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Activists have set up command in the Vinnytsya state regional administration building, 250 kilometres southwest of Kiev. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Activists have set up command in the Vinnytsya state regional administration building, 250 kilometres southwest of Kiev. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Paul Waldie

In the hinterland, Ukraine’s revolution gains traction Add to ...

While world attention has focused on protests against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in the capital of Kiev, it is here in the hinterland where the real revolution is taking place and where Mr. Yanukovych has become most vulnerable.

In cities such as Vinnytsya, 250 kilometres southwest of Kiev, protesters have overthrown the regional government and turfed out Mr. Yanukovych’s hand-picked governors, posing a direct challenge to his authority. In the last week, 10 of the country’s 27 regional governments have been overturned and many more have come under threat.

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“This is important for every Ukrainian,” said a teacher named Julia as she stood with a crowd of activists in the regional government office building in Vinnytsya, now known as the “People’s Council.” “We want to live a proper life, a new life with a proper government.”

These local governments have become targets for the opposition to Mr. Yanukovych because they are seen as representative of his oppression. While city mayors and councillors are directly elected, the president appoints regional governors who wield enormous power.

That ended quickly in Vinnytsya last Saturday. Hundreds of protesters stormed the building housing the regional headquarters and clashed with riot police for several hours before getting inside the council chamber and surrounding the councillors they met. The crowd eventually let the police and councillors go, but not before demanding the resignation of Governor Ivan Movchan.

Now they are putting together a new political entity and plan to name their own governor. It’s not an easy process and there is a real danger they could all get arrested if the tide turns on the protests and Mr. Yanukovych remains in power.

That reality has already come home to Lyudmyla Tscherbakivska, who is leading the effort to construct the new council. She recently received a not-too-subtle message on her cellphone. “Beware. We know where you live so think about your actions,” it read.

“I have children and I want a good future for them, so I don’t see another choice,” Ms. Tscherbakivska, a member of the main Ukrainian opposition party, called Fatherland, said Monday after a hectic meeting with 50 other local officials who have come together to reform the council. “Everyone understands quite clearly that he or she could be arrested.”

On Monday, the group spent hours putting together lists of duties and nominating people to head various committees. At the front of the chamber, someone had pasted a poster on a desk. It had a picture of Mr. Yanukovych and a caption: “No to dictators.”

Outside the chamber, the building was jammed with volunteers signing up for duty and people dropping off donations. Several groups of young men, wearing masks and helmets, patrolled the hallways, and one carried a shield taken from riot police with the slogan “Glory to Ukraine” scrawled across the front.

In the main lobby, patriotic chants rang out as a woman gave a rousing speech about how the opposition to Mr. Yanukovych was spreading across the country. Everywhere, there were revolutionary posters, opposition party flags and the odd admonishment not to litter. Another poster said: “Military Command, really, don’t laugh.”

None of this is going down well with Mr. Movchan and his supporters. He has called the takeover a “gross violation of the law” and insisted he never actually resigned. He was unavailable for comment Monday because he was hard at work running the region from another location, said Tetyana Antonets, head of the city’s children’s hospital who is also chief of the local branch of the Party of Regions, the same party to which Mr. Yanukovych and Mr. Movchan belong.

“Of course [the takeover] is illegal,” Ms. Antonets said in an interview in her office which features a large photograph of Mr. Yanukovych on a shelf behind her desk. But the region is still functioning. “People have hot water, people have electricity, gas, everything they need. Everything is working.”

She acknowledged that having two governments and a battle over who is in charge is untenable. But she is confident that cooler heads will prevail and a solution will be found. “This is not a very big city and people know each other.”

That’s not the feeling back at the regional government building. They see this as a new beginning, without Mr. Yanukovych, who spent much of Monday negotiating once again with opposition leaders in Kiev in an attempt to end the crisis.

For people like Arkady Prigoda, a retired army officer, the thought of beating back riot police and effecting real change was a thrill he won’t soon forget. “They left like rats from the ship,” he said with a huge grin, still wearing his military fatigues from Saturday’s confrontation and going two days without sleep. “And the cats were very angry.”

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