In Ukraine Heartland, Politics Second to Money
In the roiling debate over eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatist attacks have turned increasingly bloody, neither the country’s richest man nor some of his dirt-poor compatriots have much time for patriotism, ethnic feuding or political parties.
Rinat Akhmetov, an industrialist whose companies employ 300,000 people, and who may be the single most powerful man in this part of the country, focuses on one topic: money.
It’s also the main concern of most of the men he employs – and that sentiment may turn into a force of unity as Ukraine votes in presidential elections on Sunday.
“You cannot feed people on guns,” Akhmetov said in a televised statement a few days ago, dismissing the gunmen as “savages” and calling for an end to the mutinies. “Nor can you ever build a strong economy without good jobs and salaries.”
“If some of you believe that (the separatists) are leading us to success, this is a mistake,” he said. “They are leading to collapse, poverty and hunger.”
The miners and steelworkers of eastern Ukraine have a long history of involvement in politics, including a series of strikes that helped hasten the fall of the Soviet Union, and widely remembered marches in the late 1990s.
This time their focus is economic: Fearful of losing their jobs, most industrial workers in this industrial region have steered well clear of politics, limiting support for the separatist movement.
Asked on a recent day about this weekend’s ballot, coal miner Olheg Krishtal wouldn’t answer.
“That’s a question for the politicians,” he said, arriving at his shift at a Donetsk mine where a bland white-brick building covers the mine entrance. He arrived as the previous shift was leaving, the exhausted miners covered in black dust, respirators slung around their necks. “We will deal with industry, and the politicians will do the politics.”
After staying out of the debate for months, Akhmetov in recent days has become one of the loudest voices urging an end to the crisis. Clearly worried about his own empire if the unrest continues, his dominance in the region appears to have helped keep large numbers of blue-collar workers from turning to the separatists.
A little over a week ago, workers from Akhmetov’s steel factories, working with police, took government buildings away from pro-Moscow insurgents in Mariupol, an industrial port city on the Azov Sea, dealing a serious blow to the anti-Kiev forces that want to merge this part of Ukraine with Russia. Every day, workers at his factories are called together for pro-unity rallies.
The message at the rallies is straightforward and repetitive. “If we support the (separatist) Donetsk Republic, no one will recognize us. We’ll be in a gray zone. No one will send us raw materials. We’ll have no one to export to,” Yuri Zinchenko, who runs a Mariupol steel factory in Akhmetov’s empire, told company workers this week.
“All of us will lose our jobs, even me,” he said.
Plenty of Akhmetov’s employees disagree with his politics. Many are sympathetic to Russian nationalism, and feel little loyalty to the government in Kiev. At Akhmetov’s factories in eastern Ukraine, where many people trace their roots to Russia, the Russian language is heard far more often than Ukrainian. At the factory rallies, few workers pay close attention, and calls for applause bring little but weak ripples of clapping. A handful do support the separatists.
“Go Donetsk Peoples’ Republic!” shouted one of the men at Krishtal’s coal mine, referring to the pro-Russian separatists who have seized a government building in central Donetsk, declaring themselves an independent nation. “Ukraine should just step aside.”
But the Ukrainian economy is a disaster, well-paying factory and mining jobs are hard to find, and few want to risk losing them.
If Ukraine’s cities can look well-off at first glance, much of that is an economic veneer, fed in part by the ubiquitous government corruption that has enriched a generation of top bureaucrats and their business allies. Very often, it’s just a quick drive to the crumbling houses, rusted factories and Soviet-style apartment blocks that are home to most people in this country.
Take Donetsk. This city of less than a million people, an industrial hub built atop a series of coal mines and surrounded by small mountains of mining slag, has a string of expensive restaurants. Billboards advertise the high-end Italian lingerie La Perla. It has a Porsche dealership.
But beyond the city center and a few well-to-do areas are a network of gritty neighborhoods where life revolves around coal mines and factories. They are places where the loss of a job is a terrifying prospect.
Talk to the people who come from these places, and politics rarely comes up. Getting by is far more important.
The miners “want to get home, alive and healthy,” said Krishtal. “We don’t need guns in the street.”