"The regional council has decided to hold on 9 January 2005 a regional consultative [nonbinding] referendum on the regional council's decision to propose changes to the constitution of Ukraine, giving the Donetsk region the status of a self-governing constituent within a federation, while respecting the territorial integrity of Ukraine," said Boris Kolesnikov, head of the Donetsk regional legislative council, who made the announcement at a council meeting in Donetsk.
Fears that Ukraine might split over the election crisis have spurred international diplomatic efforts. But Kolesnikov said the referendum should not be construed as a separatist drive. Donetsk Governor Anatoliy Bliznyuk also said the region is not seeking full autonomy.
But the move is nothing if not evidence that many who live in Donetsk feel they are different from the rest of the country. They believe at least some form of limited autonomy is justified by political and economic reasons.
Coal miners who work in Donetsk's Zasadko mine told RFE/RL they are tired of the politicking going on in the rest of Ukraine.
Volodymyr said western Ukraine has no industry and produces nothing, while Donetsk provides almost one-third of the country's production capacity. He said the region would prosper if it didn't have to economically support those "ungrateful" Ukrainians who live in the west.
"I support [autonomy plans because] we will live better than together with them, with western Ukraine," Volodymyr said.
Volodymyr said he and his fellow coal miners work hard, while those in the west, and in the capital Kyiv, "only know how to rally."
Volodymyr is not alone in his sentiments.
Serhiy said he feels he has more in common with Russians than with Ukrainians. "My father is Ukrainian, my mother is Russian," Serhiy said, "but I have nothing in common with these people from the western part of Ukraine, with these fascists. I feel more Russian than Ukrainian."
He noted bitterly that workers in Russia are better paid than those in Ukraine.
Andriy said he does not want Ukraine to be territorially divided but would support the idea if Kyiv disregards the interests of Donetsk. Andriy was critical of Viktor Yushchenko's policies when he served as prime minister from 1999 to 2001. He said salaries were rarely paid on time. Andriy said he would support autonomy "if Yushchenko comes to power and continues his policy of neglecting us."
The idea of autonomy is not new in Donetsk. Coal miners put forward similar demands when they went on strike in 1993 and in 1996. At the time, the local authorities in Donetsk supported those demands.
Serhiy Harmash is publisher of an independent Donetsk Internet magazine called "Ostrov." He told RFE/RL that the threat of secession is used by local authorities in Donetsk in an effort to gain as much control over the region and its revenues as possible.
In the current election, Yanukovych is the favorite candidate in eastern Ukraine. He was born in Donetsk, worked there and served as regional governor for five years. When the validity of Yanukovych's victory began to come under scrutiny, local authorities responded with autonomy threats.
"It is clear that [local authorities in Donetsk] defend only their interests, the interests threatened by the fact that they lost the election. It seems they want to keep control of the region, regardless of who rules Kyiv. This is their main motivation," Harmash said.
When Kyiv reacted strongly to such comments, Donetsk authorities quickly toned down their demands, saying they seek only vaguely defined federalism.
But the bold move nevertheless indicated that local authorities are ready to go far to preserve their place in the structure of power. It also showed that the idea of autonomy enjoys some support and might be used as a strong political tool, both in relations between Kyiv and Ukraine's eastern regions and also between Ukraine and Russia.
Igor Losev is a professor of history and philosophy at the Kyiv-Mohilev Academy. He told RFE/RL that, legally, there is nothing to justify the autonomy of Donetsk.
"It should be said that as concerns autonomy, this autonomy couldn't be national. According to the national point of view, the population of these regions does not differ from other regions. That means there is no ethnic legitimacy for such autonomy," Losev said.
Losev said it is unlikely that local authorities in Donetsk acted independently when they threatened to secede. He suggested that the initiative originated in the presidential administration itself. He said he believes the administration was clearly saying to Yushchenko's supporters, "Either you accept the victory of Yanukovych, or we will destroy the country. It is a sort of political blackmail."
Losev said that during his two terms in office, outgoing President Leonid Kuchma did nothing to consolidate the country.
"Even more, he conserved these separatist tendencies as a means to play political games," Losev said. "Kuchma exploited fears that eastern Ukraine has for the western part of the country and the fears of the west that the pro-Russian east might leave the country. It was his way of hanging on to power."