Inside Ukraine’s ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’

A vocal minority in Ukraine’s east wants to join Russia, and Kiev has so far been unable to put down the separatists.

Pro-Russian activists declared the so-called 'Donetsk People's Republic' on April 7 [AFP/Getty Images]

Donetsk, Ukraine – Behind several layers of barbed wire, sandbags, tyres and wooden posts, sits the headquarters of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic”.

Donetsk, like much of eastern Ukraine, opposed the anti-government protests that toppled former president Viktor Yanukovich in February and the pro-Western government that has replaced him. Today, a vocal minority here support joining Russia, whose borders are only about 100km away.

On Wednesday afternoon, men – some masked, others bare-faced – stood guard around the 11-storey headquarters of the Donetsk Republic. The building was festooned with banners denouncing the European Union, the United States and “fascists”.


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Yanukovich centralised for himself is now in the control of his opponents.”]

A stage in front of the headquarters’ main entrance hosted entertainment ranging from recorded kitsch music to a lively poetry reading about the evils of the West. Donetsk resident Andrey Alimov was not wooed by the show. “It all terrifies me a little. I’m sick of all of the unrest,” Alimov told Al Jazeera as he headed away from the headquarters. 

The building, officially known as the Donetsk Regional Administration, was seized more than a week ago by protesters opposed to Ukraine’s new government. Shortly after the takeover, the protesters replaced the Ukrainian flag with the Russian tricolour and blotted out Ukrainian insignia with spray paint.

But these separatists appear to represent the small minority of Donetsk residents who want to separate from Ukraine. A poll conducted by the Institute of Social Research and Political Analysis, based in Donetsk, found that 65 percent of people in the city preferred it to remain part of Ukraine.

Yet although the 36-year-old Alimov still feels a sense of patriotism towards Ukraine, the fact remains that no one in Donetsk – or anywhere else in the country – seems to know exactly what they’re doing, Alimov said. 

Weak control

Bands of separatists similar to those in Donetsk have sprouted up across Ukraine’s east in recent weeks – and the fledgling government in Kiev has so far proven unable to quell these uprisings.

Ukraine struggles to bring east under control

Interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov announced an “anti-terrorist operation” against pro-Russian forces on Tuesday. But in the centre of Donetsk, this promise sounded more like a catch-phrase than an actual call to action. Separatists have met little, if any, resistance from local police units. 

On Wednesday evening, the Donetsk police milled about the crowd of about 200 people around the regional administration building. But no police were present at the nearby Donetsk City Council building, which had been captured by separatists earlier that day. Instead, the building was guarded by a local militia, a member of which told Al Jazeera they planned to take down the Ukrainian flag later in the evening. 

“The police have ‘post-Maidan syndrome’,” wrote Vitaliy Sizov, a journalist from local news site Novosti Donbassa, referring to the name of the protest movement that brought down Yanukovich.

Many of the local police were appointed by Yanukovich, who was the governor of the Donetsk region from 1997 to 2002. After Yanukovich was ousted as president, the police now have few qualms about allowing anti-government takeovers as a kind of revenge, Sizov told Al Jazeera. 

The separatist protesters object to the way in which Yanukovich was removed from power. For many of them, the incident is just one more example of how western Ukrainians, taken in by the temptations of Europe and the US, were willing to topple a lawfully elected president.

Centralisation, federalisation, secession?

However, the separatist protesters in Donetsk lack a united message and popular support that could lead to any decisive political action, such as separating from Ukraine. And some residents say that a more palatable alternative for many Donetsk residents could be federalisation, which would allow Ukraine’s regions more control over their local government.

Tension raised in Ukraine’s Donetsk region

Near Donetsk’s Lenin Statue, Denis Odentsov is handing out flyers with information about how a decentralised government would solve problems in the region. 

“People in Kiev just don’t understand what it’s like here,” the 24-year-old said, adding that greater autonomy might give a boost to the region’s economy.

Ultimately, federalisation of power in Ukraine might be part of an eventual compromise, said Timothy Frye, director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. “One of the ironies of the current crisis is that the power Yanukovich centralised for himself is now in the control of his opponents,” Frye told Al Jazeera.

Ukraine’s election results have usually split along regional lines, with the east voting for one candidate and the west for another. This has meant that whoever is in power tends to represent the interest of one side of the country over the other.

However, with Russia in the equation, “federalisation has become associated with Russia’s efforts to devolve power to regions [in Ukraine], which would allow the regions to be on equal footing with the central government”, Frye said. This could give Moscow significantly more leverage in Ukraine.

This, Frye said, could likely be the Kremlin’s end-game – given his belief that a Crimea-like secession seems unlikely in eastern Ukraine. Instead, he holds that an energetic minority in eastern Ukraine has given voice to the idea of secession. 

“If it weren’t for the Russian troops on the other side of the border,” he said, referring to the militias in eastern Ukraine, “I don’t think we would even see this happening”.

Source: Al Jazeera