‘Self-defence’ forces in Ukraine plan to stay

Despite the Geneva deal, anti-government protesters in Ukraine’s eastern regions don’t intend to leave any time soon.

Residents are seemingly not worried by the presence of local militia units carrying semi-automatic weapons [AFP]

Slavyansk, Ukraine – Makeshift road blocks of asymmetrically stacked tires, sprouting the black, blue and red flags of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic dot the road into Slavyansk. Signs reading “No one but us”, “We love Slavyansk”, and “No Fascists”, are fixed to billboards along the road, while checkpoint guards occasionally inspect vehicles passing through, just in case someone – or something – that could disrupt the peace might drive past. 

In and around this eastern Ukrainian town, there are no signs that Thursday’s Geneva agreement will have any effect.

The de-escalation deal made between the United States, the European Union, Russia and Ukraine called for armed bands of local militia across the Donetsk region to disarm and vacate the buildings they had occupied – which they have flatly refused to do.

On Friday, several armed, masked guards in camouflage stood watch over the sandbagged entrance to the Slavyansk Regional Administration building, just as they had the day before.

Life as normal

Residents milled around the town’s main square the day after the deal was reached in Switzerland, seemingly unperturbed by the continued presence of the local militia units carrying semi-automatic weapons.

“I’m not scared of them at all, I’m happy they’re here,” said Andrey Sotnikov, 55, who was standing in a children’s playground to the side of the central administration building.

While Sotnikov was speaking with Al Jazeera, a dozen armed men in camouflage and masks drove away in a police car and an armoured Ukrainian vehicle with the words “People’s Self-Defence Force” emblazoned on the side.

Sotnikov, who was with his wife and toddler-aged grandchild, said he felt safe with the militias keeping the peace. “It’s much better than having the Ukrainian soldiers rolling around,” he said.

Putin, for us, is like a second god.

- Tatyana, pensioner

On Wednesday, the Ukrainian had army made an attempt to disperse the armed groups in Slavyansk – who had been occupying the town’s main administrative buildings since April 12. But the mission ended unsuccessfully and Ukrainian troops deserted their tanks and several other armoured vehicles.

There have been no more attempts to retake administrative buildings in Slavyansk since, though Ukrainian military aircraft still occasionally fly within earshot, sending people’s glances skywards.

“Why does the government in Kiev want to send soldiers to come and maintain order here?” said Tatyana, a 56-year-old pensioner who was sitting on a bench near the regional administration building with her friend, Svetlana.  

“It’s horrible that a government would send its military against its own people,” Svetlana said. “Hopefully, a Russian presence along the Ukrainian border will deter the government in Kiev from preventing a referendum in Donetsk.

“Russia right now is our only saviour,” added Svetlana, 45.

“And Putin, for us, is like a second god,” Tatyana interjected. Both of the women, who declined to give their last names for safety reasons, said a referendum seemed like the best way to stabilise the region, while still letting it stay part of Ukraine. 

The pair also expressed their outrage that Ukrainian officials were trying to shut off their Russian news media channels.

Meanwhile, Tatyana Gorobetsa, a 30-old housewife, remains more concerned with the possibility that her bank account could be frozen. The Slavyansk resident was on her way to withdraw most of her money in cash, fearful that if the crisis persisted, she would have a difficult time getting money out.

“I understand why they’re doing what they are, and I even have a family friend inside there,” said Gorobetsa gesturing towards the occupied Slavyansk administration building. “I’m all for federalisation, I just want stability first.”

The road to referendum?

While Thursday’s Geneva de-escalation agreement did include provisions for decentralising some of Kiev’s power to Ukraine’s regions, this process would occur on the condition that militia groups disperse and disarm – which they have said they would only do after a referendum were held.

The new government in Kiev has repeatedly expressed fears that any sort of referendum or promise of greater autonomy for eastern regions could lead to the breakup of Ukraine. Or at the very least, that eastern Ukraine would be able to pull the entire country closer to Russia and away from Europe.

The presence of approximately 40,000 Russian troops along the Ukrainian border, as well as the prevalence of Russian flags and vocal support for Moscow from the local militia groups that are part of the Donetsk People’s Republic have also given Kiev cause to worry that a more independent east would closely align with Russia. 

However, it remains unclear how the Ukrainian government might divert plans for a May 11 referendum in the Donetsk region – though it remains unclear exactly what question would be on the referendum paper.

The goal of decentralising Ukraine’s government makes sense in many ways: During his time as president, Viktor Yanukovych refocused a great deal of the country’s regional power in Kiev, giving his government more control over the country. Returning more power to the country’s regions would allow Ukraine’s diverse areas to tailor their local government according to local priorities.

However, “a local referendum would only be seen as a deepening of the crisis”, especially since Ukraine does not have a legal framework for local referenda, said Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Center for International Peace in Moscow.

When implemented appropriately, a federal arrangement can be a good way for a diverse country to retain its integrity, said Lipman – but there should be some reason to keep the country together in the first place.

Follow Katherine Jacobsen on Twitter: @kajtweets

Source: Al Jazeera

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