The decision was reached at an emergency parliamentary session and announced by the head of the regional legislature, Boris Kolesnikov.
"The regional [parliament] has decided to hold on 9 January 2005, a regional consultative referendum on [its] decision to seek changes to the constitution of Ukraine that would give the Donetsk region the status of a self-governing constituent within a federation, while respecting the territorial integrity of Ukraine," Kolesnikov announced.
Kolesnikov said the proposed referendum -- the details of which are yet to be worked out -- should not be construed as a separatist drive.
Just three days earlier, however, leaders in this major coal-mining stronghold had called for more radical steps, advocating autonomy -- and even secession.
One of Ukraine's main industrial centers, Donetsk is the home region of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the candidate declared the winner of the 21 November presidential poll by the Central Election Commission. The vote was marred by allegations of massive fraud, however, and the outcome disputed by the opposition.
Results released by the election commission show that it was in Ukraine's largely Russian-speaking east that Yanukovych garnered the most votes. By contrast, opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko led in traditionally nationalist-minded western areas.
On 28 November, representatives from 15 eastern and southern regions gathered in Severodonetsk, in the Luhansk region, to voice concern about the political situation. Participants threatened to take "adequate self-defense steps" to counter what they described as opposition attempts to seize power through unconstitutional means.
On 29 November, Yushchenko accused his rivals of fanning the flames of separatism in order to avert court proceedings over alleged election fraud.
"The truth of the matter is that this initiative is promoted by the very authorities that lost the elections and engaged in falsifying the election in the regions of Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Odesa, and in Crimea," Yushchenko said. "This [secession threat] is, for them, a way to avoid responsibility for the crimes they committed. That explains why the loosing side is coming up with the idea of separatism. But this is not the idea of the average people and citizens in eastern Ukraine."
Some analysts argue that speculation over the possible breakup of Ukraine plays into the hands of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma. They say Kuchma could then play the role of a national arbitrator and remain in office for a few more months if the Supreme Court recommends new elections.
Yuliya Tishchenko is an analyst with the Kyiv-based Ukrainian Center for Independent Political Research. She told RFE/RL that Kuchma, despite publicly criticizing separatist-minded regional governors, might have played a part in recent developments in the east.
"I believe this could not happen without the approval of the leadership of the presidential administration, first of all of the president himself. Why? Because the heads of these regions are part of the [presidential] chain of command and are directly subordinated to the president," Tishchenko said. "Since he is not taking any action to effectively change the situation, then one has to conclude that either he is not in control, or he is pulling the strings."
The presence of Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov at the Severodonetsk meeting on 28 November has added fuel to speculation that Russia, which has consistently backed Yanukovych, could incite Ukraine's eastern regions to revolt against the central government in case the opposition comes to power.
Tishchenko also said she believes in Russia's possible involvement.
"President [Kuchma] is part of the game, although this game is perhaps more intricate than it may seem at first glance," Tishchenko said. "One could even argue that what's happening [in the east] looks like a 'Yanukovych scenario,' with a possible Russian element in it rather than a [purely] 'Kuchma scenario.' Russia is also part of the game. When you watch Russian television, which is rather popular in the east, you can see that the partition of Ukraine is presented as a foregone conclusion -- although this is not true."
Yet other experts say the attention paid to external players should not overshadow the importance of regional factors.
This is not the first time Ukraine's eastern regions have raised political demands.
In 1993, coal miners went on strike throughout the Donetsk region, demanding autonomy and early national elections. Yielding to those pressures, then Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk appointed Yefim Zvyagilskiy -- a Donetsk mine director -- as acting prime minister to replace Kuchma, who had just resigned.
Those "red directors" -- as Donetsk Soviet-era industrial tycoons are known -- exert significant influence on regional politics and, as Tishchenko said, recent studies show they are sometimes more influential than presidentially appointed governors.
Serhiy Harmash, who runs a Donetsk-based nongovernmental organization known as the Center for the Study of the Donbass Region's Social Prospects, said that initial secessionist threats and subsequent calls for autonomy partly stem from what he said has been the "nervous reaction" among the regional elite over the possibility of Yushchenko becoming president.
"What [these regions] are doing today is to protect their rear, so to speak, in case the next president would not be 'their' man -- we're no longer talking of Yanukovych. If that were to happen, then they would be able to take cover behind this federalization idea," Harmash said.
Harmash said he believes the weight of Ukraine's eastern regions could increase in the future, especially if the country holds a new vote. In that case, he said, it would be very difficult for both Yanukovych and Yushchenko to reconcile the country's east and west and to "run as candidates of a unified Ukraine."
This role, Harmash concluded, would rather fall to a providential "third man."
[Click here for more RFE/RL coverage of Ukraine's disputed presidential election.]