In fear of violence, Ukraine’s eastern hub becomes ghost town

By Sabina Zawadzki and Lina Kushch
A pro-Russian armed man guards a checkpoint on the outskirts of Konstantinovka, eastern Ukraine May 25, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev

By Sabina Zawadzki and Lina Kushch

DONETSK Ukraine (Reuters) - It was polling day in Ukraine's eastern capital, Donetsk, but the long, leafy avenues were all but empty as residents, unable to vote in the presidential election, stayed at home in fear of violence from pro-Russian militants.

Surrounded by these bare streets, demonstrators gathered on Lenin Square in central Donetsk, a sprawling city of a million at the heart of the Donbass coalfield. In a show of strength by those hostile to leaders in Kiev, shots were fired into the air while several large trucks carrying armed separatists drove by.

Clashes between Ukrainian troops and militiamen and pro-Moscow rebels set on independence or union with Russia left 20 or more dead in the region in the days before the vote. It was called to replace Viktor Yanukovich, a local boy made good from Donetsk, who fled to Russia after protests in Kiev in February.

"Today, we bid farewell to five of our comrades who died the day before yesterday," a separatist battalion commander told the crowd on Lenin Square of around 1,500, referring to an attack on his unit. "We didn’t go to them but they came to us. We defended the frontiers of our city and region. They attacked us."

The separatist fighters had been lying low in the Soviet-era regional administration building or in general keeping out of sight of the public in the past week. But on Sunday, there was a distinct change in atmosphere as the militants, most in black fatigues and sometimes in masks, were seen around town.

Having declared an independent "people's republic" after a referendum two weeks ago, they argue that the Ukrainian presidential election has no validity in their region.

Kiev and its Western allies have accused them of intimidating election officials and stealing computers and ballot papers. Across the Donetsk region, Ukraine's most populous, very few would be able to vote, officials said.

Late on Saturday, election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) left town out of security concerns, denouncing an "atmosphere of terror".

GUNS DRAWN

On Sunday, a small team of monitors from the Committee for Open Democracy also left after having a gun pointed at them by a militant, one of 20 blockaded a polling station against would-be voters near the central Lenin square.

"We made the decision, for security reasons and having nothing to observe here, to leave," John Mroz, one of the COD observers, said from the airport where he and five colleagues were waiting for a plane out. They believed they had been followed for the past two days and had their phones tapped.

For the most part, separatists did not need to guard polling stations as they were simply closed, having failed to receive ballot papers and equipment such as ballot boxes. There were cases of individuals who had come to stations seeking to vote.

"I was hoping that my polling station was open," said 45-year-old Andriy. "We need to elect a president in a legitimate way because if we do not everything will remain unstable.

"This is happening so that Yanukovich and his son Alexander can return to Donetsk and continue to plunder from people and stifle business. I do not want this."

Andriy reflected common complaint on by both sides of the conflict and throughout much of Ukraine – a shared disgust for two decades of rampant corruption by politicians of all hues.

Many in Donetsk, whether for or against the separatists, have focused on the regional industrial oligarchs with political ties often using words such as "plunder" and "crooks".

After the midday rally on Lenin Square, heavily armed militants turned up outside the sprawling walled residence of Ukraine’s richest man and a son of Donetsk, Rinat Akhmetov. The coal and steel oligarch was himself absent, in the capital.

As more arrived in cars and vans and while protesters from the square made the long walk to the coal and steel oligarch's residence, it seemed as if an attempt might be made to storm the compound - as had happened to Yanukovich’s lavish home outside Kiev after he fled, revealing a rich, if kitsch, existence.

After several hours, however, most protesters dispersed. One of the leaders of the Donetsk People's Republic said "negotiations" were under way with Akhmetov, lately a vocal critic of the separatists, and a picket would be maintained.

Local media said they were hoping he pays them taxes.

Back in the centre of town, the uneasy quiet stretched into the evening, with few cars on the roads and cafe terraces empty of the young crowd who would normally be basking in the sun.

(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)