In Ukraine's nationalist bastion, locals want revenge against rebels

Vassyl Trukhan

Students hold a massive Ukrainian flag during an action in the city of Lviv on May 2, 2014

The frontline is over 1,100 kilometres away. But in an upmarket pub in Ukraine's defiantly nationalist bastion of Lviv, the only topic of conversation is the bloody insurrection threatening the partition of their country.

After their day's work is over, a group of friends settle down in the comfortable leather armchairs at the Royal Brewery in the centre of Lviv, Ukraine's cultural capital.

But even before ordering their drinks, the six men furiously check their smartphones to find out the latest on the conflict raging far away in the east.

"What bastards!" exclaims Andriy, an imposing 42-year-old banker. "Those terrorists... they have attacked the National Guard in Donbass. Again. Fortunately there were no deaths."

Not that day perhaps. But the pro-Russian rebels have inflicted a heavy toll on the military since the government ordered troops into the eastern industrial region known as Donbass in mid-April in what it describes as an "anti-terrorist" operation.

In the latest violence, 14 men were killed in two attacks in the rebel-held areas of Donetsk and Lugansk on Thursday, easily the bloodiest day so far for the armed forces as the country gears up for Sunday's presidential election.

Andriy's friend Viktor protested that the government was just "too soft".

"We must kill the separatists and bring the traitors to justice so that order is restored and we stop the spread of this gangrene."

"That's all very well, but could you actually kill someone?" challenged another one in the group, communications consultant Oleg.

"My brother says the main problem is that our soldiers are not psychologically ready to shoot -- unlike the Russians who have fought three wars."

Viktor said he himself would have no problem killing a "Moskal", using a derogatory term for an ethnic Russian.

"Either I kill him or he kills me."

Lviv, with a population of around 700,000, lies just 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the border with Poland but over 1,100 kilometres (730 miles) from Donetsk.

The picturesque riverside city is also the undeclared capital of Ukrainian nationalism, long hostile to the Russian-speaking industrial east where the insurgency erupted almost two months ago.

In the 2012 parliamentary election Lviv gave an overwhelming 70 percent support to nationalist candidates -- including from the far-right Svoboda (Freedom) Party and the Fatherland party of the heroine of the 2004 Orange revolution Yulia Tymoshenko.

Lviv is also the hometown of Svoboda leader and presidential candidate Oleh Tyahnybok, one of the main leaders of the Kiev protest movement that forced pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych from power in February.

- 'Heads filled with rubbish' -

In the Royal Brewery, an elegant pub-restaurant with its own brewery, the beer arrives and the friends join in a toast to "Our victory and a united Ukraine".

The men say they hope -- but are not that confident -- that Sunday's ballot will help calm the spiralling tensions by proving to the Kremlin and the separatists that Ukraine voted democratically for a new leader.

Russia has refused to recognise interim president Oleksandr Turchynov, describing Yanukovych's toppling in the bloody climax to months of pro-EU demonstrations as a coup.

"As if they had real elections in Russia," scoffed Oleg. "They'll always find an excuse not to recognise the Ukrainian government."

"They want a president who will surrender all of Ukraine, but the people will never elect someone like that. That's why Russia is trying to undermine the election."

They reserve most of their vitriol for Moscow, saying the Kremlin has been manipulating their brethren in the east.

"I don't understand why the people of Donbass support the terrorists. They are victims of Russian propaganda, their heads have been filled full of rubbish," sighed Ivan.

The friends agree however that the overriding priority for the new leader must be to "save the country". Social problems can wait.

"I haven't had a pay rise in a year. My parents only have small pensions," said Andriy.

"But we can wait, provided Russia leaves us in peace and we can continue on the path towards Europe."