As the drums of war beat louder a strange lull has descended on Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas. In the regional capital Donetsk, offices are open, workmen mow the grass in the park and by the city’s main war memorial a man repaints the words “For the motherland” on a second world war tank.
But meanwhile in Kiev Joe Biden, the American vice president, pledged support and $58m of aid to the Ukrainian government, while Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, ramped up the rhetoric against it. Mr Biden accused Russia of “provocative behaviour” and of directly supporting the anti-Ukrainian insurrection in the east of the country. He demanded that Russia “stop talking and start acting” to end the crisis.
On April 17th the United States, Russia, the European Union and Ukraine signed an agreement in Geneva, Switzerland, aimed at defusing the crisis which has brought the country to the brink of war. The document rather optimistically foresaw the disarmament of all illegal armed groups and the evacuation of all illegally occupied buildings in exchange for an amnesty.
The agreement was dismissed by Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, who said that the new government in Kiev was illegal and hence had to move out of government buildings in the capital first. The situation then took a turn for the worse on Easter Sunday after an alleged shootout in which three men died while guarding a checkpoint at Bylbasovka, near the rebel held town of Sloviansk.
At the scene, two burned out cars stood on the road while locals and officials claimed they had been attacked by a militia belonging to the Ukrainian nationalist movement, the Right Sector. Russian television showed footage of the business card of the Right Sector’s leader, fresh dollar bills, military equipment and what seemed to be a dead body, but many elements of the story were unclear.
The Right Sector denied any involvement and many Ukrainians believe the whole event, including the deaths of the locals, was staged in order to give Vyacheslav Ponomarev, Sloviansk’s rebel head, an excuse to appeal to Russian president Vladimir Putin to send soldiers. This he duly did. Mr Lavrov has since condemned the government in Kiev for the shootings, adding that “all signs show that Kiev can’t, and maybe doesn’t want to control the extremists who continue to call the shots.”
On April 22nd, Mr Pushilin announced that in the referendum which he proposes for May 11th the question will be: “Do you support the sovereignty of the Donetsk Republic?” He added that only later would a decision be taken on joining any “other country.” A similar referendum is planned by rebels in neighbouring Luhansk.
What remains to be seen is whether the rebels in the occupied buildings throughout eastern Ukraine have any capacity to deliver a referendum. Election officials, even in the east, are still preparing for Ukraine’s presidential election on May 25th. But as far as Vladimir Makovich, the spokesman of the Donetsk Republic, is concerned, there will be no presidential elections in Donetsk.
However, three separate, recent opinion polls in the south and east of Ukraine have shown that at least 60% of people are in favour of the current territorial status quo. Ihor Todorov, a Donetsk university professor who supports Ukrainian unity, says these people are the silent and often frightened majority and that without Russian meddling “we could find a compromise”.
Time is running out though. In Sloviansk, at the funeral of the three men killed in the Easter Sunday shooting one man, armed just with Kalashnikov ammunition clips said: “They died for our freedom and our future in great Russia.” Another: “Rest assured we will have our revenge for this. We will have it for sure.” A few hours later came reports of a Ukrainian reconnaissance plane damaged by gunfire above the town and the murder of two men nearby.
22 April 2014 | 6:53 pm – Source: economist.com