KRASNOARMEYSK, Ukraine — While pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine celebrate what they say is an overwhelming victory for regional sovereignty, the fate of the area — and the entire country — remained uncertain Monday as lawlessness and fear continued to reign in the country’s industrial heartland.
The reality behind the pointed words of the government in Kyiv — denouncing the referendum as a “farce” directed by “terrorists” — and declarations of independence from the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, is chaos for residents. With tensions exacerbated by the scrap for influence in Ukraine between Russia and the West, many say they have no hope for a peaceful solution.
Nowhere was this more apparent on Monday than in Krasnoarmeysk, a mining city of 80,000 residents about 40 miles east of the city of Donetsk.
Armed groups have raided banks and stores. In the regional hub cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, armed men stand outside buildings, and the police have largely surrendered themselves to the separatists.
The McDonald’s in the center of Donetsk was closed for three days over the referendum weekend. A sign was posted on the door, reading, “We are closed for May 9, 10, 11 because we cannot guarantee the safety of our workers.”
But things weren’t violent in Krasnoarmeysk before the referendum, locals said. Unlike other heavy-industry towns in the region, the residents have not come out in large numbers to support the pro-Russian rebels.
The city’s interim mayor, Galina Govrilchenko, defied the demands of the Donetsk People’s Republic to allow city schools and buildings to be used as polling stations. In Donetsk the regional education director requested that local school directors do as the rebels asked because there was nothing he could do to protect them otherwise.
“We don’t consider this a referendum,” said Svetlana Kashenets, press officer for the Krasnoarmeysk City Hall. “It was a sociological survey of people’s opinions.”
People in Krasnoarmeysk described a population divided on the future of the region. Stay with Ukraine or seek annexation by Russia? The large concrete block letters that spell out the city’s name on the road leading to the city center were recently painted with the blue, red and black of the Donetsk People’s Republic’s flag. But about 100 yards down the same road, a large billboard announces, “We are united! Donbass is Ukraine!” against a backdrop of yellow wheat fields and a blue sky — the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
But like other cities in the region, locals here are Russian speakers and complain about low wages and small pensions. There’s not a lot of trust for the Kyiv government or the Maidan activists who toppled President Viktor Yanukovych. There is strong nostalgia for the Soviet Union — the city’s name in Russian means “Red Army.”
“Most of the people here are dependent on that mine over there,” said Nina Topatchyuk, who owns a small secondhand clothing store on Gorkova Street in the center of the city. “If that closes, we are all finished.”
Throughout the crisis in Ukraine and the violence that has spread across the east during the last month, Krasnoarmeysk has been a “calm, peaceful place with the usual amount of crime,” said Klyepka. “It’s not my job to be political. Our task as police is to protect the city.”
Protecting the city is becoming more difficult, he said. Four days ago, a group of armed men entered the police headquarters and took the unit’s bulletproof vests. A few days earlier, the police removed its weapons to a safe place. Now the police of Krasnoarmeysk are unarmed and unprotected, said Deputy Chief Inspector Mikhail Sezon.
On the western highway leading to the neighboring large city of Dnipropatrovsk, the Ukrainian army has set up a checkpoint. The Krasnoarmeysk police said they have regular contact with them.
But a few days ago, two armored personal carriers appeared on the eastern edge of the city on the road leading to Donetsk. Armed men hoisted the Ukrainian flag and turned it into another checkpoint, where they stop and search cars entering the city.
Klyepka and his officers went to the post and asked the armed men to explain who they were, since they were not in national uniform. “You’re not at a rank that we can tell you,” was the reply, according to Klyepka. Phone calls to state security services about the group remain unanswered.
“I’m sorry to say it, but I’d have to be an idiot to try to challenge these guys if my men have no weapons and no protection,” he said. “We don’t know who they are or who they are taking orders from. We have a lot of questions and very few answers. But I can tell you this: I don’t know who’s in charge now.”