Protests and sit-ins, though most eastern Ukrainians show little appetite for Russian rule

By bne IntelliNews April 10, 2014

Harriet Salem in Donetsk -


Barbed wire, barricades and balaclavas. Welcome to the "Donetsk People's Republic", a three-day-old unrecognised microstate in eastern Ukraine where Russian rock band Zemlyane blasts in the background, babushkas wave flags and reminisce fondly about the Soviet Union, and young men with faces hidden wield wooden batons.

On April 6, in what seemed to be an orchestrated move, pro-Russian protesters simultaneously stormed administrative buildings in key cities across eastern Ukraine, including, Kharkiv, Mauriupol and Luhansk, as well as Donetsk.

In Kharkiv, protesters were quickly ousted from administrative buildings following a counter move in the early hours by Ukraine's security service. But in Donetsk, where the takeover of the administrative building is the fourth to occur in a matter of months, the pro-Russia protesters, hunkered down behind three lines of ever growing barricades, have proved much harder to dislodge.

Speaking to bne, Roman Romaneko, the self-appointed commander of the occupied building, says that they will not leave until their voices are "heard". "These people in Kyiv have taken power and never even asked the opinion of people in the south and east," he says, jauntily adjusting his faux military cap. "This is why we need a referendum to decide our future".

Behind him on the wall, a map of the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas in which Donetsk lies has, rather prematurely, been labelled as Russia.

As well as declaring independence, the protesters have attempted to establish their own government; a ragtag of political unknowns who spend a fair amount of time squabbling with each other over what to do next. Thus far, their demands include presence of a Moscow-led "peacekeeping force" and a referendum on the status of Donbas, to be held before May 11.

Unseen hand

The establishment of the People's Republics is the culmination of unrest that has rocked Ukraine's predominantly Russian-speaking east since the new administration in Kyiv took the reins of power in February. A series of protests, violent clashes and building occupations have left one dead and dozens injured.

Kyiv has accused Moscow of having a hand in the eastern disturbances, bussing in protesters from across the border and financing agitators. The claim, whilst not outlandish in the face of the recent annexation of Crimea, is hard to substantiate. Whilst provocateurs may be amongst the protesters, the majority appear to be local.

However, far more damaging than any Russians disguised as Ukrainians is the Kremlin's tactic of toxic propaganda. The back-to-back programmes and news broadcasts of Russian state television channels, widely watched across the east of Ukraine, claiming that bandits and fascists have seized power in the capital play on deep-seated historical cultural and linguistic divisions between Ukraine's east and west.

Now the concern for Kyiv's fledgling government is that the events in Donetsk are a bid to mimic the pattern of events in Crimea, where a Kremlin-orchestrated putsch resulted in the southern peninsula's invasion and annexation by Russia in March.

Veiled threats from the Kremlin about protecting Russian speakers, and the massing of Russian troops on Ukraine's eastern border, currently estimated at around 40,000, are certainly an alarming indication that there remains the potential for military intervention. In practice, however, the threat of further Russian incursions in Ukraine seems to be receding by the day. Not least because unlike in Crimea, a vehement hotbed of pro-Moscow sentiment and Russian military bases, public opinion in Ukraine's east is much more divided.

Numbers don't add up

Pro-Russian demonstrations in Donetsk, the epicentre of the eastern protests, have, at best, attracted crowds of around 5,000 in a city with a population of more than 2m. Opposing rallies in favour of a united Ukraine have also attracted similar numbers. 

A survey by Donetsk Institute of Social Research and Political Analysis shows that 77% of Donetsk residents oppose the occupation of administrative buildings. "The whole thing is ridiculous," says 25-year-old Antushyin Vitaliy founder of a local NGO for young people. "I have no time for this sort of thing and nothing good to say about these people - they are rough criminals with too much time to spare".

Even those sympathetic to Russia are tiring of perpetual flag swapping and protests. "This mess is bad for attracting customers," grumbles 35-year-old Yulian Brilev, who runs a small business on the edge of Lenin Square. "Most of my friends are for Russia and I would vote for Russia if there is a referendum, but I think it's better to stay out of politics now. We should all just get on with our lives. I don't have time for this rubbish."

Still smarting from accusations of indecisiveness over Crimea, the Ukrainian government this time has issued a clear ultimatum to the protesters to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal in the next 48 hours or be forcefully removed.

Both of the region's well-respected oligarchs, Rinat Akhmetov and Sergey Taruta, the newly appointed governor of the Donbas region, have visited the demonstrators in an attempt to hash out terms for a peaceful withdrawal. But so far the response appears to have been tepid, with barricades being reinforced rather than dismantled.

Standing beneath a fluttering Russian flag on the roof of the barricaded building, 22-year-old Agat oversees the preparation of Molotov cocktails. Around him are piles of paving stones, ad hoc weapons on standby in case of an attack. "They are for emergencies," he says pointing to a pile petrol bombs. "We are ready to fight the police and western banderas - anyone who tries to remove us from here."

Whilst those inside the fortified building represent a fringe minority in Donetsk, Kyiv must handle removing them extremely sensitively. Moscow may not be about to send in troops, but if it is successful in stirring up long-term unrest in the east, this will hamper the efforts of Ukraine's new government at a time when all its energy needs to be focused on reviving the country's bankrupt economy.

Inaction in tackling the protesters may well be interpreted as a sign of weakness, but any violent incidents risk playing straight into the Kremlin's hands and re-igniting the fires of pro-Russian sentiment.


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