Ukraine crisis: Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s mission to prevent his country breaking up

Kim Sengupta reports from Donetsk, where tensions are growing and a ‘People’s Republic’ has been declared

Donetsk

It was a hurriedly arranged visit that many thought would be cancelled; but the new Prime Minister of Ukraine flew into this region of tension and anger with offers of political concessions. It remains to be seen, however, whether these will be enough to save Ukraine from further dismemberment.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s visit had not been made public in Donetsk, where a “Peoples’ Republic” has been declared, armed separatists occupy the main government building and an aggressive clamour prevails to follow Crimea into the embrace of the Kremlin. The journey by members of the new government in Kiev was viewed as a last-ditch attempt to avert possible violence and repair deep fractures in the east of the country. The region has a sizeable ethnic Russian population and was the constituency of Viktor Yanukovych, the former president who was overthrown in February after months of protest.

During his three hours in the city, Mr Yatsenyuk, the interim premier, announced that proposals to devolve power to the regions were being considered; he was also at pains to emphasise that Russian would remain the second state language. An early attempt at the parliament in Kiev, following the revolution, to abolish this status has been one of the main sources of discontent in the east.

Mr Yatsenyuk did not venture to the administration building, which is surrounded by barricades of tyres, bags of cement and razor wire. It is guarded by men in balaclavas and the Ukrainian flag has been replaced by the red, white and blue of Russia. Denunciations of the “illegal Kiev regime” ring out from loudspeakers amid repeated demands for a referendum. Nevertheless, the meeting at the Chamber of Commerce had its own elements of drama. It brought together Ukrainian government ministers, local political leaders, civic activists and oligarchs, among them the industrialist Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in the country.

The mayors of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lugansk, three cities in which official buildings had been taken over by protesters, did not hold back in their attacks on government actions, which they blamed for contributing to the current crisis. Worryingly for the Prime Minister and his colleagues, they each endorsed a referendum on autonomy.

Mr Yatsenyuk assured his listeners that “no one under any circumstances will restrict the use of the Russian language people are accustomed to using”. He also agreed the government “must respond to people’s desire to have more regional authority”, adding: “We will implement this within the framework of constitutional reforms before the presidential elections.” These are scheduled towards the end of May.

The Prime Minister did not expand on the details of the reforms, but the government has rejected a federal system for the country, which Moscow and the separatists are demanding; local leaders, in turn, did not indicate whether the changes would meet their call for referendum.

The mayors aimed particular criticism at the acting Interior Minister, who had taken a hard line in the escalating confrontation. Arsen Avakov had issued a 48-hour ultimatum to the protesters at Donetsk and Lugansk to surrender their weapons and withdraw from the buildings they had captured or face attacks. He had also warned that units of a “special police task force” had been sent to carry out impending operations.

Pro-Russian activists warm themselves at a bonfire next to barricades in front of an entrance to the Ukrainian regional office of the Security Service in Luhansk Pro-Russian activists warm themselves at a bonfire next to barricades in front of an entrance to the Ukrainian regional office of the Security Service in Luhansk (AP)
Gennady Kernes, the mayor of Kharkiv, accused Mr Avakov, sitting six feet away, of causing damage by falsely claiming that the local administrations contained separatists who wanted to leave Ukraine: “Be responsible for your words. There are no separatists among us. Why do you say that? How can we work together if there is such disrespect?”

The mayor then turned to the blocking of Russian television stations, a highly emotive issue. The Kiev government had justified this on the grounds that the channels were disseminating propaganda, but Mr Kernes pointed out that polls had demonstrated a popular demand for them.

Read more: Putin threatens to cut off gas supply to Europe over Kiev’s $2.2bn debt

“We should take differences of opinion into account. What about the people who had spent money on satellite equipment and cable, many of them elderly people, and who are now being deprived?” Mr Kernes asked.

The mayor of Donetsk complained of a lack of understanding among some in Kiev about what was going on in his city and the wider Donbass region. “There has been an unwillingness to look at the real problems. I am hoping that they will hear the people here. The answers to these problems were needed yesterday. If they do not come, people may look elsewhere for answers.”

Alexander Lukyanchenko also called attention to the mounting economic problems being faced in this coal-mining area and the desperate need for regions to have more power over their budgets. The future, he said, was one of continuing rising unemployment in which the value of real income would keep falling.

Mr Akhmetov, whose fortune was estimated by Forbes magazine to be $11.4bn (£6.8bn), has been suffering his own financial travails, albeit in a very different world from that of the dispossessed of Donbass. After the fall of Mr Yanukovych, opposition politicians in Kiev demanded that the billionaire, who owns the most expensive apartment in London, worth £136m, should have his assets in the UK frozen.

This morning Mr Taruta, who has been appointed governor of the Donetsk region by the new Ukrainian government, sat on the same table as Mr Akhmetov, who the Kiev authorities see as someone who may be able to broker a deal with the separatists.

Mr Akhmetov, who had held talks behind the barricades, declared that he was “for de-centralisation”, adding: “I also want the voice of Donbass to be heard and respected. But I am against occupying building. Most of all I am against violence. Democracy, Donbass and Ukraine are in my heart for ever.”

One voice not heard at the meeting was that of the “Peoples’ Republic”. A small group of protesters appeared outside the Chamber of Commerce waving Russian flags. One of them, an activist calling himself Artem 77, snorted: “We don’t recognise Yatsenyuk as Prime Minister. He is just part of a junta which got in through a coup. He is such a ‘prime minister’ that he had to come in secretly; we found about it just now through [text message]. He should leave this city as soon as possible: he’s not welcome here.”

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