Ukraine crisis: The town holding out against Russia

A local resident leaves a booth to cast her ballot at a polling station in Luhansk, Ukraine. Residents of Svatove are boycotting the referendum - despite threats. Photo / AP
A local resident leaves a booth to cast her ballot at a polling station in Luhansk, Ukraine. Residents of Svatove are boycotting the referendum - despite threats. Photo / AP

As thousands turned out for rebel-held independence "referendums" across swathes of eastern Ukraine, the small town of Svatove stood out as a brave refusnik - apparently the only one in the voting region.

In this town of some 20,000 inhabitants, the Ukrainian flag still flutters proudly over the town hall, in contrast to the dozen towns and cities in eastern Ukraine that have been overrun by pro-Russian rebels.

The 48-year-old mayor, Evgeny Rybalko, told AFP why his town was boycotting the referendum, defying threats from armed thugs.

"My duty is to respect Ukrainian law. The people must be able to express their opinion in a legal framework. That is not the case for this 'referendum'," said the mayor, who took office in 2010.

Last week, around 40 armed men came from Lugansk to explain the "necessity" of holding the vote in Svatove, just 60 kilometres from the Russian border.

Rybalko refused to yield even when the armed men came back a second time to try and make him change his mind.

The mayor can however count on some heavy armour of his own. Just a few kilometres outside the town, the Ukrainian army has two checkpoints defended with tanks, armoured personnel carriers and even anti-aircraft guns.

In addition to this backup from Kiev, he also has at his disposal a militia of some 500 volunteers armed, officially at least, with nothing more lethal than hunting weapons.

"The majority of the people in the region around Svatove want a united Ukraine and are opposed to separatism. Those who have joined our self-defence operation are patriots who wanted to be able to defend themselves against armed men coming from outside," Rybalko said.

"We coordinate our actions with the police," the mayor added.

Unlike in several towns in the east, where the police either stood by in the face of violence or even swapped sides and joined the pro-Russian separatists, the police here are loyal to the authorities.

However, Yulia Krassy, a 36-year-old local journalist and pro-Kiev activist, told AFP that the self-defence groups had helped secure the town.

"At first, the 80 officers from the local police force weren't enough to secure the barricades. It was the self-defence groups that stepped up, alongside the police," she said.


Even in this bastion of pro-Kiev sentiment, there are nevertheless dissenting voices.

Around 15 people marched to the town hall carrying a large transparent container they wanted to use as a ballot box.

"Why can't we vote? It's sabotage. There isn't a single polling station here," complained Natalia.

Rybalko tackles these angry would-be voters head-on.

"What referendum? What authority decided this referendum?" the mayor asks.

Natalia, a 36-year-old housewife, refuses to give up. She wants to vote to realise her dream of an independent province of Lugansk.

Asked how this would work in practice, she is less certain of herself.

"I'm not sure we could survive, but we'll see. In any case, we have to give it a shot."

The mayor says that people like Natalia do not understand the implications of the referendum.

"They just don't want to know. The district of Svatove gets 80 per cent of its money from the state. Without money from Kiev, we couldn't exist. But people don't want to know that," the mayor sighed.

However, he voiced some understanding for the separatist movement.

"No one listened to these people for years. Separatism is the response of a population that has had enough, of corruption above all," he said.

Is Svatove really the only town in the two regions of Lugansk and Donetsk that is not holding a referendum?

Rybalko thinks there was no referendum either in the nearby town of Kremmenoie.

AFP went to check and found the task impossible.

There was no sign of electoral activity as the town hall was closed by late afternoon.

Police refused to give out "that kind of information" and the few passers-by seemed either ignorant of or indifferent to the seismic events happening elsewhere in their region, which is almost certain to be "independent" by Monday.


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