Conflict & Justice

Violence looms over eastern Ukraine


Relatives mourn at the funeral of Volodymyr Rybak on Thursday.


Anatolii Stepanov

HORLIVKA, Ukraine — Even some of Volodymyr Rybak’s friends suggest he sometimes went too far.

The outspoken local councilman was known around this eastern Ukrainian town for his staunch convictions and dogged style. When it came to patriotism, they say, he left little room for compromise with those he believed to be betraying their country.

Those are unpopular traits in this rebellious part of the country these days, and they may have finally caught up with the pro-government lawmaker before he was found dead, his body bearing signs of torture last weekend near Slovyansk, the separatist hotspot where the Ukrainian authorities are struggling to quash an insurgency.

His provocation was apparently marching up to the local city hall last Thursday and attempting to remove the flag of the self-styled “People’s Republic of Donetsk” that pro-Russian activists had raised after storming the building.

Rybak was abducted soon after. The last known image of him is a video depicting a crowd of anti-government protesters forcing him away from city hall.

Ukraine's security service, the SBU, said in a statement Wednesday it believes that two Russian intelligence officers ordered the local militia to "neutralize" Rybak.

Volodymyr Rybak's wife bids farewell to her husband, who critics say was murdered for his pro-Ukraine activism but others suggest was part of a murky, government-staged provocation. (Dan Peleschuk/GlobalPost via Instagram)

Meanwhile, Slovyansk's self-declared "people's mayor," Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, dismissed claims that his pro-Russian protesters were involved. He instead blamed the militant nationalist group Right Sector, which both protesters here and the Kremlin have vilified as the instigators of recent violence in eastern Ukraine.

Rybak's apparent murder is the most extreme conclusion of a series of kidnappings of journalists and officials in or around Slovyansk, a sign of what critics say is the lawlessness that’s plagued the region since the uprising has escalated.

“When people don't want to hear the truth and have no logical argument against it, then their only possible argument becomes a bullet,” said Ihor Cherkashin, 48, a friend and colleague of Rybak’s who attended the lawmaker’s funeral on Thursday.

“Unfortunately, we're in a situation today in which those people who are destroying the country have run out of arguments.”

Rybak’s death, which supporters say was revenge for his stance against the separatist fever gripping eastern Ukraine, was immediately condemned by acting President Oleksandr Turchynov.

Another unidentified body was found along with Rybak’s.

Shortly after, Turchynov announced the resumption of an anti-terrorism operation aimed at dislodging rebels in Slovyansk and elsewhere in the region.

“The terrorists who effectively took the whole Donetsk region hostage have now gone too far, by starting to torture and murder Ukrainian patriots,” he said on Tuesday, adding that the murders had Russia’s “full support.”

On Thursday, friends, family members and co-workers gathered at Rybak’s home — a two-story brick house on the dusty outskirts of Horlivka, a city of about 250,000 — in a solemn funeral ceremony to pay their respects to the slain lawmaker, whose body lay in a coffin shrouded by flowers.

(Dan Peleschuk/GlobalPost via Instagram)

They praised him for his uncompromising position, especially amid what many say has been the reluctance of police and local officials to stand up to the rebels.

“Out of 75 deputies, not a single one got the idea to gather their strength and try to chase out the bandits,” said 60-year-old Tatyana Slipchenko, a political supporter.

But not everyone sees Rybak’s murder as a clean-cut case of political revenge.

Alexei Petrov, a local pro-Russian journalist sympathetic to the protest movement here, suggested Rybak’s death was orchestrated by government supporters to further discredit the rebels and justify the resumption of an anti-terrorism operation that had proven nearly fruitless last week.

“The Ukrainian authorities were completely unready to carry out the anti-terrorist operation against their own people in Donetsk,” he said.

“You need to sort out who benefits here.”

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But signs abound that the separatist forces have been less than accommodating.

More than a dozen people — mostly journalists and unsympathetic local officials — have been abducted in the past two weeks by the masked insurgents who’ve occupied Slovyansk and turned the city into a virtual rebel fortress.

While the hundreds of active protesters who form the core of the protests in Slovyansk openly support the rebel occupation, locals suggest most others are simply brainwashed.

“People in the east are simply zombified,” said Slipchenko. “It's difficult for a patriot to live here.”