People gather near a barricade at the regional administration building in Donetsk, Ukraine April 7, 2014.Alexander Ermochenko/AP
The group ultimately voted unanimously to create a governing council, along with subcommittees to prepare for a referendum on Donetsk’s status, which they tentatively scheduled for May.
The seizure of the buildings in Donetsk happened at roughly the same time that buildings in other eastern cities such as Kharkiv and Lugansk were occupied, suggesting they were part of a coordinated action. In videos circulated on YouTube and elsewhere, activists can be heard asking for Russia to send in troops to support their cause.
Despite the presence of many ethnic Russians in eastern and southeastern Ukraine, and historic backing for Russian-allied politicians like Yanukovych, it is unclear how deep the support for independence or unification with Russia actually is. Though the administration building was the epicenter of conflict and protest on Tuesday, much of the rest of the city of 1 million appeared to be going about its own business.
Akhmetov, a tycoon whose fortune Forbes magazine has estimated at more than $15 billion, met with some of the separatist leaders in Donetsk before dawn Tuesday, trying to persuade them to find compromise with the central authorities. But he insisted in an expletive-laden address shown on YouTube and elsewhere: “Donbass is Ukraine.”
Akhmetov is one of Ukraine's richest man, amassing his wealth in the wild years after the Soviet collapse, when insider businessmen were able to snap up lucrative state assets in Ukraine (and Russia) at rock-bottom prices. A native of Donetsk and former member of parliament, Akhmetov's industries employs thousands in eastern Ukraine (not to mention his ownership of the region's popular football club, Shakhtar Donetsk), which gives him more sway and pull in the region.
Russia has repeatedly warned about the dangers of civil war in eastern Ukraine, and asserted its right to intervene to protect ethnic Russians. Tens of thousands of Russian troops have been stationed along parts of the border with Ukraine, in what many Western observers say is a threat aimed at pressuring the new government in Kiev. On Monday, interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Moscow of seeking to carve off parts of Ukraine:
“There is a script being written in the Russian Federation, for which there is only one purpose: the dismemberment and destruction of Ukraine and the transformation of Ukraine into the territory of slavery under the dictates of Russia,” he said.
The tensions in eastern Ukraine have mounted since well before Russia’s incursion into Crimea and the March 16 referendum that laid the groundwork for Moscow to annex the peninsula. Pro-Ukrainian activists allied with the “EuroMaidan” movement that orchestrated the Kyiv protests to oust Yanukovych said Russian security service agents had been openly working in Donetsk and other eastern regions for weeks, leading many activists to either leave the region or go into hiding.
During the chaotic governing council meeting in the administration building, one woman who gave her name as Lena interrupted an explanation of the resolutions being adopted, telling a reporter: “Oops. Hold on. That’s Moscow’s calling. Sorry.”
Pro-Ukrainian activists say those who own businesses and are known for their political sympathies are facing increased bureaucratic pressure, like fire code inspections, tax audits and other administrative pressure. Many are starting to drive with guns in their cars; others are switching apartments for sleep on a regular basis. Activists are refraining from meeting in person, instead holding online voice discussions using virtual private networks to try to evade Russian surveillance.
“Only idiots aren’t afraid these days,” said one activist who asked not to be named, fearing Russian security agents.