The new people’s republic of east Ukraine

In the power vacuum, a new government starts to form

Donetsk

The morning session of the governing council discussed an array of subjects ranging from litter collection to supplies to the militia and organising the coming referendum. Outside, joggers went by men in masks and barricades of sandbags and tyres without a second glance. This was another day in the People’s Republic of Donetsk.

The birth of the separatist enclave on 7 April was greeted with varying international versions of the Passport to Pimlico kind, a comic twist in the current tragedy of Ukraine as the country faces the prospect of further dismemberment after losing Crimea to the Kremlin. But, with each passing day, this alternative “administration” is beginning to take shape.

This has been helped, to a degree, by the ineptitude of the Kiev government; its impotence as state institutions across the region were taken over by pro-Moscow militants; the ignominy faced by its much-announced anti-terrorist mission with the loss of armoured personnel carriers which were then paraded with Russian flags flying.

Last Friday, this separatist leadership, routinely accused of being terrorists by Ukrainian authorities, was met at its Donetsk headquarters by Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister and a runner in the forthcoming national presidential election.

A few hours earlier, Denis Pushilin, the chairman of the People’s Republic, had dismissed the agreement in Geneva between Russia, the US, the EU and Ukraine which called on the protesters to vacate the buildings. Nevertheless, Ms Tymoshenko declared the meeting had convinced her that “a compromise was possible” and that any solution to the crisis needed to involve “representatives of all groups retaining control over administration buildings in the east”.

The fact that the protesters’ administration could guarantee safe conduct to Ms Tymoshenko at a time of strife added to its credibility. Now there is talk of another high-profile visitor: Viktor Yanukovych. There are persistent, although unverified, reports that the former president, driven into exile in Russia by the uprising in the Maidan, is arriving across the border in the very near future to pledge his support.

The Donetsk leadership had given little indication that it sees a future for Mr Yanukovych in the new order being created. However, the trip would be a source of further humiliation for the Kiev government. The man for whom it had issued arrest warrants on charges of mass murder can, it would show, appear with impunity in Ukrainian territory.

Separatist officials refused to discuss whether the former president would be making an appearance. At the administration building in Donetsk occupied by the protest, Mikhail Berezin, an officer in the People’s Militia, stated: “ We cannot talk about who may, or may not, be coming, but there is no reason why Yanukovych should not be here. He is still the legitimate president. He was removed by a coup. Obviously there are serious security issues here; there may be fascist agents from Kiev who may try to carry out an attack. Can we deliver security for such a visit? Yes, as we showed with Tymoshenko.”

It remains unclear what role the militia had played when Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Ukraine’s acting prime minister, came to the city just over a week ago with a government team to meet local political and civic leaders and the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.

The visit had not been made public for security reasons. A few who had rushed to the chamber of commerce building, where the meeting was being held, said they had heard about the government presence very late.

Members of the militia were, however, very much active in what happened next. Mr Yatsenyuk had offered devolution of powers to the regions during his visit. The response was the capture of more than a dozen official buildings, and in many cases the effective control of the cities and towns in which they were located. In the space of 48 hours, the reach of the People’s Republic had extended from Donetsk to Slovyansk, Yenakiyevo, Horlivka, Artemivsk, Kramatorsk, Kharkiv, Mariupol, Zaporizhya, Makiyivka and Druzhkivka.

The separatists insisted that the risings had been spontaneous; others were clear that was not the case. After leaving the police station in Horlivka, which had just been taken over, I was stopped by a man. “I have lived in Horlivka all my life. I am 60 years old, and I have never seen most of these people. They are strangers,” insisted Vladimir Petric (not his full name). “But this was organised elsewhere. They brought it ready made into our city.”

There were, indeed, plenty of signs of co-ordination in the attacks, with direction coming not always from Donetsk, but also Slovyansk which has become a symbolic and strategic centre of pro-Russian resistance. The militants in the city were well trained, with a large number of them admitting that they were former soldiers.

The public insistence was that they were Ukrainian and not Russian, but there were occasional glimpses of what was going on behind the scenes. During one of my visits to the city, Aleksandr, a militia member, said pointing to his combat clothing: “I’ve seen pictures of this type [of uniform] in the Western media, saying it’s Russian. It is similar but actually different.” He asked his companions to fetch Nicolai and, when the man appeared, added: “Now look, that’s Russian kit.” So where was Nicolai from? I asked. Both the men smiled and shook their heads.

It was the Slovyansk attack that led to Kiev launching what it termed the major part of its counter-terrorist offensive. The commander, General Vasily Krutov, stated that it would be “too humanitarian” to give the protesters more time to leave the buildings they were holding.

Later, after Ukrainian troops had taken Kramatorsk airport, General Krutov attempted to order the crowd to go home. He ended up being manhandled and punched. He was last seen scrabbling to get back behind the wire amid shouts of “war criminal”, “grab hold” and “jail him”. The following day, six Ukrainian armoured personnel carriers were cornered and surrounded by a crowd; masked men appeared, disarmed the soldiers and took the vehicles.

The Kiev government announced that there will be an Easter truce in the military operation. In reality, its forces, mainly confined to Kramatorsk airport, do not appear to be in a position to launch assaults; they are not in control of the streets.

But just how much independent control does the People’s Republic exercise? Rejecting the Geneva accord, Mr Pushilin declared at a press conference: “Sergei Lavrov didn’t sign anything for us; he signed on behalf of the Russian Federation.” It was noticeable, however, that he read many of his answers from papers placed in front of him, and surrounding him were colleagues to ensure he put over the right message.

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