It is a frigid evening in Donetsk’s Lenin Square, but the cold has not deterred a small crowd from maintaining a weeks-long protest against the new Ukraine government in Kyiv. They say they want to follow Crimea and break with Ukraine and join the Russian Federation.
Denis, 70, says the new government in Kyiv is making everyone poorer and the people of eastern Ukraine can’t live with the politicians of the capital anymore.
Vera, 62, says she’d like Donetsk to stay in Ukraine but that ethnic Russians are being forced to ask Putin to help because the politicians in Kyiv don’t care about the east of Ukraine and they just think of themselves.
Donetsk is in the heart of the Donbass coalfield and is one of Ukraine’s major industrial cities. The activists in Lenin Square are demanding the release of an activist who briefly proclaimed himself “people’s governor” of the region this month.
And they praise the actions of Russian separatists in Crimea, who stormed Wednesday a Ukrainian naval base in the Crimean city of Sevastopol. This is a day after Crimean leaders signed a treaty with Russia absorbing the peninsula into the Russian Federation after a disputed referendum.
Ukraine’s new leaders are becoming increasingly anxious about the protests in the eastern Ukraine cities that are home to large numbers of ethnic Russians. Protests have mounted, and over the weekend violence flared when more than 5,000 pro-Russian protesters roamed central Donetsk smashing doors and windows and forcing entry to government buildings.
Three have died in the recent protests in eastern Ukraine.
Kyiv’s politicians claim Moscow has been infiltrating Russian provocateurs to incite much of the agitation – an allegation also leveled by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The Kremlin denies this and has warned it is ready to send forces massed on the border to protect ethnic Russians – the initial reason given for seizing Crimea.
Pro-Russian activists deny the claims, flashing their Ukrainian passports to show they come from Donetsk.
The country’s new leaders, who replaced President Viktor Yanukovych ousted in February after months of street protests against his rule, are trying to dampen ethnic Russian agitation by offering reforms.
They are promising greater decentralization while preserving the unity of Ukraine, which will give the regions, cities, and districts broad powers and the funding needed for their development.
But one of the first moves by Ukraine’s parliament after Yanukovych fled to Russia still rankles here. The lawmakers passed legislation abolishing a law that allows regions to use Russian as a second official language. The acting president vetoed that abolition but ethnic Russians point to it as evidence showing what Kyiv really thinks of them.
Artyom, a 36-year-old small businessman, says it is too late for reforms. Donetsk should be part of the Russian Federation and says that would be best.
Despite President Putin’s indication Tuesday that he has no more designs on Ukrainian territory, Ukrainians fear that he may now be preparing more land-grabs of ethnic Russian-dominated areas.