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Max Vetrov / AFP / Getty Images

Donetsk deadline passes with activists vowing to not give up

Pro-Russia demonstrators hunker down in government building while Kyiv urges more regional autonomy

DONETSK, Ukraine — The deadline for pro-Russian activists to evacuate the government building they’ve holed up in behind razor-wire and tire-barricades came and went Friday, with a growing number of firearms appearing inside the structure while Ukraine’s prime minister backed giving regions more autonomy from Kiev.

Crowds outside the Donetsk regional administration building were smaller as the weather turned sharply colder and damper. Men wearing orange construction hats handed out plastic ponchos to elderly women, and huddled around barrel fires in the lee of the sizable barricades now protecting the building’s main entrance, trying to escape the cold wind. 

Tens of thousands of Russian troops remain massed along the border, about 40 miles away. The Donetsk occupation, and smaller standoffs in nearby cities of Luhansk and Kharkiv, are only the latest events to batter the fragile government in Kiev.

The government led by acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk took power after protests in the capital turned violent in February and ousted Viktor Yanukovych, a lukewarm ally of Moscow.  Moscow, meanwhile, swept in and annexed Crimea in the weeks after Yanukovych’s ouster, forcing a humiliating withdrawal of Ukrainian military forces from the Black Sea peninsula. 

On Wednesday, acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov set a 48-hour deadline for activists to leave the Donetsk building, with a vague threat of possible violence. On Friday morning, however, while people in and out of the building said they were aware of the deadline, there was little in the way of urgent preparations.

Despite talks being held between representatives of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic and Ukrainian government officials, there was no indication that the activists were willing to give any ground in their demands, which include plans for a referendum to determine the region’s status.

An unannounced visit

Yatsenyuk made an unannounced visit to Donetsk on Friday, where he met with elected officials from eastern regions, but no pro-Russian activists. According to Ukrainian and Western press reports, he said upcoming constitutional reforms will “satisfy people who want to see more power given to the regions.”

“I do believe that we need to tackle this problem only in a peaceful manner, but we have made the offer: they are to leave the presence of the state administration, to be disarmed and we as the state of Ukraine can guarantee them that they won’t be detained or arrested, but it’s up to them,” he said in televised comments.

Donetsk, Russia, Ukraine crisis
One of the pro-Russia demonstrators who have taken over a government building in Donetsk stands guard outside with a pitchfork.
Alexander Khudoplety / AFP / Getty Images

Among several points that Moscow has pushed in its talks with the United States, the European Union and others is the concept of “federalization,” or giving more administrative powers to regional governments. That’s an idea that has been cautiously supported in Kiev and Western capitals, though many fear that too much devolution of authority to the regions would allow Moscow to manipulate local governments to its benefit.

At the administration building in Donetsk, the encampment has grown substantially since the building was initially seized on Sunday, with concert-style amplifiers regularly broadcasting Russian state-sponsored newscasts and speakers exhorting those gathered to help keep the grounds clean. One hand printed signs read “Russia, Putin: help protect us from (the) Kiev junta and (the) dirty paws of the U.S.!”

“We’re not pigs. Keep things neat, show journalists that we can maintain order,” one speaker yelled to the crowd. “We will continue to fight and we will be victorious.”

Though the inside of the building looked like small riot had swept through — nearly every office and every corridor in the 11-floor building was ransacked — activists continued trying to organize some sort of operational structure. In some corridors, women swept cigarettes butts and trash into piles, while men carried out huge trash bags down flights of stairs.

Miscellaneous signs, both hand written and printed on computers, asked for volunteers to help in the kitchen, and warned that “provocateurs will be forced to clean the toilets, if discovered.” One sign gave instructions on how to defend the building from snipers.

Outside the main auditorium on the building’s 2nd floor, three men in masks, carrying clubs on their belts, appeared chagrined after a woman yelled at them to wash their hands with baby wipes before helping themselves to open-face sandwiches and tea in plastic cups. Another group gazed blankly at a television broadcasting a show with instructions about how to fit a brassiere properly. (“Useful, no?” said a woman, smirking as she made sandwiches)

Camouflage and shotguns

Many of the building’s floors were barricaded shut, and men wearing brand-new bulletproof jackets and new two-way radios hurried up and down the stairs. Compared with earlier in the week, an increasing number could be seen carrying handguns in their waist belts or in small holsters.

On the 7th floor, two camouflage-clad men held pump-action shotguns and checked identification papers at the floor’s smoke-filled main landing. One, who gave his name as Andrei and said he had a 2-year-old daughter, twirled a baseball bat and said he was upset about liberal European Union laws regarding homosexuality. European attitudes toward same-sex relationships was one of the main issues that opponents to closer Ukrainian-EU ties fixated on. 

Ukraine, Ukranine crisis, Russia
A pro-Russian protester wearing a mask sits in front of a map of the Donetsk region inside the administration building that has been occupied by demonstrators since Sunday.
Maks Levin / Reuters

“What’s with all this talk of sexual minorities? We don’t want that here. I don’t want my daughter growing up to run around with a lesbian,” he said poking a visitor in the chest. “If they want to force their … ideals on us, they can go to (hell).”

Activists have chosen a 12-member governing council to press their demands, though those demands change daily. At their regular meeting in the building’s 11th floor conference room on Friday, members alternately scolded reporters present and discussed pushing ahead with plans for a referendum next month — a move that was echoed in Yatsenyuk’s comments. Still, it’s unclear exactly what questions will be put to voters.

The referendum held on March 16 in Crimea asked voters two questions about seceding from Ukraine or returning to a pre-1994 constitution, but gave voters no option to choose the status quo. Overwhelmingly approved by those who cast ballots, the referendum was boycotted by a substantial proportion of the population in Crimea, who considered it illegitimate.

Asked by reporters whether they were prepared to give up some of the administration building and move to another location, one man, Denis Pushilin, suggested it might be possible before being interrupted by people yelling to applause “Not one floor! Not one meter! No concessions ever!”

“If the (government in Kyiv) wanted to listen to us, they would. But they refuse to hear our voice. And now they’re afraid,” said another member of the council, Sergei Novakovsky. “They’re showing us their underwear now. They’re scared.”

Whether the occupants of the building are wholly representative of the larger Donbass region, which includes Donetsk, is unclear. A public opinion poll released on Wednesday by the Donetsk Institute for Social Research and Political Analysis found that only 4.7 percent of local residents want a separate Donetsk state, and only 26.5 percent of residents support the pro-Russian rallies. 

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