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Donetsk Dispatch: City Looks To Victory Day With Trepidation

Pro-Russian militants attack a pro-Ukranian protester during a pro-Ukraine rally in the eastern city of Donetsk on April 28.
Pro-Russian militants attack a pro-Ukranian protester during a pro-Ukraine rally in the eastern city of Donetsk on April 28.
DONETSK, Ukraine -- Nearly two weeks after the Geneva agreement intended to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine was signed, no de-escalation has been seen in the industrial and mining region of Donetsk.

In fact, on April 28, several dozen pro-Russian militants attacked a Ukrainian unity demonstration, brutally beating many marchers with bats and batons. A few protesters were kidnapped and beaten in an effort to force them to confess that they belong to the Right Sector nationalist group.

It was an unprecedented escalation of violence in the city that has left nerves frayed and tensions high.

The previous day, pro-Russian activists seized the city's television broadcast center. Some Donetsk residents have seen their television cut off since then, while others have seen local channels replaced with Rossia-24, the Russian government's round-the-clock information channel.

At the same time, not a single public building that was occupied when the Geneva agreement was signed has been surrendered. And several new ones in other parts of Donetsk Oblast, the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, have been captured.

[A pro-Russian mob stormed the Donetsk regional prosecutor's office on May 1, forcing their way past riot police, raiding equipment stores, evicting police, and raising the Donetsk People's Republic banner." For details, see our Ukraine Blog.]

No arms have been surrendered and no barricades have been dismantled. More hostages have been taken.

WATCH: Donetsk residents rally for a sovereign Ukraine.
'We Don't Need Russia's Help' - Donetsk Residents Rally For Sovereign Ukraine
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Meanwhile, the Geneva agreement tied the hands of the Ukrainian government, leaving the authorities very limited tools for engaging with the pro-Russian militants, who have only been emboldened by this development.

Losing Control

Since the violence on April 28, Donetsk has been on edge. Incidents of violence toward Ukrainian-unity sympathizers have been on the uptick. About a dozen cars bedecked with Ukrainian flags have reportedly had their windshields smashed.

Increasingly, it's becoming evident the events in Donetsk and eastern Ukraine are being directed from outside. The April 28 violence seems to have been carried out by people who came to the city in buses and left immediately afterward. A similar modus operandi was observed earlier in Kharkiv, and in Luhansk on April 29.

The growing violence, however, has shocked and repulsed many ordinary local residents who otherwise might be sympathetic to the pro-Russia movement. Residents also are increasingly of the opinion that local activists have lost control of the pro-Russia movement.

Local de facto officials have called for a referendum to be held on May 11 "to legitimize the declaration of the Donetsk Republic," according to pro-Russian official Miroslav Rudenko. The tactics of the pro-Russian militants now -- engaging in limited talks with the Ukrainian authorities or representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), for example -- seem aimed primarily at dragging out the status quo until that referendum is held.

WATCH: A taxi driver takes an RFE/RL correspondent for a ride around the eastern city of Slovyansk, where armed separatists continued to man barricades and occupy key government buildings.
A Drive Around Slovyansk
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The date of the proposed referendum -- and it's still not clear if the self-proclaimed authorities will be able to hold it -- comes hard on the heels of the May 9 holiday marking the 69th anniversary of victory in World War II.

Local analysts and observers are warning of the high likelihood of provocations or violence during the Victory Day events. On April 30, Ukrainian security officials claimed they had captured an unknown number of people in the Mykolayiv area who were allegedly planning to bomb a local wreath-laying ceremony on May 9.

In Donetsk, analysts have warned of possible violent attacks on World War II veterans that could be blamed on the Right Sector and used to whip up support for the self-proclaimed republic.

In fact, this period of heightened tension might already be beginning, as May 1 is a traditional communist holiday when leftist and nostalgic forces throughout the region become activated and hold public events.
Written by Robert Coalson in Prague based on reporting by Valeria Dubova, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service in Donetsk

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