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Tensions Rise in Eastern Ukraine After a Series of Rallies

March 16, 2014 at 5:35 PM EDT
The spotlight focused on Crimea Sunday as the region voted whether or not to secede from Ukraine. Other parts of Ukraine caught in the crisis with Russia also showed growing signs of volatility. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Frontline’s James Jones from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov about the mounting tension between pro-Russian demonstrators and Ukrainian nationalists.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For more about the situation in eastern Ukraine we’re joined now via Skype by James Jones who is in Kharkov reporting for Frontline. Again, the Russians call it Kharkov, the Ukrainians call it Kharkiv, just an indicator of how tense the situation is on the ground.  This is the second largest city. This is where Yanukovych ran to for support. What’s happening on the ground as this vote takes place in Crimea?

JAMES JONES:  Here the situation is incredibly tense. And as a way of kind of showing their solidarity with Crimea, and their own desire to perhaps gain independence, and join Russia; they had this kind of unofficial and actually illegal referendum on the square here today.  It seemed like about 10,000 people came.  And they were chanting “Russia, Putin save us,” slagging off the new government in Kiev who they see as kind of fascists and thugs, effectively. And so then they had this big vote, which frankly is meaningless it’s not an official referendum and has no consequences , but it’s just a show of strength. And then just outside, about 200 meters from where I’m sitting now, they are trying to storm the government building. And it’s very hard to tell what proportion of the population here support what they’re doing, but certainly this minority is incredibly vocal and sometimes can be violent.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So this is a city where neighbor is fighting neighbor on this particular issue.

JAMES JONES: That’s right. On the streets there are constant arguments breaking out between people, some of whom know each other, but simply they are miles apart. Some of these people are desperate to become part of Russia, in fact even going back to the Soviet Union. You know there are hammers and sickles – flags showing hammers and sickles on the square – enormous flags and people chanting about the Soviet Union. It’s kind of a weird time warp we’re in here. And yet the other half of the city are incredibly supportive of the revolution in Kiev so it feels very, very tense here. On Friday night a couple of people were killed by Ukrainian nationalists.  And that potentially is the kind of provocation that gives Putin legitimate reasons, or at least the pretext, to send Russian troops in.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, James Jones joining us from eastern Ukraine, thanks so much.