Pro-Russian rallies spread
Russian nationalist groups signed a broad declaration on March 1st, stating their their intention to ‘defend the rights of Russians in Ukraine’ at a meeting held by the Russian deputy prime minister. Historian and Ukrainian politician Hryhoriy Nemyria separately claimed that Moscow has “Russian citizens in Ukraine’s provinces orchestrating illegal seizure of administration buildings,” and that Russian citizens were working in Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Kharkiv and Mykolayiv.
In eastern regions of Ukraine pro-Russian protesters have stormed the Donetsk and Mariupol government administrations, and in the former, pulling down the flag of Ukraine. Donetsk city council declared itself the soul authority of the region, distancing itself from the government in Kyiv and declaring Russian the official language. Russian rallies in Odessa were also reported, with up to 5,000 attending, promoting Soviet symbols.
In Kharkiv, Russian demonstrators violently stormed the RSA, evicting Euromaidan protesters; 97 were reported injured in the attack, including minors, and 2 from gunshots (note that Euromaidan protesters previously occupying the building did so peacefully once security stood down). Journalist Serhiy Zhadan was also attacked in the clashes. BBC reports that the pro-Russian protesters also clashed with local police.
During the clashes in Kharkiv, it was discovered that the man who planted the Russian flag atop the State Administration was a Russian citizen from Moscow. The man was determined to be popular Russian activist Mika Ronkainen .On his blog, he stated “I am proud that I was able to participate in the confrontation with militants who came “to peacefully protest” in Kharkiv, and hoist the Russian flag on the liberated administration!” The flag was later removed, said regional officials.
The rally in Donetsk, which discussed the possibility of secession, chose Pavel Gubarev to be the commander of the “People’s Militia of Donbass,” who called for the annexation of the entire Donbass (Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk) region to Russia. The protesters were in direct defiance to the incumbent governor, an appointee of the largely pro-Russian Yanukovych regime. Police stated they would side with the people, presumably the secessionist crowds (as opposed to the contingent of the population loyal to the Party of Regions). The demonstrations in Donetsk ended abruptly, implying that participants may have been paid as was often seen with pro-regime protests during Euromaidan. While they continued on the second day, crowds reached a maximum of only 1,000 attendees.
Previously, pro-Russian or rallies of any kind in the east and south have been limited even during the peak of the Euromaidan protest movement. The presence of Russian citizens engaging in the protests is a concerning development.
In the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk thousands took to the streets on Saturday evening in an anti-Putin march. Near the Regional State Administration, they chanted “Putin = Hitler” and “East & West Together.” The regional leader of Right Sector announced a general mobilization of the male population, and calling all with hunting weapons to arm themselves to protect the peace. The RSA was staffed with self-defense squads in case of an attack as in Kharkiv, and remained barricaded with barbed wire, a remnant of the former Yanukovych-installed governor.
An eastern solution?
One solution to the regional fissures in Ukraine may be to employ the nation’s oligarchs, and include them in the decision making process of their home regions, tying them and the wellbeing of their businesses to local stability. Former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko said that negotiations were ongoing with large businesses in the south-eastern regions of Ukraine and that the goal is to use not only public but also private resources to maintain regional unity. Donetsk-base oligarch Serhiy Taruta was appointed to govern the region, and Israeli-Ukrainian businessman Igor Kolomoisky was made head of his local Dnipropetrovsk. Rinat Akhmetov and Viktor Pinchuk are also considering taking governing posts.
The Ukrainian government also proposed today to include more eastern Ukrainian politicians within in the new Ukrainian government in Kyiv, hoping to provide greater legitimacy in eastern regions that may feel dejected over the loss of the revolution against the Yanukovych regime.
This article will update as the situation unfolds.