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.”

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