Ukraine crisis: A country is born in Donetsk... but not for long

First the People’s Republic of Donetsk declared independence from Kiev. Then its leaders asked to be ruled by Moscow. Kim Sengupta reports on another day in the disintegration of Ukraine

The world’s newest country was born yesterday, but with the indication that it will have a brief lifespan. No sooner had the Peoples’ Republic of Donetsk declared its unilateral declaration of independence from Ukraine, that its leaders asked to be ruled by the Kremlin.

“People of Donetsk have always been part of the Russian world, for us, the history of Russia is our history”, declared Denis Pushlin, the chairman of the praesidium. “Based on the will of the people and the restoration of a historic justice, we ask the Russian Federation to absorb the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic into the Russian Federation.”

The will of the people, according to the separatists, has had a quite a remarkable outburst of expression.

It was initially announced by Roman Lyagin, the head of the rebel election commission, that 89.7 per cent of the public had voted in favour of leaving Ukraine, a figure that would have meant a turnout of 100.63 per cent. However, it later emerged that Mr Lyagin had mispoke and the figure was 89.07 per cent. 

Still, considering the levels of uncertainty, violence and roadblocks - it represented an extraordinarily healthy participation.

There was no immediate response from the Russian government to the appeal. Earlier in the day a statement had been issued in Moscow saying that it expected the results of the vote to be implemented in a “civilized manner” with a dialogue between Ukraine’s caretaker government and Donetsk and another city, Luhansk, where the separatist leadership had also proclaimed independence after a referendum, this time with an alleged vote of 96 per cent.

Sergey Lavrov, said there were no further international talks planned over what has turned into one of the most serious international crisis in recent times. The Russian foreign minister attacked the “shameless lies” of the West over the affair and the “information blockade” which had been supposedly imposed over the large turnout at the polls.

Mr Lavrov also claimed that a roadmap for a negotiated settlement produced by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) calling for direct talks between the protagonists had the backing of John Kerry, but the US Secretary of State had failed to press the Kiev administration to accept it.

VIDEO: Donetsk celebrates after referendum result

Olesksandr Turchynov, Ukraine’s interim president, has been adamant that there “would be no talking to terrorists”. He told the Parliament in Kiev today: “The farce that terrorist separatists call a referendum is nothing more than propaganda to cover up murders, kidnappings, violence and other crimes”. The real figures for polls, he claimed, were much lower with 24 per cent in Luhansk and 32 per cent in the Donetsk region.

In Washington, the Obama administration stressed.” The United States will not recognise the results of these illegal referendums”, while the British Foreign Secretary, maintained: “The votes in the Eurovision Song Contest are more credible and carry greater weight than the circumstances in Donetsk and Luhansk.”

William Hague would not perhaps have known it, but the victory of Austrian Conchita Wurst had been held up by a  few people, waiting to vote in the city of Mariupol, as a shocking example of West’s decadence. Sexual orientation was also an important  issue for  Mr Pushilin while discussing the common cultural ties between the Donbass and Russia, in an interview with Channel 4 Television yesterday. “We don’t like gay parades either here or in Russia,” he pointed out firmly.

On his first day as head of the Peoples Republic, Chairman Pushilin had initially seemed  unsure about the pace of political ties with the Kremlin. Plans for a second referendum on asking to join the Russian Federation, scheduled for next Monday, had been dropped.  Who, he had been asked by journalists, will then decide on such a monumental decision?  “Which country we will join will be decided after consultations with experts”, responded Mr Pushilin. Who were the experts? Were they in Donetsk or in Moscow? A few hours later the plea came from him for Moscow to take over.

The separatist high commands in both Donetsk and Luhansk stated that the Ukrainian presidential elections, due on 25th May, will not be allowed to take place in their regions. Mr Pushilin went on to assert  that Ukrainian forces in the region were now “foreign”. He continued: “They would have to make up their minds whether they want to be an occupying power, or join the forces of the Donetsk Republic which are being  be set up. We shall take all steps necessary against foreign forces on our land.”

Such ultimatums were also issued in Crimea following the referendum there. But, on that occasion, it was backed up by the presence of Russian troops. Ukrainian forces in the peninsula subsequently faced prolonged and intimidating sieges by the “Green Men” and separatist militias. The roles are reversed in the Donbass, with the Ukrainian military and their armour attempting to surround and carry out strikes into militant towns and cities, albeit with limited success.

The forming of the Peoples Forces, meanwhile, has revealed inner tensions in the separatist hierarchy. On Sunday, three senior militia officers arrived from Slovyansk, a city which has gained the reputation for being the most belligerent and best armed separatist stronghold, to Donetsk and, it is believed, told a bemused Mr Pushilin and his colleagues that they would be in charge of all military matters from now on.

Yesterday, asked of his relations with the Slovyansk command, he insisted: “We all fight together, we are all equal”. Later in the afternoon it was confirmed that Colonel Igor Strelkov, whose original name was Igor Vsevolodovich Girkin, would be the military commander of the Peoples Republic.

The Kiev authorities had accused Colonel Strelkov of being an officer in Russian military intelligence, the chief point of liaison between separatists and Moscow. No evidence, however, has been produced in support of the charge. Colonel Strelkov denies the charge, insisting that he was a Ukrainian citizen.

There had been no major Ukrainian military activity in the course of the day. Kiev  appeared to be facing its own problems with its forces. Interior minister Arsen Avakov said that troops involved in a shooting on Sunday night were nor under the control of the government; an investigation would be launched into what happened. A number of private armies had been established in the region, one with supposed links to an oligarch.

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