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Gray Zone: Mariupol Sinks Into Power Vacuum

A pro-Russian militant stands guard at a checkpoint on the road from Donetsk to Mariupol.
A pro-Russian militant stands guard at a checkpoint on the road from Donetsk to Mariupol.
A week after the southeastern port city of Mariupol saw some of the worst violence of the Ukraine crisis so far, an uneasy calm has fallen over the city.

But it is not the kind of calm which comes from government forces clearly defeating separatists -- or vice-versa -- and then restoring order.

Instead, it is the kind of limbo that develops when nobody has won and the city turns into a gray zone where fearful residents walk the streets by day and criminal gangs rule the streets at night.

Violence came to Mariupol on May 9 when Ukrainian troops backed by tanks launched a raid against separatist rebels occupying the city's police headquarters. The building caught fire amid the fighting and it still remains unclear how many people on either side died.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said at the time that 20 militants and one police officer were killed, while regional health officials simply gave a death toll of seven people.

Then, the tanks and soldiers withdrew from the city and the armed separatists went underground. That left it to the residents themselves to find the way forward, with no certainty fighting won't break out again.

Anna Romanenko, a local journalist, tells RFE/RL that the most immediate beneficiaries of the stalemate appear to be criminal gangs.

"During the daytime you can walk in the streets and it is actually safe to be in the city," she says, adding that schools and even kindergartens are functioning.

But at night, she says, "it is like in a [video] game: the city goes to bed, the mafia wakes up."

At night there is shooting and kiosks are robbed and burned. In the morning, residents take stock of the damage by counting the charred hulks of the sidewalk shops or reading the signs that have gone up on their doors.

The signs tell would-be customers: "Everything robbed already, don't bother entering," Romanenko says.

The city is lawless at night because it is awash in guns after two weapons stores were robbed between May 9 and 10 and there were attempts to break into two others, she adds. Plus there are the unknown quantities of arms that were brought in by separatists over the past months for their failed bid to take over the city.

With the city too dangerous to patrol at night, police and city officials have focused on what is possible: stabilizing it by day.

The Ahmetov Factor

Earlier this week, they and representatives of several plants and factories, plus separatist from the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, signed an Agreement on Non-Aggression. All parties to the local pact on May 15 agreed to preserve stability, to hand in illegal weapons or at least not to use them, and to help restore buildings damaged in the fighting.

Key participants in the deal are local miners and metalworkers from Metinvest, the biggest company in the industrialized east and which belong to Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Ahmetov.

On May 14, he issued a statement rejecting the Donetsk People's Republic but endorsing greater local autonomy.

The unarmed workers join police on daylight patrols to crack down on looting in the city center and have helped remove remaining separatist barricades.

But Romanenko says the workers, whose presence is widely welcomed by citizens, are not the only ones patrolling with the police under the accord. So are unarmed separatists, who often hide their identities with balaclavas.

The presence of the separatists adds to the sense that nobody is fully in charge or knows what comes next, she says.
Metinvest workers remove barricades and debris in front of the City Hall in Mariupol
Metinvest workers remove barricades and debris in front of the City Hall in Mariupol

In fact, even the local accord itself has no legal precedent because Kyiv considers the Donetsk People's Republic a terrorist group. By extension, that definition makes anyone who signs an agreement with the separatists an accomplice. That would include the city officials, who nominally report to Kyiv.

But if Mariupol appears to have fallen into limbo, observers say its situation may only be emblematic of much of eastern Ukraine today.

A handful of cities are clearly in the hands of separatists who have declared independent states in two provinces: Donetsk and Luhansk. But outside these cities, particularly in smaller towns, it is very uncertain who holds power.

The Ukrainian army has surrounded one breakaway town, Slavyansk, and battled rebels at checkpoints nearby. But the army moves tentatively, leaving most of the region outside the government's writ.

Taras Berezovets, a political analyst and director of the Berta Communications consultancy in Kyiv, says it is very difficult for Kyiv to maintain authority in the regions for several reasons.

"It is a very difficult operation for the Ukrainian army and security services in the east," he notes. "No one wants casualties among the peaceful local population; that is precisely what the Russian Federation wants."

But at the same time, he adds, there is a problem of "lack of loyalty among the local police, which has in some ways supported the separatists."

That puts much of eastern Ukraine into a twilight zone where the official lines of authority and allegiance have become increasingly blurred as the crisis continues.
RFE/RL correspondents Tom Balmforth in Kyiv and Merkhat Sharipzhanov in Prague contributed to this report.