young man who declined to give his name.

On the other side of the square, the group protecting the Lenin monument fly the orange and black Saint George flag commemorating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Banners hung from the fences around their encampment proclaim “Down with Fascism,” and “The Pravy Sektor are Aliens Here.”

“Our task is to prevent Kiev from dictating terms,” said Sergei Argarkov, who works for a television talk show. “Fascism would bring Ukraine to its knees.”

Agarkov, who has emerged as an informal spokesman at the Lenin monument, said the nationalists’ aversion to Russia was troublingly unrealistic. “Russians are our brothers, we are all Slavs, we are close. We have deep economic ties. If they stop life here will stop altogether.”

But he ruled out a return for Ukraine to Moscow’s dominance. “We are ready to cooperate with Russia and with the E.U. as equal partners. But Ukraine should be united and strong.”

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