As many predicted, Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula has fuelled outbreaks of separatism in traditionally pro-Russian eastern and southern regions of Ukraine. With the situation in Crimea still critical, some Russophiles keep waving the Russian flag and call for joining the “brotherly nation”.
The past week saw a number of attacks on public buildings in eastern Ukraine, which exacerbated Ukraine’s internal security situation but did not escalate into a large conflict, as some foreign analysts had predicted. The attacks were led by a small number of young men and do not in any way demonstrate a larger “uprising” in the east.
Attacks and ultimatums
Separatists in Donetsk had a very busy weekend. On April 6, they occupied the regional administration office and the Office of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). Then they demanded the regional council conduct an urgent session and declare the region’s separation from Ukraine. When they realised this would not happen, they solemnly declared the creation of the “Independent Donetsk Republic”. A few hundred people happily welcomed this news and chanted “Russia! Russia!” and “Putin, help us!”
|Inside Story – Is Russia planning to destabilise Ukraine?|
On April 8, the separatists came out with a political manifesto, proclaiming themselves the only legitimate power in the region and refusing to recognise Ukrainian authorities. They “dismissed” Donetsk Governor Sergiy Taruta and demanded the release of their leader. Self-proclaimed Governor Pavlo Gubarev had earlier been detained on separatism charges. The self-declared republic promised to join fellow separatists from Kharkiv and Luhansk and initiate a referendum on secession from Ukraine no later than May 11. Once this takes place, they intend to seek closer relations with the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union.
Attempts by Donetsk’s legitimate authorities to talk them into any constructive solution and make them leave the occupied building have failed. The only person they wanted to see was Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, former sponsor of fugitive President Viktor Yanukovich and his pro-Russian Party of Regions. The oligarch had no luck either.
“During our talks I explained to them that if they want the Russian language, I am ready to support them; if they want de-centralisation of powers, I am also ready to support them,” Akhmetov said in an interview with Hromadske TV. “But to me, Donbas is Ukraine and it’s not an issue for negotiations.”
Luhansk, some 150km east of Donetsk, experienced similar events: a small rally, Russian flags and slogans to join Russia. Luhansk separatists with masks, guns and camouflage uniforms attacked the office of the local Security Service of Ukraine.
Their main demands coincided with those put forth in Donetsk: the release of detained separatists and a referendum. Despite the fact that their first demand was fulfilled and that six of their “comrades” were released from custody, the protesters did not leave the occupied building.
One of their leaders recorded and released a video that briefly introduced their plan. “We are former Afghan [war] veterans, border guards, representatives of peaceful professions. We are just citizens of Ukraine. We have only one legitimate demand – to conduct a referendum, and we want to be heard. If you are going to assault us, military officers, I have to tell you: Welcome to hell. We know how to greet you,” he said.
The promises were backed by actions. According to Luhansk SBU operatives, separatists mined the building and kept about 60 hostages, most of whom were released by the morning of April 9.
The separatists’ demonstration in Kharkiv was the most violent. In the beginning, young men with the Russian flag as well as that of the Ukrainian socialist republic were chanting “Russia” and “Kharkiv is a Russian city”, but then they became aggressive. They started cursing at reporters and even attacked them physically. Some onlookers were also attacked. The separatists then attacked the regional administration office. Local police decided not to engage in a fight and let them occupy the building. Their demands were exactly the same as in Donetsk and Luhansk: a referendum and the release of pro-Russian protesters previously detained by police.
The aspirations for federalism voiced in eastern Ukraine reveal its weak points. The government believes that the attacks have been orchestrated by Russia which is trying to destabilise the situation and undermine preparations for the May 25 presidential election. The Ukrainian foreign ministry stated that the attacks have been orchestrated by Russia: “Aggressive actions that endanger [the] life and safety of Ukrainian citizens, growing activities of separatist forces and participation of Russian citizens in illegal actions prove that Russia is getting ready for [the] second stage of Ukraine’s occupation.”
However, some have suggested that the recent events do not necessarily constitute incitement of separatism by Russia. In fact, Moscow might even be fed up with the Crimea crisis and desire a normalisation of the situation. This separatism parade, therefore, might be nothing more than a campaign by a bunch of pro-Russian Ukrainians nostalgic about the Soviet past. Perhaps such campaigns are simply aimed at demonstrating to the new government in Kiev that people in the eastern regions do not consider it legitimate.
Whether or not Russia has aided the separatists, the warnings of a civil war are exaggerated. The situation in eastern Ukraine is indeed tense, but there are no indications that the population is ready to pick up arms and fight the government in Kiev. Nor are there any signs – at the moment – that Russia will intervene militarily because it is still engulfed in dealing with the ongoing crisis on the Crimean peninsula.
However, the recent escalation has put the government and the acting president in an uneasy situation. On the one hand, they have to control the pro-Russian groups and ward off their separatist ambitions; on the other, pro-Ukrainian groups expect to see immediate and efficient response, which the authorities are not capable of delivering – at least for now.
Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, a native of Kharkiv, has promised that the situation will be resolved without any bloodshed. The alternative is another violent faceoff between police and civilians, and this time between the new government and pro-Russian protesters. The government in Kiev must do its best to avoid such a scenario and negotiate its way out of this tense situation.
Olesia Oleshko is a Ukrainian journalist. She holds an MA in Journalism from Indiana University (USA).