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Donetsk Republic: Ukraine's one-building autonomy

Friday - 4/11/2014, 7:34pm  ET

Masked pro-Russian activists pass by a barricade as they guard a regional administration building that they had seized earlier in Donetsk, Ukraine, Friday, April 11, 2014. Ukraine’s prime minister on Friday told leaders in the country’s restive east that he is committed to allowing regions to have more powers. Yatsenyuk Friday morning flew into Donetsk, where pro-Russian separatists are occupying the regional administration building and calling for a referendum that could prefigure seeking annexation by Russia. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Associated Press

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) -- To reach the People's Republic of Donetsk, you need to pass a few club-wielding young men in masks, wind through a narrow corridor of sand-filled sacks and enter a gray office tower standing in the heart of this eastern Ukrainian city.

The self-styled autonomous territory -- really just an 11-story government building and its surroundings -- insists it is the true voice of the 4.3 million people living in the Donetsk region. It has become the latest focus of protest in the largely Russian-speaking east since Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in February.

The patch of Donetsk real estate where pro-Russia activists have been squatting for nearly a week is a hotbed of resentment against the perceived chauvinist Ukrainian nationalism taking hold among the nation's leadership.

"They hate us. They take it in with their mother's milk," said retiree Nelya Vladimirovna Ivanova, sitting along with hundreds of fellow rally members on the square.

In its current form, the Donetsk Republic poses little real threat to the central government's authority, and rallies demanding autonomy have drawn at most a few thousand people.

Nonetheless, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk visited Donetsk on Friday with a pledge to give more powers to the regions.

"We must tell people that we know it's tough, but we know how in the future to secure jobs, increase salaries, attract investors, distribute more authority, and what to do so people are content with life," Yatsenyuk said, laying out what he described as a recipe for national unity.

And some Donetsk residents say the Republic's hostility to western Ukraine doesn't represent their views.

Vladlen Nebrat, a youth activist, said that most people in the city see few differences between Russians and Ukrainians, and that younger generations see even less of a difference.

"The problems we see today are problems created by political elites," Nebrat said. "It's the same in Russia and Ukraine. I don't see a problem between the people themselves."

Since Sunday, crowds of hundreds have been standing round the clock in and around barricades of tires, sandbags, bricks and razor wires lining the regional administration headquarters in nervous anticipation of a raid that never arrives. Masked young men carrying bats and truncheons stand guard over the area. Groups huddle around barrel-fires for warmth against an early spring spell of drizzle and cold.

On an improvised stage, orators deliver angry speeches, often to chants of "Referendum!" -- demanding a vote for total autonomy that constitutes the only clear policy of the Donetsk Republic, whose leadership is a ragtag band of about dozen political unknowns.

The movement is a pale imitation of the secessionist drive in Crimea that led to Russia's annexation of the peninsula -- but the palpable unhappiness here points to deeper national tensions.

Much of the conversation on the square revolves around well-rehearsed grievances over language, history and a sense of economic injustice.

After Yanukoych's downfall, a nationalist party handed opponents of the new authorities a valuable lifeline by pushing measures through parliament to strip the Russian language of its official status in regions where it is widely spoken.

The idea was swiftly rejected by the president, but the damage was done. Feverish speculation, all eagerly spiced up by Russian state television, has for many inflated the significance of a half-baked language proposal into a confirmation of Russian speakers' worst fears.

"The first thing they did was to deprive us of the right to speak our language," Ivanova said. "But this isn't just the language we use to speak, we think in this language as well."

Language is something of an illusory fault line, since Russian -- claimed as a native language by around one-third of the population -- and Ukrainian are similar enough to be mutually understandable by almost all the population.

But the issue cloaks deeper historical antipathies undermining a confident sense of national unity.

Donetsk Republic supporters claim that the boundaries of Ukraine in its current form are something of an anomaly -- its eastern borders drawn in the early Soviet period, and the western one during and after the war. While they struggle to articulate any specific distinguishing values, it is clear that they see an alien nation in western Ukraine -- often dismissively referred to as Galicia, the name of a historic Central European territory.

"In Galicia, they are Poles and Austro-Hungarians," said Donetsk resident Lena Marchuk. "We are totally different. You can't glue us together. We've never loved them."

Yet Marchuk herself conceded that her own typically Ukrainian surname and Belarusian and Russian family heritage complicate attempts to draw ethnic and cultural distinctions in a country like Ukraine.

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