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Donetsk Dispatch: Sense Of Limbo After Separatists Declare 'People's Republic'

Pro-Russian Demonstrators Still On Donetsk Square
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WATCH: Pro-Russian protesters remained in control of the regional administration building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on April 8. The Russian flag was flying on the building, the entrance of which was blocked by tires and barbed wire. (Reuters)

DONETSK, Ukraine -- A day after pro-Russian separatists declared a "people's republic" in Donetsk, there is more a sense of limbo in the city than a feeling that much has changed.

Hundreds of separatists continue to occupy the main administrative building of the regional government and have sealed off its entrance with a 2-meter-high barricade made of car tires, timber, and barbed wire.

The barricade is manned by protesters armed with clubs and the police have cordoned off the area.

But a block away, grandmothers wheel baby carriages through the park and people continue going to work normally.

In part, the uneasy calm comes from the fact that nobody really knows the identities of the protesters who seized the building or how much local influence they have.

No prominent local personalities have yet been identified among the protesters and, when journalists visit the building, those inside refuse to give their names or allow themselves to be photographed.
Pro-Russian activists who seized the main administration building in Donetsk wave a flag of the so-called Donetsk Republic and hold a Russian flag on April 7.
Pro-Russian activists who seized the main administration building in Donetsk wave a flag of the so-called Donetsk Republic and hold a Russian flag on April 7.

But more significantly, there has been no follow-up to the separatists' dramatic first steps.

After they seized the building and demanded the elected regional council convene and vote for independence, but were refused, the separatists declared themselves the people's representatives and voted in the council's place.

No One's Move

But apart from also vowing to hold a referendum on joining Russia and inviting Moscow to send a peacekeeping force, the separatists seem to have run out of ideas.

Instead, the initiative has passed partly back to the authorities.

The regional council, though evicted from its building, has declared the separatists' vote illegal and so has the city's mayor. And officials have persuaded a much smaller group of separatists, who had seized the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) regional headquarters, to vacate that building peacefully.

Now, the question is what comes next, but it's a difficult one to answer.

Much seems to depend on one man who has emerged as the principal negotiator between the government and the pro-Russian activists.

That man is Rinat Akhmetov, a Donetsk native and one of the richest people in Ukraine, if not the richest. He controls a vast empire of industries and businesses as well as the local soccer club, Shakhtar Donetsk, and is widely regarded as having far more influence and resources than any of the region's politicians.
Many in Ukraine are wondering where Rinat Akhmetov stands right now.
Many in Ukraine are wondering where Rinat Akhmetov stands right now.
Akhmetov was instrumental in negotiating the peaceful departure of the separatists from the SBU building and is representing the authorities in speaking with the protesters inside the regional headquarters.

He reportedly identified among the separatists those who would act as their spokespeople when the protesters themselves did not have the leadership structure to do so.

But just where Akhmetov stands personally in his broker's role remains unclear. Throughout the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv, he remained neutral, apart from saying he supported Ukraine's unity. But he has yet to make it clear how he feels about the Donetsk crisis.

Now, many are waiting for him -- like a weathervane -- to point the best direction for Donetsk to go if the crisis deepens.

Where Do Police Stand?

But there is another factor contributing to the sense of uncertainty about the future. It is the posture of the police, who so far have acted more as observers than actors in the contest between the pro-Kyiv and pro-Russian camps.

There is not just the disquieting fact that some police openly wear St. George ribbons, a symbol of Russia, as they stand guard in a cordon around the now occupied regional headquarters building.

There is also the belief among pro-Kyiv activists that the police have done nothing to investigate the death of one of their members in a clash with pro-Russian supporters on March 13.

The ambiguity of the police is such that over the past weeks pro-Kyiv supporters have taken to staying off the streets when pro-Russian crowds launch street actions. Instead, they confine themselves to low-profile responses that avoid confrontation, like handing out leaflets or small Ukrainian flags.

Interestingly, that policy of nonconfrontation is the same one Ukraine's government is taking in the current showdown with the Donetsk separatists.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Vitaliy Yarema, who arrived in Donetsk on April 7, told reporters the situation could only be resolved in a peaceful way, without the use of force.

It is still unclear whether that policy is a reflection of the government's strength or of its weakness.
Written by Charles Recknagel in Prague based on reporting in Donetsk by Valeria Dubova. Merhat Sharipzhan contributed to this report from Prague

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