Lugansk is now a daily war zone. Here’s a look at how the situation began there, in the first in a series looking at how the Ukraine crisis started.
Things had already started in Lugansk by the time I went there, my first time, on March 13th, with the first protest having taken place on 1st March, originally against the proposed cancelling of the 2012 language law giving Russian the status of regional language, in a city just 30km from Russia. A city founded by a Briton, no less – industrialist Charles Gascoigne at the end of the 18th century.
March 13th saw a tent camp and a couple of hundred people outside the regional administration building in the city’s main Radianska Street, with the mood calm, small religious ceremonies taking place.
That administration building had been briefly occupied by the pro-Russia side on March 9th, after their breaking up a pro-Ukraine demonstration outside the building they had called a ‘provocation’, before their removal from the large municipal site. Speaking to people there just 4 days later, I found the sentiment mostly pro-Russian, albeit with some pro-Ukraine sentiment too. These younger girls were pro-Russia, the lady was pro-Ukraine – (captions on all of these) -
These young ladies were pro-Russian -
These young men were more pro-Russian than Ukrainian, but Valeriy adds that the most important thing is ‘no war’ -
This older man, Gennadiy, mourned that he would have liked Lugansk to be in Ukraine, but that now ‘bandits had come to power’ -
The most eventful thing to happen to me on that day was the self-styled ‘sexy people of Lugansk’ briefly taking my camera -
Things seemed to go quiet for a couple of weeks after that visit, then on April 6th, the same day as in the city of Donetsk just 100km away, pro-Russia activist took control of the city’s SBU building just a kilometre up the road from the regional admin building.
I arrived there on April 10th, as barricades were going up around the premises and crowds were out on a freezing April night -
The next day, in sub-zero conditions as snow drove down, was different, with talk starting to course through the city of some 425,000 of snipers being sent by the Kiev government, military action to take place against them imminently. People were on edge, emotional -
A Lugansk Parliamentary Republic had been discussed on April 8th, and Friday April 11th, saw the first press conference of the newly-formed ‘Lugansk People’s Security Council’, headed by Alexey Karakin – in the SBU building -
The key points from this press conference -
- A Lugansk People’s Council had been formed in response to a post-Euromaidan Kiev government branded a ‘junta’
- Lugansk did not answer to Kiev authorities, the new People’s Council answered to the people of the Lugansk area
- The Russian language would be protected under new Lugansk People’s Council
- No confirmation of reports that Berkut (former Ukrainian special services police) involved in operation, Karakin stated that ‘people have come from many branches of society, we are all ‘one people now”
- An Army of the South East was being formed
- Lugansk had capacity to protect itself militarily from any Kiev government action
- A referendum would be held in Lugansk
The next day, as events kicked off in Slavyansk, I left Lugansk. Things went relatively quiet in Lugansk for the next few weeks – Kiev government military action not materialising at that time. On April 23rd, the OSCE monitoring mission reported that the situation in Luhansk on 23 April was ‘stable’, and that the area around the occupied SBU building was ‘quiet’.
But just 4 days later, things escalated in Lugansk again, as on April 27th crowds gathered outside the SBU building with an ultimatum given to the Kiev government that unless an amnesty was given against protesters, Russian enshrined as an official language, and a referendum held, they would take militant activist action in tandem with that of the Donetsk People’s Republic. The Kiev government made no concessions to the protester demands, and on April 29th, the regional administration, a kilometre from the SBU building on Heroiv Velykoi Vitchyznianoi Viiny Sq.3, was stormed by a couple of hundred militant activists, as crowds of thousands of locals gathered through the day there in support of the activists.
Raw RT piece -
On RT -
In the crowd, as they had earlier in April, chants were of between ‘Rossiya’ and ‘Referendum’ -
I went into the building, with little problems. It was shortly after 3pm, I’d come from Slavyansk that day, and as the activists quickly set about fortifying the building and consolidating their hold on it, none of the requests for documentation, long standard in Donetsk, Slavyansk and other ‘takeover towns’ were in place yet -
Police in the regional admin building itself presented no resistance to the takeover, most had left the building before, those few inside had little idea what they were supposed to do, or even who they were working for -
As Russian flags and colours were erected on the building out front, out the back, the Lugansk crowd kettled the riot police who had been sent, but not taken meaningful action, into a corner, demanding those 100-plus officers, of the SBU special branch of the Ukrainian police, lay down their weapons and ‘come to the side of the people’ -
A human corridor was formed -
Tempers seemed to be flaring, in a volatile situation, but an agreement was reached at that government building, the police were relieved of their weapons and dispersed, as action shifted a kilometre away to police hq at Lunacharskogo St 38.
There, thousands gathered, demanding the special forces police remaining in the building leave, assuring them safe passage if they did.
Night wore on, still the crowds remained, with chants of ‘Berkut’, the former Ukrainian special services police disbanded when the Euromaidan government took power on February 22nd due to their perceived use of excessive force on Euromaidan protesters -
Further chants, as earlier in the month, for ‘Rossiya‘ and ‘Referendum‘. I had to make a move back for Slavyansk, before doing so having a look at the human corridor formed, and along which the remaining police in the building left through around midnight.
That night, all other police stations, and the prosecutor’s office, had been taken into the hands of the pro-Russia side, with Lugansk entering April 30th with all its official, administrative operations in the hands of pro-Russia. I was next back there on May 1st, a holiday across Russia marking ‘International Workers’ Day‘. The day started with an interview with a local lady, which unexpectedly became quite emotional -
Inside the barricades by the SBU, a calm, friendly atmosphere -
A crowd of several hundred were out outside the regional admin building on a calm day -
Police still unsure as to who they worked for -
With no real ‘news’ to report from there, I did some videos for my YouTube channel -
Lugansk’s referendum went ahead on May 11th, with a reported 96.2% voting, 75% voter turnout, in favour of secession from Ukraine. Former sergeant in the Soviet army, Valeriy Bolotov, was by now installed as leader of the Lugansk Republic. Bolotov declared ‘martial law’ on 22nd May, also on that day the ‘Confederal state of Novorossiya’ was declared by former Donetsk governor Pavel Gubarev, incorporating both the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic.
OSCE monitors at that time reported around 70% of ‘shops, cafes and banks’ closed in the city centre, with no police at all. Yet Lugansk was more or less calm, with no fighting in or immediately around the conurbation, and signs towards the end of May of the city restoring some normalcy.
Then came June 2nd, July 2nd. To be continued.
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