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Donetsk Separatist Leader Says Cease-Fire Signed To Combat 'Humanitarian Catastrophe'

Rescue workers and local residents remove debris of an apartment building near Donetsk hit by an air strike. The war-torn Donetsk region's self-styled leaders say the situation there is now "extremely serious."
Rescue workers and local residents remove debris of an apartment building near Donetsk hit by an air strike. The war-torn Donetsk region's self-styled leaders say the situation there is now "extremely serious."

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Having rejected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's offer of autonomy within Ukraine, the self-declared governments of the country's breakaway eastern regions are focusing on coming up with workable political and economic structures for their envisioned independent future.

And both politically and economically, the regions are looking toward Russia, says a senior official with the so-called Donetsk People's Republic.

"At present, we think the optimal model is a transitional one that preserves economic ties with Ukraine while moving in the direction of Russia," Donetsk First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Purgin said in an exclusive interview.

Purgin said the two breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk do not have any ambitions "to expand beyond their present borders." In addition, the two regions most likely will not fully unite into a single structure such as "Novorossia."

"Most likely there will be a mixed system," Purgin said, "with a majority of the ministries run jointly and only a few, separately. But it is too early to tell. Some of the territory has not been liberated -- there's a war going on."

He said every effort will be made "to preserve mutually beneficial economic ties with Ukraine and, maybe, some elements of a common sociocultural space."

Purgin spoke to RFE/RL in his office in Donetsk, a city that has seen some of the worst, most prolonged fighting since the conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine. Purgin is on the list of individuals facing targeted sanctions by the United States and the European Union.

'Colossal Damage'

The Luhansk and Donetsk regions do not plan to apply for formal inclusion in the Russian Federation, although "we are striving to unite with the maternal civilization," Purgin said. He described Ukraine's policies during its 23 years of independence as "ethnocide" against ethnic Russians. Nonetheless, he says a "subethnic community" has emerged in eastern Ukraine that feels tied to Russia but also has "a powerful regional patriotism." But "the desire to move in [Russia's] direction will only get stronger," he added.

Kyiv has insisted that Ukraine will retain its territorial integrity -- including the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in March -- and will not discuss independence for the eastern regions. On September 10, Poroshenko said he would offer the regions "special status" within Ukraine, a proposal separatist leaders have said is insufficient.

Politically, the regions are considering electing legislatures exclusively by single-mandate districts. Candidates would only be allowed to run from the districts where they live, Purgin said.

"In this way, the system we envision will be freer than what we had before," he said.

Economically, Purgin conceded, the regions have a lot of work to do. He said the separatists agreed to the September 5 Minsk cease-fire primarily because of the damage the war has done to the region's economic infrastructure.

Andrei Purgin (file photo)
Andrei Purgin (file photo)

"Winter is just around the corner," Purgin said. "There is a humanitarian catastrophe and colossal damage." He said not a single rail line to Donetsk is operating and dozens of bridges and pipelines are out of commission. He accused Ukrainian forces of deliberately targeting electricity substations "in order to deprive civilians of water and electricity."

The Donetsk authorities say they are using the cease-fire to repair some of the damage.

"We have replaced kilometers of wiring," Purgin said. "We have extended electricity supplies to dozens of major populated areas and hundreds of smaller ones. We are reestablishing gas and water provision."

"Very few enterprises or mines are still working," Purgin said. "Very few. Many mines are idle, although several continue surface work. Some are pumping out water -- three mines in Donetsk are flooded. The situation is extremely serious.

"That is why it is irresponsible to say that we should fight to a victorious end. The price is desolation."

Written in Prague by Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting from Donetsk by Andrei Babitsky with contributions from Luke Johnson in Washington

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