East Ukrainians fear crossfire of Russia 'visa war'

Yulia Silina, Sergiy Bobok
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Ukrainian border guard checks a passport at the Uspenka check point on the border between Ukraine and Russia, some 120 km from the eastern city of Donetsk on March 21, 2014

People in Ukraine's mainly Russian-speaking east fear being caught in the crossfire of a "visa war" between Kiev and Moscow, saying it would damage their careers and family ties.

"We'll stay here with empty pockets, and hate the authorities over it," said Mikhailo Stepanov, who is convinced Moscow will retaliate if Kiev carries out a threat to impose a visa regime with Russia.

In Donetsk, a major coal-mining city near Russia, nearly everyone has family on the other side of the border.

"Our government is trying to harm its own citizens," said Stepanov.

"Russians will travel in Ukraine, but there are millions of Ukrainians who go to Russia for work," said the 30-year-old engineer.

"With empty pockets, they will thank the government for taking care of them," he said mockingly.

Donetsk is a bastion of pro-Kremlin ex-president Viktor Yanukovych, who was toppled in a popular uprising last month before pro-Russian forces seized Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula.

Its people largely oppose the pro-European government that has filled the void in Kiev, and say that imposing a visa regime with Russia is akin to throwing fuel on the fire.

"My mother has relatives in Russia. For people like her, getting a visa will be a hassle, knowing the bureaucracy it involves," said Dina Kucheruk, a 30-year-old interpreter.

IT worker Sviatoslav Surkov said many people in the sector collaborate with Russian groups, and that they risked losing their jobs if a visa regime is introduced.

"If Ukrainian programmers have to waste time getting visas, their Russian employers will prefer to hire Russians," said the 28-year-old.

- 'Russia declares war' -

In Kharkiv, another blue-collar industrial city in eastern Ukraine even closer to the Russian border, opinions are divided.

"It's sad about the visa situation, but Russia has declared a de facto war" on Ukraine, said Elena, who did not give her last name.

"This will prevent provocateurs from coming to harm Ukraine," said the 40-year-old filmmaker.

Both Donetsk and Kharkiv were the scene of violent protests in the past week by demonstrators demanding the right to join Russia, just like Crimea.

"Travelling to Russia to see my relatives will be more complicated, but it's nothing compared with the need to preserve Ukraine's territorial integrity," said a 34-year-old woman who only gave her name as Anastasia.

Maksim, a 23-year-old film director, lamented the problems the suggested visa changes would bring.

"My parents are in Belgorod, and I'll see them every two months," he said, referring to the nearby Russian city.

"My nephew comes every summer with his grandmother, but this would be a problem.

"There are many links between people who help each other out in the border regions."

But having announced the planned visa restrictions on Wednesday, the Kiev authorities appeared to backtrack on the idea a day later.

"We will have to think long and hard before acting," said interim premier Arseniy Yatsenyuk, seemingly disavowing the policy announced by the National Security and Defence Council of which he is a member.

Former foreign minister Borys Tarasyuk, who is fiercly pro-Western, also said Thursday that visas should not be imposed, instead calling for "more controls" on Russians entering Ukraine.

A deputy in the pro-Russian Party of Regions, Irina Gorina, warned against any measures that would "hurt" Ukrainians.

"Listen to the voices of people in the (Russian-speaking) south and east as it is not too late," she told parliament.