Donetsk leader plans a poll for ‘state sovereignty’

Anti-government protesters in eastern Ukraine are pushing ahead with preparations for a referendum on greater independence from Kiev, notwithstanding an ongoing military crackdown against them ordered by the central government.

The self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) has approved the referendum questionnaire and sent the ballot to a print shop, an activist said on Sunday.

In the referendum set for May 11 voters will be asked one question: “Do you support the declaration of state sovereignty by the Donetsk People’s Republic?”

“We have 3.2 million voters in Donetsk Region and will print as many ballots,” Boris Litvinov, who is responsible for the referendum in the DPR government, told a thousands strong rally in Donetsk on Sunday in support of the federalisation of Ukraine.

The wording of the referendum question does not necessarily imply a breakup with Ukraine. Some protesters wanted to ask voters if they supported splitting from Ukraine and joining Russia, as referendum organisers did in Crimea last month.

However, in contrast with Crimea, Russia has stated its unwillingness to absorb eastern Ukraine. Moscow has called instead for granting Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions enough autonomy to veto Kiev’s likely decision to join the European Union (EU) and NATO.

Flashpoint

Donetsk, the most populous of Ukraine’s 24 regions and its industrial heartland, has been the flashpoint of protests against the February coup which brought to power in Kiev leaders from the fiercely nationalist and predominantly anti-Russian western regions.

Protesters have captured government offices in a dozen cities in Donetsk and neighbouring Luhansk Region. They have vowed to boycott the presidential elections in Kiev scheduled for May 25.

While in Donetsk the standoff with Kiev-appointed authorities has been largely peaceful, in Sloviansk, a city 110 km away, protesters have armed themselves with weapons seized from police and the army and have brought the city under their full control.

Ten days ago in Geneva, Russia, the United States, the EU and Ukraine agreed on a plan to give more powers to Ukrainian regions. However, the plan has stalled as protesters refused to lay down their arms till Kiev called off its “anti-terrorist operation” against them.

Ukrainian army and security forces last week mounted an assault on Sloviansk, killing several militants, but halted their advance after Russia vowed to “stop the Ukrainian war machine” from attacking civilians.

On Sunday, self-defence activists in Sloviansk paraded before journalists a group of European military observers detained when they tried to drive into the city, and three officers of Ukraine’s elite security service Alfa, who were seized while attempting to abduct a protest leader in the town of Horlivka, not far from Sloviansk.

Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, “People’s Mayor” of Sloviansk, told reporters that he planned to exchange the captured observers and Ukrainian officers for activists arrested by Kiev authorities.

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