Ukraine crisis: Calm before the storm in Donetsk as a divided nation gears up for one final battle

With a proposed referendum still up in the air, the only certainty is more violence

Slovyansk

The announcement that a referendum on autonomy will go ahead despite Vladimir Putin's call for a delay came at a press conference held by Denis Pushilin, the head of the "People's Republic of Donetsk" in a government building occupied by separatists and ringed by barricades, barbed wire and masked gunmen. It was packed by the international media, with a large crowd waiting outside to hear the news.

Three and half hours later Serhiy Taruta, the governor of Donetsk Oblast, gave his own press conference in the opulent surroundings of Donbass Palace hotel to condemn the referendum as “illegitimate, divisive and dangerous”. A small group of local journalists turned up; security was virtually non-existent, no pro-Russian protesters bothered to turn up to target the oligarch sent by Kiev to run the region.

Whatever happens with the 11 May vote, the fact remains that the reach of Ukraine's caretaker government is becoming irrelevant in parts of the Donbass, with key aspects of administration and law and order wilting in the turbulence of the last few months. There is a boosted military operation which has led to deaths, damage and checkpoint on roads, but has failed to restore Kiev's fading political authority.

According to Mr Pushilin the vote on whether the east of the country stays within the current structure of Ukraine will help to stop the violence and re-establish politics. “Civil war has already begun, the referendum can put a stop to it and start a political process. If we don't have a referendum we will lose the trust of the people, we face the choice between referendum and war and we have chosen the way of peace”, he maintained, sitting in front of a man with a Kalahsnikov at the regional administration building which has been in militant hands for the last two months.

But it was Mr Putin rather than Mr Pushilin who was the real object of interest today. There had been widespread anticipation that his request for a postponement on the poll would be met. He had also given his backing for the first time to Ukraine's presidential elections scheduled for 25 May; there had been prisoner swap with Donetsk's “peoples' governor”, Pavel Gubarev, freed in Kiev and returning to the east; there was speculation that all this was the start of a wider peace process.

Mr Pushilin, the chairman of central committee of the “Peoples' Republic”, stressed that Mr Putin was “undoubtedly a friend of the south-east of this country.” But added: “We have not had direct contact with Mr Putin. We have had our meeting, the decision of the Peoples' Council was unanimous and Mr Putin would be aware of the decision.”

Voters will be asked one question, whether they want to have autonomy, in ballot papers which have already been printed and taken to polling centres, sometimes smuggled past checkpoints of Ukrainian forces, said Roman Lyagin, the 33-year-old head of the separatists' “election commission” on another floor of the administration building.

 

A delay, he insisted, was simply not an option. “There is no man who can move this referendum; you have no idea how many armed people there are in Donetsk right now, we cannot offend people. There are three million who are eligible to vote and they will get their chance to vote. The ballot papers will go to the polling stations which will be in schools and hospitals, as in every other election.”

Mr Lyagin rattled off the statistics of the count. There were around 20,000 people willing to work as election officials; the voter turn-out was expected to be more than 70 per cent; the results will be announced within 23 and 26 hours after the stations close. His work, however, had been hampered by the Kiev administration refusing to hand over the current voters' list, having to rely on one from a parliamentary election two years ago.

Supporters of the government have produced their own statistics, a poll which shows, they claim, that 70 per cent of the residents in Russian speaking part of the country want to stay in an united Ukraine. They are however, convinced that the results have already been rigged as was the charge in Crimea where an overwhelming majority supposedly voted to join Russia. “The only realistic hope to stop the referendum and the dubious result is that the anti-terrorist operation  makes rapid progress and get back the the areas which the separatists have taken”, acknowledged Yevgeny Semechin, an Ukrainian nationalist activist.

There was, however, little sign of that happening today. The frontline at the most fierce flashpoint, Slovyansk, was quiet, with no sound of gunfire, no helicopters. Ukrainian forces were strangely lacking in presence. A checkpoint controlling the main route into the city from the direction of Horlivka, normally heavily manned with troops and armour had two armoured personnel carriers, empty of personnel, facing each direction with the traffic going unchecked.

The Kiev government had claimed Slovyansk, a militant stronghold, was now completely surrounded in preparation for a final assault against “terrorists and their Russian allies”. A number of checkpoints had actually disappeared instead. I eventually tracked down some soldiers to ask about this seeming change in operational tempo. “It's a military secret” said one. “But frankly we don't know ourselves.” Asked about the referendum, he stated: “It is really for the people here to decide, I think they should stay in Ukraine, but our government should have done much more to make them welcome. We all hope this can be resolved peacefully.”

In Slovyansk, the newly appointed pro-Moscow mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, echoed the view of ministers in Kiev of a final battle. “They will attack for sure, but we can defend ourselves, we have enough men, enough weapons. We are not afraid of anything, let them come.”

Some of the fighters on the ground were more circumspect. “I am glad the referendum is going ahead because we must be allowed to express our views”, said Aleksandr Makedevsky, on guard duty outside the separatists intelligence headquarters. “But we don't want to keep on fighting for ever, I am a businessman, I hope to go back to work soon, the people in Kiev should speak to our leadership.”

Back in Donetsk, Governor Taruta declared he was prepared to spend money to stop people taking part in the referendum. “Some people have got very strange ideas about the west [of Ukraine] that it is full of fascists. Go and tell those at the barricades that I am prepared to pay to send them there for a visit so they can see the truth for themselves”, he asked journalists.

At the barricades in front of the regional administration building, Leonid Balchuk was unimpressed by the offer: “Taruta, as you know, is a billionaire. He made his money by stealing and the other thieves in Kiev made him governor, what a joke! So no, we won't be bribed by him and when we win the referendum vote, we'll kick him out of the Donbass. We would like to keep some of his money, but that's all probably locked away in Switzerland.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?