If they can do it in Kiev, we can do it in Donetsk.
That’s what Roman Romanenko says as he organizes the occupation of this eastern Ukrainian city’s seat of government, which he and hundreds like him seized to protest Kiev’s new leadership. Clad in fatigues and a blue beret, the 35-year-old former paratrooper quit his coal-mining job to come here.
“My miner’s soul told me to be here,” said Romanenko. “Those people in Kiev spat on us. They think Ukraine is only western Ukraine and are ruling as they please.”
Romanenko and his fellow activists, entrenched in the building where ousted President Viktor Yanukovych once ruled as governor, are demanding a vote on greater autonomy, joining similar movements in other heavily Russian-speaking cities in the country’s east. Outside is a scene reminiscent of Kiev’s Independence Square, or Maidan, before rallies for closer ties with Europe turned deadly in February, leading to Yanukovych’s downfall and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
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While the eastern uprising looks and feels like Maidan, the roles have been reversed, with support coming from the east instead of the west as former Cold War rivals trade accusations of secret plots to spark unrest. Russia, with 40,000 troops across the border, said attempts by federal Ukrainian forces to quell the demonstrations threaten to lead to civil war.
Like Maidan, there are barricades of tires and wire in Donetsk, as is the smoke from wood-burning stoves and the bustle of bat-wielding men in balaclavas and home-made riot gear. Their arsenal of bricks and Molotov cocktails, also the same, is growing. There are groups of women, too, only here they say: “Ukraine is the victim of U.S. and EU aggression.”
Romanenko, elected commander of the camp by the council of protesters, dismisses speculation Russia is behind the uprising, as it was in Crimea when President Vladimir Putin sent thousands of soldiers to augment the troops already stationed at Russia’s Black Sea Fleet there.
“We just want the right to hold a referendum on federalization, so we can decide our own fate,” Romanenko says. “Why are extremists allowed to seize buildings in Kiev, but we can’t do the same here? I don’t belong to any party, just to the national patriotic movement.”
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk flew to Donetsk, 700 kilometers (435 miles) southwest of Kiev, in a bid to ease tensions, telling reporters there Friday that his administration wants to cede more powers to the regions as soon as possible.
“We need to maintain peace in our country and preserve its integrity – this is the No. 1 task,” Yatsenyuk said.
Donetsk’s mayor, Oleksandr Lukyanchenko, addressing reporters after talks with Yatsenyuk, called for a referendum on decentralization alongside the May 25 presidential vote.
Protests and calls to boycott next month’s election have sprouted up throughout the country’s industrial heartland, which relies on trade with Russia and fears the competition European Union membership would bring.
While the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk have 28 percent of Ukraine’s 45 million people, they account for almost half of industrial output.
Russia has imposed bans or delayed shipments of Ukrainian exports several times in the past year to punish the government for pushing ahead with plans to sign an EU trade accord instead of joining Putin’s trade bloc. Yanukovych backed out at the last minute, opting instead for a $15 billion bailout from Putin, which was rescinded after his ally’s ouster.
Ukraine’s economy, which has endured two contractions since 2008, is headed to a third recession this year, according to the U.S.-and EU-backed government, which expects gross domestic product to shrink 3 percent. With currency reserves depleted and the hryvnia at a record low, officials are pushing for final approval of an International Monetary Fund loan that will unlock $27 billion in international financing over two years. Finance Minister Oleksandr Shlapak said in Washington yesterday that Ukraine needs at least $30 billion through 2015.
Andriy, 40, said he and his friends decided to join the occupation in Donetsk to maintain order and “prevent actions by provocateurs.”
“We crave stability,” said Andriy, who declined to give his last name or occupation for fear of reprisal. “Yanukovych was corrupt, but he was the legally elected president and we need him to restore stability. For now, we’re getting paid on time, but we’re sure that will end soon. That’s why we need the referendum on greater autonomy.”
Though chants of “Russia, Russia” are common at the camp, Andriy, like Romanenko, said he doesn’t want to join the Russian Federation. He just wants to be less dependent on Kiev.
That’s a view shared by most people in the Donetsk region, according the local Institute of Social Research and Political Analyses. Sixty-six percent of the region’s population wants Ukraine to remain united, the research group said, citing a poll of 500 people conducted March 26-29. The results have a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
One of those is Olha, a 36-year-old lawyer who volunteered for nursing duties at what is now the headquarters of the protest movement in Donetsk.
“I will stay here until we win, until he have a referendum on federalization,” Olha said, declining to give her last name. “My father is Russian, I’m for Russians, for Slavs, but federalization is enough for me. Who knows how Russians would treat us if we join? I don’t want to be a third-class citizen.”
– With assistance from Jake Rudnitsky in Moscow.