When cousins Alexander and Igor Shilov get together each week to drink beer and play Mortal Kombat, they try to avoid discussing politics.
Alexander, 20, has spent almost every day for the past two weeks volunteering at the occupied Donetsk regional administration, where pro-Russia protesters have declared a “Donetsk People’s Republic” and refused to leave the building until a referendum on independence from Kiev is held.
Igor, 28, calls himself a Ukrainian nationalist and supports Svoboda, the parliamentary party that many see as a fascist organization aiming to crack down on Russian speakers in the country’s east.
Over pizza and beer one night recently, the cousins began arguing bitterly as soon as talk turned to politics.
“We can’t deny that the Donetsk People’s Republic is an illegal formation,” Igor said.
“We just want independence,” Alexander said.
“What will independence give us?” Igor asked.
“It’s a good decision for us Donetsk residents, economically and otherwise. The Kiev regime also came to power illegally,” Alexander replied.
In the ensuing hour-long debate, the only kind words the Shilovs shared came when Igor passed Alexander a knife after the younger cousin burned himself on cheese dripping off a pizza slice.
Three-quarters of the inhabitants of Donetsk province, which is part of the Donbass coal-mining region that stretches into Russia, speak Russian as a native language and many have a positive view of their larger neighbor, thanks to longstanding economic and cultural ties.
However, surveys by centers in both Donetsk and Kiev show divided opinions on the region’s future, and rival pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian rallies last month ended in clashes, killing one.
Political differences have grown sharper in the past two weeks as pro-Russia protesters and militia have taken over government buildings in at least 10 cities in eastern Ukraine, splitting friends and relatives.
A poll by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology found 46 percent of those surveyed in eight southern and eastern provinces thought the protests in Kiev that ousted former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych were an “armed coup d’etat organized by the opposition with the help of the West,” while 54 percent thought Russia was “illegally interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs.”
When asked whether they supported the “actions of those who seize administrative buildings in your region with weapons in hand,” 72 percent of Donetsk residents said no.
In another survey, by the Donetsk Institute for Social Research and Political Analysis, 18.6 percent opposed changes to the government structure, 47 percent wanted federalization or at least more economic independence from Kiev, 27 percent wanted to join Russia in some form and 5 percent wanted national independence.
Many of Alexander and Igor’s disagreements echoed the contrasting narratives peddled by Russian and Ukrainian media, a difference so stark that many here describe it as an information war.
“Separatism is treason, especially under the wing of another government,” Igor said.
“I don’t accept methods like seizing a police station, taking weapons and giving them out to everyone,” he added, referring to takeovers of buildings in places such as Slavyansk, where pro-Russia militia have reportedly seized 400 firearms.
He opposes the uprising in the interests of preserving Ukraine’s territorial integrity and he said the crackdown on the Russian language that protesters railed against was “made up.”