There is increasing unease and reports of rioting in the streets of Kharkiv, a Ukrainian city that is tied to Cincinnati by a 25-year-old sister city partnership. Kharkiv has 1.4 million residents and is nestled near Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia. Two people recently died in pro-Russian protests amid calls for a vote that would make Kharkiv independent from Ukraine’s central government in Kiev.
On March 16, demonstrators calling themselves the “popular assembly” went to the Russian consulate in Kharkiv where they addressed a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin asking him to “guarantee their rights and freedoms.” RT.com., a Russian news site, added that the popular assembly’s leaders plan on conducting an April 27 referendum that would declare the region a federation, and they sought protection from Russian “peacekeepers” — military troops.
Over the years, about 2,500 Cincinnatians and residents have traveled back and forth between the sister cities. Kharkiv, a manufacturing town, is Ukraine’s second-largest city, and was the capital for years under the Soviet empire. A statement on the city’s website reportedly quotes the regional governor blaming pro-Russian activists for setting fire to a cultural organization meant to promote the Ukrainian language. (The site’s English translation tool wasn’t working as of the publication of this story.) The organization’s offices were ransacked before being set ablaze on March 15.
No one knows for certain where the protests will lead, but there is speculation it could be a pretext for Putin to send in troops to protect the Russian-speaking majority. There are widespread media reports in U.S. and European outlets that Russian troops are massed across the border about 25 miles away. So far, there is no evidence they are on the move, unlike Crimea, where the region has been occupied by Russian forces. Bloomberg has reported the Russian actions are “stirring fears that Moscow will attempt to annex eastern Ukraine.”
Cincinnati’s sister city relationship began in idealistic enthusiasm. Now it might have to wrestle with this question: Is the sister city tie becoming superficial?
Initially, the program was meant to “help the people of Kharkiv discover the benefits and responsibilities of a free society.” In Cincinnati, folks were prone to boast that, “Cincinnati-Kharkiv is known as one of the strongest sister city pairings in the world.” Clearly, things could be fraying. On the Kharkiv side of the relationship there is a sense of conflict, suspense and treachery.
Former Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls made two trips to Kharkiv in delegations that were supposed to cement ties. When she visited in the 1990s, extreme politics and Cold War tensions were supposed to be in the past, and newly cultivated civic friendships were supposed to open doors between East and West.
“When I first visited in 1995, they were celebrating the 50th anniversary of D-Day and the end of World War II,” Qualls says. “It was not long after the fall of the Soviet Union, and you had a sense of that. The people were very hospitable, we stayed in the old Soviet Hotel, where they used to put all of the Communist Party people. It was the best around, I guess.
“When I went back in 1999, there was dynamic change in Kharkiv. You saw money had come into the country. There were hotels, casinos, construction cranes everywhere. It looked like everything boded well for economic expansion. There was clearly a sense of Ukrainian identity, in terms of language as well as culture. Being pro-Russian was not an issue with the people I saw. I’m not an expert on the region, but I don’t think Ukraine itself will fragment. Crimea is a different issue — that clearly is a possibility.”
Ukraine itself was absorbed into the Russian empire in the 1700s and into the Soviet Union in 1920. It became independent in 1991.
Last week, the Russian parliament approved measures that could eliminate independence in nations that share borders with Russia. The law allows the Kremlin to annex portions of countries where central authority has collapsed and local populations want to break away. There are fears that Putin will use the measures as a tool to take over lands in former Soviet republics, including chunks of the Baltic states, Moldova, portions of Georgia and eastern Ukraine. Diplomats and U.S. military officials say Russian troops continue to maneuver near Kharkiv, but that there has been no invasion. Still, the situation remains dicey.
lTAR-Tass, the Russian news agency, said that a crowd of up to 3,000 demonstrated in Kharkiv during the afternoon of March 16 chanting, “Russia!” “Referendum” and “We are with you, Crimea.” The news agency said the rally supported a plebiscite that would make the Kharkiv region part of an independent federation.
Putin ratcheted down tensions a bit with the European Union and the United States by declaring on March 18 that Russia did not want to annex Kharkiv along with other swaths of eastern Ukraine.
Diplomats and analysts are unsure if Putin’s words carry any weight. He did grab Crimea, and said it was now part of Russia. The U.S. and its E.U. partners called Putin’s action illegal under international law. But they lack any means of actually prying Crimea loose.
Tom Moeller, the city manager in Madeira, was in the Kharkiv region six months ago with a Cincinnati sister city delegation, and he sensed that things were percolating. He says there was “a lot of discussion” about Ukraine’s future and whether it will be linked to Moscow or the E.U. Moeller says he spent most of his time in a suburb of Kharkiv about two miles from the Russian border.
“The people we met with felt the opportunities were better being aligned with the E.U. than Russia,” Moeller says. “That included the Russian speakers.”
He adds that his hosts realized Ukraine was dependent on Russia for energy, coal and gas, and that ties to the E.U. might jeopardize those supplies.
Moeller says he wonders if the current tensions will undo years of effort to build a post-Soviet society that is more open and democratic than the old totalitarian state.
Ukraine has a bloody past. Under the Soviets, Stalin’s forced collectivization of farming triggered a famine that killed an estimated 6 million Ukrainians. In World War II, German armies swept across Ukraine and slaughtered millions more.
The SS troops who advanced with Hitler’s forces massacred the country’s Jews. Hermann Goering, Hitler’s deputy, discussed eliminating every Ukrainian male over age 15. The women of child-bearing age were then to be impregnated by Germans. Or as the Nazis put it, “the SS stallions.”
“It’s very disconcerting and very disheartening because of all the efforts they have made to become a more democratic, a more westernized society,” Moeller says. “The situation in the eastern part of the country is far from stabilized in my perspective. It could continue to roll right up through the rest of Ukraine.”