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Fears of Victory Day violence fail to stall pro-Russian separatists and referendum

A pro-Russian anti-government rebel with a decorated shotgun at a checkpoint in Slovyansk, Ukraine, May 8, 2014.


For decades, May 9 – Victory Day – has been the biggest holiday on the calendar across most of the former Soviet Union, marked in Kharkiv with a parade of Ukraine's modest military might during the day and pop concerts in the evening.

But Victory Day will not be celebrated as usual this year. The official parade in Kharkiv has been cancelled for the first time since the end of the Second World War, and most in Ukraine's second-largest city are just hoping to get through Friday without bloodshed on a holiday that highlights the angry division in Ukrainian society, pitting those who still long for the USSR against those who desperately want the country to move on.

Hopes that tensions in eastern Ukraine would ease for the long weekend faded Thursday after armed separatists said they would ignore Russian President Vladimir Putin's call for them to postpone an independence referendum scheduled for Sunday.

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While outwardly calm, Kharkiv, which sits just 40 kilometres from the Russian border, is a city quietly on edge. Phalanxes of extra police and interior ministry troops – many of them brought in from cities in the west of the country that are more loyal to the new government in Kiev – marched through the streets Thursday night while a few lonely fireworks lit the sky somewhere in the suburbs.

Residents were nervous that a minor incident could turn quickly into the kind of mass violence – setting pro-Russian crowds against supporters of the Ukrainian government – that rocked the southern port of Odessa last week, leaving dozens dead.

In southeastern Donetsk, which will host Sunday's controversial referendum, pro-Russian protesters started taking over government offices and police stations last month. They now control key buildings in at least 10 cities, and say that – despite Mr. Putin's appeal – a referendum is the only way forward at this point.

"Civil war has already begun," Denis Pushilin, a leader of the self-declared separatist Donetsk People's Republic, told reporters in Donetsk as a man holding a Kalashnikov rifle stood behind him. "The referendum can put a stop to it and start a political process."

Copies of the referendum ballot circulating on social media showed a single yes-or-no question on whether voters supported a declaration of independence by the Donetsk People's Republic. Pro-Russian protesters in the neighbouring oblast, or province, of Lugansk said they would also hold a referendum Sunday on the region's future in Ukraine.

Many political analysts saw the rebels' rejection of Mr. Putin's call as stage-managed to bolster the Kremlin's claim that it has no direct influence on the separatists. Western governments have accused Moscow of influencing the uprising in an effort to force Ukraine to accept a new constitution that would prevent it from joining the European Union or NATO.

Even without the looming referendums, Victory Day will be emotionally charged. Those rising up against the government in Kiev are driven as much by nostalgia for the Soviet Union as affinity with Russia. Many of the Red Army veterans and Communist Party members who are expected to defiantly march in Kharkiv Friday will wear the same orange-and-black banner – the St. George's Ribbon, which Joseph Stalin once bestowed on Soviet military heroes – as those manning the barricades in cities in Donetsk.

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The St. George's ribbon has become so ubiquitous, and so politically charged, that the Ukrainian government this week launched an effort to replace it with a Western-style poppy at Victory Day celebrations.

"There is a war inside Ukraine, and one side is supported by Russia," said Roman Donik, a Kharkiv IT professional who spends most of his time these days doing volunteer fundraising for the poorly equipped Ukrainian army. "This war is between those who live in the Soviet Union in their minds, and those who want to live in Europe."

The radius of that conflict – contained until recently to a few cities around Donetsk – continued to spread on Thursday. The government in Kiev reported that a group of about 40 armed men attacked the Izvarino border crossing between Ukraine and Russia from the Ukrainian side, in an apparent attempt to seize control of it. The unknown attackers were repelled by Ukrainian border guards.

Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen continued to question Mr. Putin's assertion that he has withdrawn troops massed at the Ukrainian border, saying the Western alliance had not seen "any indication" of a Russian military pullback.

Many fear pro-Russian forces will next try expand their area of operations to cities such as Kharkiv and Odessa that have large Russian-speaking populations. Thus far, however, separatists have failed to win popular support in either city.

Kharkiv was the scene of clashes between supporters and opponents of the new government in March and April, following the pro-Western revolution in Kiev, but the situation calmed after police cleared rival protest camps from the city's central Freedom Square and arrested several pro-Russian leaders.

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Yuliya Bidenko, a lecturer in political science at Kharkiv National University said the pro-Russian sentiment had actually receded in the city following Moscow's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in March and the subsequent violence around Donetsk.

But some forces seem intent on destabilizing Kharkiv. On April 28, the city's long-time mayor, Gennady Kernes – who had switched his loyalty to Ukraine's new government after initially sympathizing with pro-Moscow protesters following the revolution in Kiev – was shot in the back while jogging in an apparent assassination attempt. He's recovering at a hospital in Israel.

Many here expect more trouble on Victory Day. "We're waiting for it, of course. We expect more provocations here in Kharkiv," said Valentin Bondarenko, a 32-year-old businessman who has taken on a side job as the head of a 300-strong force of civilian "self-defence" activists who have taken it upon themselves to counter any pro-Russian protests.

"Their [the pro-Russian side's] task is 100 dead here in Kharkiv. The job of the self-defence force is to keep that from happening."

The biggest challenge, Mr. Bondarenko said, would be reining in "patriotic" Ukrainians itching for a fight with the pro-Russian crowd. "People are very angry."

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