PRO-RUSSIAN activists who have occupied government buildings in more than ten Ukrainian cities have said they will not leave them until the country’s interim government resigns, dashing hopes of progress raised by a diplomatic deal in Geneva.
The “Donetsk People’s Republic”, which is seeking to break away from Ukraine, told reporters the insurgents did not recognise the Ukrainian government as legitimate.
Ukraine and Russia agreed on Thursday in Geneva to take tentative steps toward calming tensions along their shared border after weeks of conflict since Ukraine’s former leader fled to Moscow in February and Russia annexed Crimea in March.
The deal calls for the disarming of paramilitary groups and immediate return of all seized government buildings.
But Denis Pushilin, a spokesman for the Donetsk People’s Republic, claimed it was Ukraine’s new interim government in the capital, Kiev, that was occupying public buildings illegally.
“This is a reasonable agreement but everyone should vacate the buildings and that includes [Arseniy] Yatsenyuk and [Oleksandr] Turchynov,” he said, referring to the acting Ukrainian prime minister and president.
Ukraine has scheduled a presidential election for 25 May, but Mr Pushilin reiterated a call to hold a referendum on self-determination for the Donetsk region by 11 May. Such a referendum in Crimea led to its annexation by Russia.
Mr Pushilin said the rebels would not hand over their weapons until the “Kiev junta” government halted efforts to reclaim the buildings.
However, in a sign that Ukraine’s fledging government is ready to meet some of the protesters’ demands, Mr Turchynov and Mr Yatsenyuk issued a joint statement saying the Ukrainian government was “ready to conduct a comprehensive constitutional reform that will secure powers of the regions”.
They also pledged “a special status to the Russian language” and vowed to protect the rights of all citizens, whatever language they spoke.
Mr Yatsenyuk also told parliament yesterday the government had drafted a law to offer amnesty to all those willing to lay down their arms and leave the occupied government buildings.
Russia has so far refused to recognise the legitimacy of Ukraine’s interim government but it has not said they should vacate their offices.
Political analyst Vadim Karasyov said Kiev’s fledgling government did not have the resources to resolve the stand-off in eastern Ukraine militarily, so it was going to have to negotiate.
“[Kiev] should finally listen to the demands of those people,” he said. “They don’t even know what their demands are. Maybe they are reasonable.
“The government in Kiev is pretending there are no problems in the east.”
US president Barack Obama expressed scepticism about Russian promises to de-escalate the volatile situation in Ukraine.
In Donetsk, the barricade-lined space in front of the regional administration building was nearly empty yesterday, despite the warm weather. Soviet-era music blared out over loudspeakers.
One man in the square, 56-year-old militia member Igor Samoilov, said he would not support pulling back. “Russia can play these games with the West, but we will not,” he said.
Sitting nearby, Yuri Kovalchuk, 86, said: “Peace will only prevail when the Kremlin brings in its troops, as it did in Crimea.”