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Political fever rises as Ukraine breaks apart

Not only has Ukraine lost territory, it has found itself facing the threat of losing more.

Not only has Ukraine lost territory, it has found itself facing the threat of losing more. Picture: Wikimedia Commons.

KIEV - Cross the Crimean sparkling wine off the list. The lingerie from Luhansk and felt boots from Donetsk could be next.

Financial journalist Yulia Sarotsyna spent a year living only off products made in Ukraine for a relentlessly upbeat blog to promote local brands. On the road for five months, she found toothbrushes from Kharkiv, sausage in the north, and even snails in the capital Kiev: "I discovered that Ukraine produces absolutely everything for a comfortable life," she wrote.

But two weeks after she finished her project, an uprising forced Ukraine's pro-Russian president to flee the country. Moscow responded by seizing and annexing the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea. Pro-Russian separatists have declared an independent "People's Republic of Donetsk" in the east and seized towns and cities while police were helpless to stop them.

Tens of thousands of Russian troops are massed on the frontier, with President Vladimir Putin openly threatening to invade to protect Russian speakers. A nation of 45 million people on a territory the size of France is falling apart.

Sarotsyna shelved around 20 of her product reviews because the tone seemed inappropriate when people were getting killed.

"We could not even agree whether it was right to write cheerful pieces about our latest offering because it may offend those people who are fighting for the right to live in a normal country and are suffering because of it," she wrote.

Her later posts were given a more explicitly political slant. One is labelled: "Economic patriotism: How to defeat Russia without leaving the supermarket."

EVERYTHING IS UNCERTAIN

Not only has Ukraine lost territory and found itself facing the threat of losing more, the crisis has undermined the entire concept of national unity in a country that has struggled to form an identity since emerging from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Questions that once seemed trivial now create intense political passion. Many Ukrainians describe a feeling of disorientation that has penetrated deeply into a young country that was still searching for its place in the world.

"Everything is uncertain now, and that gets to you," said 42-year-old Oleksander Kleimenov, a television producer in the Ukrainian capital.

"It's hard to figure out who is speaking the truth and who isn't. Whether people are saying one thing but actually mean another, or say one thing to make you think they believe something else when actually they are doing a third thing. It is incredibly hard to know who to trust."

Ukraine has a thousand-year history as a state, but spent centuries carved up by neighbours Russia, Poland, Lithuania and Austria. Its current borders were drawn by Bolshevik commissars out of provinces of the former Russian and Austrian empires.

It endured perhaps the worst 20th century of any place on earth. Millions perished in a famine engineered by Stalin in the 1930s, when Ukrainian peasants were forced into collective farms and shot for class crimes like owning a cow.

During World War Two, German occupiers wiped whole villages off the map, besieged Ukraine's cities and extinguished the entire culture of its Jews. Then, returning Soviet forces exacted revenge on suspected collaborators. New territories were annexed from interwar Poland and ethnically cleansed. Nationalist partisans kept fighting Soviet rule for decades.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, much of that grim history seemed to recede. Kiev became a pleasant capital city, with bars open late. Ukraine won the Eurovision song contest in 2004 and placed second twice since. In 2012 it co-hosted the European soccer cup jointly with Poland.

But the violent uprising that toppled pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich in February and the loss of territory that followed have resurrected the animosities from its older history. People are now quick to describe their foes with the language of "treason", "fascism" and "collaboration".

In parliament debate is often reduced to cat-calling over who should take the blame for failing to crush the pro-Russian uprising in the east and for losing Crimea.

A security source said it was almost impossible to get direction from a chamber so deeply split. At a closed sitting last month to discuss Ukraine's flagging "anti-terrorist operation" in the east, the source said half the chamber supported bolstering it, while the other half wanted it eased.

After spending weeks avoiding the limelight, members of Yanukovich's Party of the Regions have regained confidence and are again asserting themselves as defenders of Russian speakers. While they do not support secession for the east, they blame Kiev for provoking separatism by ignoring legitimate demands.