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As Kyiv Moves To Control Donetsk, Pro-Moscow Feelings Linger

Ready to pack it up in Donetsk?
Ready to pack it up in Donetsk?
DONETSK, Ukraine -- Just a month ago, few people were talking about more autonomy for Donetsk -- less still about it joining Russia.

But with Russian troops in Crimea and the Black Sea peninsula soon to vote on joining Russia, some in Donetsk are agitating for a referendum to widen the eastern industrial region’s autonomy -- and perhaps even to go further.

Oleksandr, 29, a driver from Donetsk, says plainly that he wants to join Russia and that he has been out on the streets to make his voice heard.

“If [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will take us in, then I am only for; we are only for," Oleksandr said. "We are going to stand up for our beliefs. The new government is not acceptable to us. They are nationalists. It's just awful. There's nothing else I can say."

Oleksandr, who declined to give his last name, was taking a date to the cinema on the eve of the March 8 Women's Day holiday.

Many of those to whom RFE/RL spoke here say they view the authorities in Kyiv as "illegitimate" rulers who came to power through coup that toppled a president who drew his support in the industrial east.

Winning their support will clearly pose a challenge for the new Ukrainian government.

But while many say they view themselves as pro-Russian, there is little consensus about whether that means simply more local and regional autonomy for Donetsk and other parts of Ukraine's Russophone east -- or something more drastic.

Maksim, 19, for instance, says he is pro-Russian. But he doesn't want to join Russia. Instead, he says, Donetsk should be granted more regional autonomy.

"I think Ukraine has to stay a united country," Maksim says. "Crimea -- OK, that’s one thing; but Donbas, no way. It doesn’t matter who's in power. There's always been a divide between the East and West. But we can't just join Russia. We're a united country -- we have to rise to a new level."

Meanwhile Vitali, 19, a student from Donetsk, is not against the Donbas region becoming a part of Russia, since he has friends there. But he adds that he too would prefer the region to remain in Ukraine with increased autonomy from Kyiv.

In the two weeks since Viktor Yanukovych was ousted as Ukraine's president, pro-Russia forces have twice stormed the regional administration. Pavel Gubarev, a pro-Moscow civic leader who declared himself the "people's governor," made open calls for a referendum and openly advocated separatism -- which is illegal under Ukraine's criminal code.

Gubarev was detained this week by the SBU, Ukraine's security service. On March 8, an estimated 5,000 pro-Russia demonstrators gathered at the Oblast Administration building in Donetsk to demand Gubarev's release.

Ukraine's central government, however, has made clear moves in recent days to stamp authority on the east.

Kyiv has appointed a new governor to Donetsk Oblast. It has also replaced the head of the regional police, SBU security services, and prosecutor’s office.

Moreover, supporters of the new pro-Western authorities in Kyiv have also been able to put people on the streets. On March 5, for example, several thousand pro-Ukraine demonstrators gathered in Donetsk to support the central government.

Rival demonstrations were planned for March 9 by both pro-Kyiv and pro-Moscow groups.

Larisa, a 50-year-old private entrepreneur, says she is simply worn out by all the political turmoil.

"I want the country to be quiet and calm. That is what I support," she says. "I don’t want any war. I don't want our [territorial] integrity violated."

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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