Ukraine’s east in violent rallies, seeks Crimea-style referendum

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DONETSK  (AFP) – Pro-Kremlin protesters in Ukraine’s Russian-dominated east stormed public buildings on Sunday and defied a demonstration ban as they demanded the right to their own Crimea-style referendum.

In the flashpoint city of Donetsk, the site of renewed violence this week, some 4,000 pro-Moscow protesters gathered to support the breakaway vote in Crimea, chanting “Donetsk, Crimea, Russia”.

Protesters marched on Donetsk’s main prosecution office, smashing windows and barging through the entrance to briefly occupy the building.

They also attacked the regional headquarters of Ukraine’s SBU intelligence service for the second straight day, demanding the release of Donetsk’s self-declared “governor”, Pavel Gubarev, arrested for separatism 10 days ago.

Further north in Kharkiv, less than 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the Russian border, about 6,000 pro-Moscow demonstrators defied a protest ban to hold their own symbolic referendum and rally for more autonomy and “sovereignty” for the Russian language.

Organisers handed out improvised ballots that protesters could “cast” in plastic bags to ask for enhanced autonomy in the majority Russian-speaking region.

“Russia!,” “Referendum,” and “Crimea, we are with you,” they chanted after chasing off and jeering at a justicial official who had come to inform them of the demonstration ban.

They also erected a 100-metre (530-foot) long Russian flag outside the regional administration building, as police in riot gear looked on.

Donetsk and Kharkiv both witnessed bloody violence on Thursday and Friday, with three people killed in clashes, the first deaths since the ousting of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych last month.

- ‘Tyrant’ Obama -

Sunday’s demonstrations occurred as Crimeans voted in a referendum on joining Russia that has fomented a Cold War-style security crisis on Europe’s eastern frontier.

Exit polls issued immediately after the the end of voting found 93 percent had cast their ballots in favour of becoming part of the Russian Federation.

“If the Crimean people want to have a referendum and live independently, it’s not a crime,” Larisa, a woman in her 50s, said at the rally in Donetsk, a former bastion of support for Yanukovych.

Another demonstrator in the blue-collar coal-mining city said all people wanted was the right to have their say.

“Twenty-seven million people in Ukraine consider (US President Barack) Obama to be a tyrant because he supports the new government in Kiev and doesn’t let us have democracy,” said Sergiy Yazhgunovich, a 30-year-old businessman.

“President Vladimir Putin wants democracy, he wants a referendum.”

While western Ukraine and the capital Kiev are mostly Ukrainian-speaking and Western-leaning, the country’s east and south, including Crimea, have a majority Russian-speaking population and seek closer ties to Moscow.

Oleksandr, 56, admitted that Donetsk might not follow in Crimea’s footsteps “but we will need some kind of referendum to find out what people want.”

“I wouldn’t say that many people here would run towards Russia, but people want more independence, to have more rights,” said the IT worker, who did not give his last name.

- ‘Bad scenario’ -

In a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday, Putin “again expressed concern over tensions in Ukraine’s south and southeast being inflamed by radical groups with the connivance of Kiev’s authorities,” the Kremlin said.

Moscow has repeatedly accused the new authorities in Kiev and the protesters who toppled Yanukovych of being extremists and nationalists, even “Nazis”.

For Igor Todorov, professor of international relations at Donetsk National University, any attempt to organise a Crimea-style referendum in the city could prove disastrous.

“The bad scenario in Donetsk is to organise with the help of ‘Russian tourists’ massive action to impose a regional administration, to have a referendum like Crimea, as we’ll then have a further escalation,” he told AFP.

“There is a risk of destabilisation, of destruction of the modern, peaceful world,” he warned.

But as tensions remained high in the east, the western Ukrainian city of Lviv was subdued as people went about their daily lives.

“The referendum in Crimea is illegal,” said 48-year-old businessman Stepan Sayik.

“The results have been written in advance in the Kremlin to legitimise the occupation of the peninsula by Russia. Neither Ukraine nor the world will recognise the referendum.”

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