DONETSK, Ukraine – Igor Zhukov tears a small orange sticker reading "Yushchenko! Yes" from a huge portrait of the smiling Viktor Yanukovych on Lenin Square (search) in the center of Donetsk.
"There's no place for Yushchenko supporters here," says the 30-year-old metal plant worker of Western-leaning opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko (search).
Donetsk, a city of 1 million, is the center of the huge Donbass industrial region in eastern Ukraine (search), and a huge majority of its residents supported native son Yanukovych in the disputed presidential election. The Central Election Commission has declared the pro-Kremlin Yanukovych the winner, but the Supreme Court was to hear a challenge to the results starting Monday.
Yanukovych is Ukraine's prime minister, but here he's affectionately called "our Vitya," and billboards plastering the town proclaim "Viktor Yanukovych, president of Ukraine."
There are no other portraits to be seen in Donetsk — certainly none of Yushchenko, the opposition leader who claims the authorities stole the election from him through fraud.
A 10,000-strong demonstration supporting Yanukovych on Sunday near the city's central monument to the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko ended in fistfights. About 20 Yushchenko supporters were attacked when they came to the square, and the orange flag that one of their number, Oleksandr Sulimo, tried to raise was torn up. Protesters threw black paint at two journalists trying to capture the moment on film.
"Referendum! Referendum!" the demonstrators shouted, demanding a plebiscite on eastern Ukraine's secession.
At the protest, activists started collecting signatures in support of splitting off 16 eastern regions that supported Yanukovych. The Donetsk regional legislature voted Sunday to hold a referendum on the province's autonomy on Dec. 5.
"I don't want the division of Ukraine, but if that fascist Yushchenko comes to power, then I'll definitely support secession," said Lyudmila Rodina, a 46-year-old mathematics teacher.
"I don't want to feed poor, western Ukraine," said Vasily Starost, who paused at the turnstile leading into the coal mine where he works — the Zasyadko mine, again the biggest in the nation.
The idea that the industrial east subsidizes the agrarian west is widespread here in the Donbass, and Starost and his co-workers are very fearful that, with Yushchenko's arrival, the bad old times will return.
Under Yushchenko, who served as prime minister in 1999-2001, the miners earned $60 a month, as opposed to $110 now, Starost said.
Yushchenko, who has the reputation of an economic reformer, is also blamed here for the shutdown of inefficient mines during his reign, leaving entire villages jobless.
There are also widespread fears that Yushchenko, whom opponents have smeared as a nationalist, will discriminate against Russian-speakers — as has happened in a succession of former Soviet republics.
Analysts say that Yanukovych raised this specter with his pledge to make Russian a state language and his promise that Russian would continue to be taught in school. Those are both popular ideas in his area, where many Russian-speaking residents struggle with Ukrainian.
"Mr. Yanukovych found it beneficial to portray himself as the leader for the Russian-speaking people, and to do that he reinforced the idea that only he can protect their rights," said Andriy Blinov of the Kiev-based International Center.
Yushchenko has said that he believes Russian should still be studied in school, and has said that if Russian-speaking Ukrainians felt that making Russian a state language would prevent any persecution against them, he would support it.
Zhukov, Starost and others said they intended to travel to Kiev soon.
"If we're told to, we're ready to defend our Vitya," Starost said.