Welcome to the People's Republic of Donetsk

Inside the occupied government building in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian protesters are trying to create a new country.

DONETSK, Ukraine — To get to the occupied Ukrainian government administration building in Donetsk, you must first pass through barriers made of tires and barbed wire -- the aesthetic of choice in Ukraine ever since the Euromaidan protests that toppled the country's former president, Viktor Yanukovych. After walking through the newly installed steel-reinforced doors, it's up the many flights of stairs, past several checkpoints and the broken glass and cigarette butts strewn across the floor. On the 11th floor, the newly established Council of the People's Republic of Donetsk is in working session. 

The room is in a state of excitement and chaos. Yulia Vikorovna is angry. "I'm resigning if I can't get an answer on this soon," she yells. "Resigning, you hear!" As the person in charge of sanitation for the new republic, Yulia Vikorovna has identified a particular problem with the toilets. "They've all been blocked with all kinds of crap, and nobody is listening to me or helping me clean up." She adds that there are also distressing problems concerning the electricity supply in the building. 

At this point, one of the council's leading figures, Vladimir Ivanovich, is summoned. He enters the room sporting a white beard and black Puma sports jacket, signature pieces with which he unexpectedly graced world news bulletins 12 days ago to declare the creation of the People's Republic. He exudes an air of authority. As he takes his place at the head of the table, the room goes quiet and a group of four convenes around him, to discuss the matter in private council. After a short conference, Vladimir Ivanovich turns to the other members.

"Colleagues, it is clear is that all work needs to be properly supervised. Work that is not controlled will never be done!" With this, Yulia Vikorovna leaves the room, apparently satisfied with the response. 

Next, a plump woman with wire-wool hair and few teeth motors up. "Our real problem is all these journalists! Because of them, people think there is drunken mayhem downstairs. They've been saying the place is dirty when it just isn't! No more telephones! No more cameras! No more provocateurs! We have to get rid of the provocateurs!"  

There are nods and mutterings of agreement around the room.

* * *

Largely unchallenged by local authorities, the wave of radical anti-Kiev protests has lost its fear factor. Six weeks of political games between Kiev, Moscow, and the local feudal baron Rinat Akhmetov -- Ukraine's richest man who has been in Donestsk brokering peace deals -- have left a power vacuum in which increasingly brazen separatist operations have flourished. In the last two weeks, a number of critical government buildings have fallen, and the occupation of the regional administration building is now entering its 12th day. More than 200 people are now manning the occupied compound in Donetsk, with a further 300-400 outside.

Developed largely on the back of the 1930s industrialization drive, the city of Donetsk owes almost its entire history to the Soviet Union. Even today, the prevailing mentality is, in essence, Soviet. A few moments standing in front of the occupied administration building immediately reveals the way that this identity is being invoked in the midst of this upheaval. For every Russian or Donetsk republic flag, there is at least one Soviet banner. Almost every hour, "The Sacred War" bellows out from the speakers. Written shortly after the start of Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the song evokes strong emotions from Russians over a certain age. 

"Our huge country is rising/
is rising for the deathly battle/
Against the dark fascist force/
Against their cursed hordes."

"This is why I am here," says Eduard Alekseyevich, a 70-year-old army veteran.* He is with his wife Vera Ivanovna, surveying the barricades from a distance. "We're fighting fascists, but this time they are from Kiev. We're fighting because we, Russians, never give in." 

There's a difference between the protest here and the one in Kiev, he says: "Here we're with the people, there it was the street! The street removed a legitimate president!" He admits that yes, Yanukovych may have fled, but, he says, the former president was scared. "Understand me right," he says. "I don't like Yanukovych. He forgot about us. He stole from us. And he would have lost in 2015. But he was a legitimate president. Now we want Putin. He's frightened of no one." 

As the song ends, a man takes to the microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen, be careful! There are PRO-VOC-A-TEU-RS here! All provocateurs, leave now! Or leave dead!"

Back on the 11th floor of the administration building, the peoples' deputies return to discussing the matter of the upcoming referendum, which, if they get their way, will be held before Ukraine's national presidential elections, due on May 25. 

"How many questions are we asking?" asks Larisa Sergeyevna, an energetic woman in her mid-40s. She directs her query to Anatoly Ivanovich, a short man dressed in the ubiquitous working man's attire -- a black leather jacket and a sweater.

"We said yesterday that it would be just one, not seven," Anatoly Ivanovich answers. 

"If there is just one question, it should be for or against the Donetsk republic. In or out! People will be happy with that," Larisa Sergeyevna says, nodding. "If you ask them if they want to join Russia as well, you aren't going to get as many people voting."

"Are you saying you are against Russia?" 

"That's an inappropriate question, Anatoly Ivanovich. Inappropriate."

"Crimea had the Russia question." 

"Crimea was already a republic," says Larisa Sergeyevna. "Before a woman re-marries, she needs to get her divorce first. We need our divorce. Fewer people will come for a referendum if we talk about Russia."

The issue of whether the typical Donetsk citizen is "for Russia" or "for Ukraine" is a hotly debated topic here, but Larisa Sergeyevna's doubts speak to something larger and seem to fit in with the most recent polling. Independent research, conducted by Vladimir Kipen's Social Research Institute at the end of March and which surveyed about 500 Donetsk citizens just after the first demonstrations in March, reveals a whole series of established phobias -- of the Kiev government, of the criminal underworld, and of political radicals. But it also reveals a rather nuanced vision of national identity: While people do identify themselves through Russian language, less than a third express a pro-Russia position. A majority has no problem with the idea of Ukraine. What does vex citizens here, however, is the dire economic situation, which is deteriorating daily. Ukraine's currency, the hryvnia, has lost roughly two-fifths of its value since the start of the year.

Ihor Todorov, an international relations professor at Donetsk National University believes that ethnic-linguistic tensions have been manufactured artificially. "Until this year, separatist demonstrations in Donetsk would attract perhaps 30-40 people," he says. "This was true in spite of a concerted effort to engineer pro-Russian sentiment by the previous [Yanukovych] government." But he says, the March 1 demonstrations were different -- there were many more of them and the crowds gathering in central Donestk were huge by comparison, bringing in as many as 3,000 people. "I've never seen so many flags," Ihor Todorov says. "These demonstrations were aligned exactly with a Russian Federation Council vote that allowed Putin to introduce troops into Ukraine. Do you think that's pure coincidence? I don't."

Indeed, even today, it is important to remember that the numbers involved in these pro-Russia demonstrations, which have been asymmetrically represented in foreign media, represent a clear minority. No more than a tiny fraction of the city's population of 1 million is involved in the occupation of the regional administration building, for example. And during this meeting of the People's Republic, the deputies seem genuinely concerned they might not get the votes they need in the referendum.

"This quorum thing, can you run it by me? If there is 60 percent, there's quorum, right? Am I right?" 

"Yes, Larisa Sergeyevna, that's right," confirms Sergei Petrovich, patting down an elegant cravat tie. A retired economist with nostalgia for the Soviet past, he is without doubt the best-dressed person in the room. 

"But if only 40 vote for... and 20 vote against, is that quorum?'

Sergei Petrovich replies that they need more than half, but he no longer appears quite so sure of his position.

The conversation goes back and forth, weighing the possible outcomes, but without reaching any serviceable conclusions. Several side conferences begin to compete for attention. What's happening in Kramatorsk? Where are all the other deputies? What is being done on the agitation front?

* * *

So far, the People's Republic has muddled through with a certain level of disorder and chaos. It's unclear, for example, whether the council has formal control of the irregulars downstairs, or whether it is the other way round. On April 15, however, this confusion was brought into particular focus, when a story broke in the Donbass News suggesting that the People's Republic had been distributing menacing leaflets outside the city synagogue. The text of the leaflet, reproduced on the Donbass website, was direct enough:

"Ukraine's Jewish leaders supported the Banderite junta in Kiev. All Jews living Donetsk are therefore required to register with the Donetsk Republic. The process will cost $50; failure to register will result in confiscation of property and forced resettlement." 

Located on a suburbanesque street at the other end of the city from where the People's Republic is now headquartered, the synagogue is about a mile-long walk along Donestsk's main street, just before a small square that sits under the imposing shadows of Rinat Akhmetov's metal rolling plant. On the evening of April 16, there were a few young couples around the square, locked in sweet embrace, all apparently holding their breath to avoid retching from the tannic smog. Locals say, it's the worst it has been for some time.

At the synagogue, a security guard confirms that "guys" in masks and sticks had indeed paid a visit on April 15, and that they had returned again the following day to further press their point. What is less clear, however, is whether the Peoples' Republic was indeed behind the move. Oleksiy Matsuka, editor of Donbass News, agreed that the pamphlets might be a fake, a front being used by criminals or provacateurs. But even still, he cautioned, "We should assume the synagogue can rely on nobody but themselves for protection." 

Oleksiy Matsuka knows the limits of law enforcement all too well. Today, he is in Kiev, having fled the region on Saturday evening following an arson attack on his car (the second such attack in recent memory). Oleksiy Matsuka's investigative work has made him lot of enemies over the years, but in this case, it seems, it's his pro-Ukrainian position and investigative reporting on separatist networks that was to blame. His story is one of personal and professional tragedy -- he's had to leave behind friends, colleagues, and family. "I wanted to stay," he says. "I wanted to build freedom of expression in Donetsk, however improbable or crazy you think that is. But they'll kill me and they'll kill my colleagues if I go back."

Though oceans separate Oleksiy Matsuka from the members of the People's Republic politically, there is something charmingly free that both share. How long the council will be allowed to demonstrate such qualities is, of course, another question. Rumors abounded about the imminent appearance of Russia's "little green men" in the administration building on April 16; and, even worse, that Viktor Yanukovych and his largely despised family might be returning to the city as early as this Easter Sunday.

*Correction (April 18, 2014): This article originally misstated the patronymic of Eduard Alekseyevich. It is Alekseyevich, not Alekseeva. Additionally, this correction originally misstated that Alekseyevich was the person's surname. It is the person's patronymic. (Return to reading.)

Scott Olson/Getty Images


Lay Down Your Weapons

While facing off with Russia, Ukraine’s new government is also struggling to disarm militias in Kiev. If it can’t, will new violence erupt?

KIEV — In eastern Ukraine, the last week has given rise to an armed seizure of government offices by pro-Russia protesters; a faltering state-led anti-terrorism operation; and reported defections from the Ukrainian army. Meanwhile, a tepid calm has set in on the Maidan, the central square in Kiev where this all began.

On April 10, the very day that pro-Moscow separatists in the east rejected a government amnesty offer, the Maidan was quiet. At one end of the square, a bulldozer worked to push down a barricade that had, for months, separated Euromaidan protesters from special police forces. Elsewhere, passersby stooped to photograph the many small memorials that are scattered around the area, and a group of young girls posed for photographs around an army tank.

But while the physical legacy of the Euromaidan movement is being dismantled, other remnants hold firm. The months-long protests in Kiev gave rise to a network of so-called self-defense militias. Some of these groups remain intact -- and are less-than-supportive of Ukraine's new government. And while many Euromaidan protesters have returned home, several hundred remain in tent encampments in the center of the capital. Reportedly, some say they are there to maintain law and order in the capital; others say they will stay in the square until national elections, scheduled for May 25, take place, as that will provide a bookend to the political revolution that began in the Maidan.

Though the government in Kiev is largely preoccupied with preventing outright war with Russia, the Maidan's still-mobilized groups have not gone unnoticed. Earlier this month, at the behest of European officials, Ukrainian authorities stepped up their push to disarm Maidan militias and assert their authority over the capital, as well as the rest of the country. According to some observers, the government has likely learned from the example of Georgia, which, after it was invaded by Russia in 2008, struggled to demobilize its revved-up citizenry.

There is, it seems, no time like the present. At the Kiev Security Forum, on April 9-10, Ukrainian professor of political science Oleksii Haran warned that some Maidan activists now believe that "the Maidan has sold out," and so they should "do something more radical." The threat, in other words, is that embattled protesters, including some militias, might turn against the government.


Most protesters on the Maidan were not armed -- at least, not with guns. Yet self-defense groups did form, comprised of thousands of people and organized into tight units. These groups guarded the perimeter of the Maidan and helped to maintain law and order inside. They also fought state police.

It became clear in March, after President Viktor Yanukovych's flight to Russia, that some of these militias would maintain their guard of the Maidan. Some were hesitant to disarm in light of Russian maneuvering in the east, while others wanted to keep a watchful eye on the new government. Journalists combing the square encountered weary, camo-clad, baton-wielding men declaring some variation of, "We will stand until the end."

"It's all a symptom of this total lack of trust in the institutions of government that gave rise to the Euromaidan," says Heather McGill, a Ukraine researcher at Amnesty International. "It's a big problem.... Obviously, it's alarming to have people in a semi-military uniform patrolling the streets."

So the government in Kiev began efforts to disarm its citizens. On March 20, the Interior Ministry announced that Ukrainians had until the next day to voluntarily hand in arms to authorities, without risk of punishment. Voluntary surrender, noted Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, would be "a key factor of stabilization." The announcement was supported by, among others, the French ambassador to Ukraine, who reiterated that the disarmament of Maidan militias was an EU priority -- and a precondition for financial aid.

By early April, some 8,000 weapons had reportedly been given up. But Avakov estimates that several thousand are "still in uncontrolled circulation."

Indeed, guns remain cheap and plentiful, easily accessible for militias that still want them. According to Balázs Jarábik, a Ukraine expert at the Carnegie Endowment's Russia and Eurasia Program, "You can buy anything in Ukraine for a few thousand dollars ... The price of getting a gun and getting it registered in Ukraine is really not that high." This, Jarábik says, "could turn into a problem, but there is very little we can do about that."

Taking efforts a step further, on April 1, Ukraine's parliament ordered the Interior Ministry and Security Service "to immediately disarm illegal armed groups" around the country. Only those people incorporated into state-run forces may carry arms. President Oleksandr Turchynov declared, "If they do not belong to the army, the National Guard, or the police, they are saboteurs who are working against Ukraine."

The move followed a violent incident in which a member of Right Sector, a far-right militia, shot three people outside a restaurant in Kiev. The Interior Ministry said the reasons for the shootings were unknown. But not long before, on March 25, a Right Sector coordinator had been killed by Ukrainian law enforcement during a security operation. After the restaurant incident, the police moved in to shut down the controversial group's Kiev base.

Right Sector became infamous for lending Euromaidan a touch of strong-armed flavor -- seizing buildings and battling state police -- and now it symbolizes the government's struggle to demobilize Ukrainian citizens. In early March, the group swore that it would remain on the square; it is deeply skeptical of the new administration and wholly dismissive of disarmament efforts. While likely vastly exaggerated by both Russian officials and foreign reporters, the group's influence remains strong.

The government, says Jana Kobzova, an expert on Russia and Central Asia at the European Council on Foreign Relations, is in a tough bind. On the one hand, it needs to pre-empt Russian state news propaganda, which is eager to portray Ukraine as a nation awash in lawlessness. But at the same time, authorities must not "be seen as acting too aggressively" against former Maidan activists, or they will lose public support.


The existence of unauthorized self-defense units has pre-Maidan roots. Factions formed in the years after World War II: guerrilla bands that fought Soviet forces into the 1950s. What's more, at independence, Ukraine inherited large numbers of Soviet arms, and gathering them has long been a problem.

David Kramer, executive director of Freedom House and a former assistant secretary of state under George W. Bush, says Ukraine and the surrounding region provided "a model back in the 1990s, when it came to weapons at a strategic level... nuclear weapons." Ukraine, after all, agreed to give up its nuclear arms in 1994. "But when it comes to disarming individuals," Kramer says, " I'm not aware of very successful campaigns."

Some are now criticizing the Kiev's latest efforts. Amnesty International's McGill believes that the reticence among militias to hand over weapons is rooted partly in the government's failure to prosecute the many police officers who took up arms against Maidan protesters. "They haven't established rule of law," McGill insists. "I have heard demonstrators say... 'I am prepared to answer for the fact that I threw Molotov cocktails at the police. But I want to know that the police... are going to answer for their acts.'"

Yet some strategies are also garnering praise. In mid-March, the government pledged to recruit tens of thousands of volunteer soldiers into the National Guard, and Kobzova says this has already brought many Maidan protesters under the watchful eye of the state. "I think it's really, really good," she stresses. "And I'm aware that a number of NATO members are assisting on this." Carnegie's Jarábik also thinks the National Guard has been useful in "getting these people into a regulated structure" -- though he adds that the guard is not ready for combat. "That would be suicide. They are not prepared for this type of warfare."

Amnesty International's McGill says there has also been "quite a lot of talk in Kiev" about absorbing self-defense units "into some form of community policing." During the Maidan protests, makeshift groups were credited with maintaining a strict (and sober) lawfulness on the square and for showing restraint in the face of police aggression.

Whether that could now work under the guise of the state, however, remains to be seen. But some observers say, for the time being, absorbing the Maidan units, rather than seeking to disarm them outright, might be the apt strategy -- especially given all the troubling news in the east.

"It's difficult because so many people now fear that their security is threatened," rues Kobzova. "Would you hand in your weapons if you lived in a state where you might face a war?"