President defied by pro-Russian parties in warring eastern Ukraine

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In Sloviansk, a city in eastern Ukraine a few tens of kilometers from the front with pro-Russian separatists, the peace promises of President Volodymyr Zelensky, elected a year and a half ago, are no longer convincing.

Here, on the Ukrainian side of this largely frozen war since 2015, the inhabitants of this predominantly Russian-speaking region are preparing to vote on Sunday for pro-Russian political groups, during the local elections.

“People are disappointed,” said Vira Yurik, a 58-year-old retiree, to AFP, walking through the streets of the city.

A former actor new to politics, Volodymyr Zelensky largely won the presidential election in 2019 by promising in particular to end the war with the separatists supported by Moscow, which has killed more than 13,000 and nearly 1.5 million displaced since its outbreak. in 2014.

If a truce has been generally respected in the East for almost three months – a record – no return to normal is in sight in these industrial territories devastated by the war, and tangible progress towards a political settlement of the conflict is still being made. wait.

Worse, the pandemic of the new coronavirus and its chaotic management by the government have further exacerbated the mistrust, even the hostility of the locals towards the central authorities.

“All those who promised the European Union here, Zelensky for example, are all liars,” asserts Volodymyr, 59, a retired former Soviet army officer.

Up to 60% of voters in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, part of which is outside Kiev’s control, say they are ready to vote for a pro-Russian party on Sunday, according to a poll published in September. Only 10% are in favor of Mr. Zelensky’s Servant of the People party.

In the legislative elections of 2019, the two main pro-Russian parties obtained a total of 48% of the vote in the Donetsk region, against 27% for the presidential party.

The most popular pro-Russian party is the Opposition Platform-For Life, which counts among its leaders Ukrainian MP Viktor Medvedchouk, a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who regularly receives him in the Kremlin and is the godfather of one of Her daughters.

Nostalgia for the USSR

These voting intentions in the East draw up a startling observation of the deep divide with the Center and the West of the country, where the pro-Russians are hated, Kiev and the West considering Moscow as the political, military and financial godfather of the separatists.

Like many inhabitants of Sloviansk, Vira Yurik sees no problem there: “We speak Russian here, we don’t understand Ukrainian, we border on Russia and Russia is close to us,” argues this brunette with the hair short. “It’s absurd, we are Slavic brothers and we are killing each other”.

City of 100,000 inhabitants, Sloviansk was one of the hot spots of the conflict after being taken over by the separatists in April 2014, finally dislodged by the Ukrainian army after three months of fighting which left hundreds of victims there.

Today, out of six candidates for mayor of Sloviansk, four represent movements that advocate a rapprochement with Moscow. Among them, Nelia Chtepa, who was mayor in 2014 and spent several years in prison for supporting the separatists.

Haunted by the memory of the time when the city lived “under the bombardments”, “without electricity, without food, without money”, Ms. Yurik hopes that the pro-Russians will succeed in negotiating a peace agreement with Moscow and relaunching the industry in the region.

Not surprisingly for Kiev-based political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko: “In this region, pro-Russian sentiments have existed, exist and will always exist.” And support for the president and his party is declining across the country, he told AFP

By voting for Zelensky, “people were hoping for the end of the war”, but their “exaggerated expectations have disappeared, as the pandemic and the crisis have arrived”, explains the analyst.

For Roman Balaboïko, a former fighter against the separatists and rare pro-Ukrainian activist in the region, it is the nostalgia for the USSR that feeds pro-Moscow feelings in eastern Ukraine. “These people still consider themselves Soviets” and “the pro-Russian forces know how to touch this nerve”, notes the 33-year-old man.

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