Ukraine‘s interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, attempted and failed on Friday to break a tense deadlock in the country’s east, where armed pro-Russian protesters have barricaded themselves inside government buildings and demanded independence from Kiev.
Protesters in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk seized government buildings on Sunday. While police managed to clear the Luhansk protest site swiftly, protesters in Donetsk and Kharkiv remain entrenched.
Yatsenyuk met officials from the eastern regions in Donetsk and promised to expand the powers of local government bodies and preserve the status of Russian as a second official language. But he did not meet representatives of the protesters who have declared a “people’s republic” from a Donetsk administrative building and demanded that a referendum on independence be held by 11 May
A 48-hour deadline to clear the occupied buildings announced by Ukraine’s interior minister came and went without incident, despite persistent rumours of an impending assault by government forces. Protest leaders said negotiations to clear the building had come to a standstill.
In Luhansk, further east, dozens of men remained barricaded inside the state security service headquarters, armed with Kalashnikovs. They demand a referendum on federalising Ukraine.
“If we get federation, then people will decide whether they want to be inside of Ukraine or in Russia,” said Aleksey Kariakin, one of the leaders of the group, who earlier held talks with Ukraine’s security chief, Andriy Parubiy.
The protesters deny that they have been sustained, or prompted to action, by Russia, or have Russian nationals among their number. They claim they are backed only by hundreds of people who live in a tent camp set to protect and supply them.
“If they decide to arrest me, this group will act as a human shield,” Kariakin said.
Tatiana Botsman, 29, is one of their hardcore supporters. She cooks meals for the occupiers and tea for participants of the tent camp. She is not afraid of a police attack. “If they come I will take a wooden stick and stand side by side with my husband,” she said.
Protesters in Donetsk have called on Russia to deploy peacekeepers to facilitate a referendum on independence by 11 May.
Yatsenyuk did not agree to a referendum but suggested the system of regional administrations appointed by the president should be replaced by executive committees elected by regional parliaments, which would have “all financial, economic, administrative and other powers to control the corresponding region”.
He also recommended that the parliament approve legislation that would change the constitution to allow for local referendums, a move strongly supported by the leaders of the Donetsk occupation.
Yatsenyuk said changes to the country’s constitution should be approved before a presidential election planned for 25 May that the Kiev regime has said will fully legitimise the new government.
But Denis Pushilin, the chairman of the temporary government in Donetsk, told the Guardian on Friday afternoon he had not heard of these concessions and that any decision on them would have to be made by a loosely organised council of protest leaders.
“They haven’t appealed to us with this offer,” he said of the prime minister’s promise of greater regional power.
The protesters refuse to recognise the new Kiev government, which they say is dominated by nationalists from western Ukraine. Their talks with the Kiev-appointed governor of the region have been mediated by Rinat Akhmetov – Ukraine’s richest man and owner of many of the coalmines that form the core of Donetsk’s economy.
Pushilin said talks broke down after the protesters’ offer to give back two floors of the occupied 11-storey building so that regional officials could continue their work was rejected by Kiev officials who insisted they vacate the entire building: “Now it’s all up in the air.”
In another attempt to placate protesters, Yatseniuk said the government would not repeal a law that allows regions with ethnic minorities forming at least 10% of the population to declare a second official language. Language is an acutely sensitive political issue in eastern regions with large ethnic Russian populations such as Donetsk, where according to a 2001 census Russian is the native language of almost three-quarters of the population.
“No one will ever limit the Russian language and the right to speak it in Ukraine,” Yatsenyuk said.
Shortly after President Viktor Yanukovich was ousted in February, Ukraine’s parliament voted to cancel the second official language law. Although the acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, refused to sign the measure, the damage had been done. One of the main grievances voiced by protesters in Donetsk and Luhansk is a perceived campaign by the new nationalist regime in Kiev against Russian language and culture. The government has banned the broadcast of Russian television channels, further agitating many residents of Ukraine’s southern and eastern regions.
Later on Friday, Yatsenyuk appeared on television in the eastern city of Dnepropetrovsk for a “dialogue with the east”. During the interview, he promised that the poorest 30% of the population would receive assistance to compensate the cost of gas and heating, which is rising under an austerity program demanded by the International Monetary Fund.
Yatsenyuk has blamed Russia for exacerbating the crisis by doubling the price at which it sells gas to Ukraine.
“They understand that the gas price hike will lie on the shoulders of the population. Where is our brotherly relationship now?” he asked, referring to President Vladimir Putin’s frequent comments that Russia and Ukraine were “brother peoples”.
Putin tried to ease European fears of gas supply cuts on Friday after Brussels said it would stand with the new authorities in Kiev if the Kremlin carried out a threat to turn off the tap to Ukraine.
“I want to say again: we do not intend and do not plan to shut off the gas for Ukraine,” Putin said in televised comments at a meeting of his security council. “We guarantee fulfilment of all our obligations to our European consumers.”
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, also said that Russia did not want to take over more Ukrainian territory but repeated a call for Kiev to grant more powers to regional authorities. “We want Ukraine to be whole within its current borders, but whole with full respect for the regions.”