East Ukraine insurgents declare independence
People watch fireworks celebrating the declaration of independence for Donetsk region at barricades in front of a regional administration building that was recently seized by pro-Russian activists in Donetsk, Ukraine, Monday, May 12, 2014, with a Russian national flag is in the background. Pro-Moscow insurgents in eastern Ukraine declared independence Monday, putting pressure on Kiev to hold talks with the separatists. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
DONETSK, Ukraine — Pro-Moscow insurgents in eastern Ukraine declared independence Monday and sought to join Russia, undermining upcoming presidential elections, strengthening the Kremlin’s hand and putting pressure on Kiev to hold talks with the separatists following a referendum on self-rule.
Russia signaled it has no intention of subsuming eastern Ukraine the way it annexed Crimea in March. Instead, Moscow is pushing to include eastern regions in negotiations on Ukraine’s future — suggesting that Russia prefers a political rather than a military solution to its worst standoff with the West since the Cold War.
Such talks are central to a potential path toward peace outlined Monday by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The plan laid out by Swiss President Didier Burkhalter calls on all sides to refrain from violence and urges immediate amnesty, talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language. That’s a key complaint of insurgents who have seized power in eastern regions and clashed with government troops and police.
But it’s up to the Ukrainian government to take the next step.
Acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk pledged to hold a dialogue with Ukraine’s east. But he gave no specifics and stopped short of addressing Sunday’s referendum and the declarations of independence in the pro-Moscow regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
“We would like to launch the broad national dialogue with the east, center, the west, and all of Ukraine,” Yatsenyuk told a news conference in Brussels, adding that the agenda for talks should include changes to the constitution that would give more powers to the regions.
Ukraine’s central government and the West say the Kremlin has encouraged weeks of unrest in eastern Ukraine in a possible attempt to grab more land. Russia says that’s not so, and accuses the West of meddling in a region that Moscow sees as its backyard.
The Ukrainian government’s room to maneuver is shrinking.
With national presidential elections scheduled for May 25, the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence Monday, and those in Donetsk even asked to join enormous neighbor Russia instead. The sprawling areas along Russia’s border, home to about 6.6 million people, form Ukraine’s industrial heartland.
“We, the people of the Donetsk People’s Republic, based on the results of the May 11, 2014, referendum declare that henceforth the Donetsk People’s Republic will be deemed a sovereign state,” Denis Pushilin, co-chairman of the insurgent government, said to applause Monday.
Wearing an ill-fitting suit and reading his speech from a Mac laptop, he continued, “The people of Donetsk have always been part of the Russian world, regardless of ethnic affiliation. For us, the history of Russia is our history.”
A day earlier, both regions held a slapdash referendum that Ukraine’s acting president called a “sham” and Western governments said violated international law.
White House spokesman Jay Carney says the United States does not recognize the results of the vote, and is focusing on making sure Ukraine’s presidential election takes place as planned in 13 days.
But that is starting to look in doubt: Luhansk spokesman Vasily Nikitin said his region will not take part.
Organizers said 89 percent of those who cast ballots Sunday in the Donetsk region and about 96 percent of those who turned out in Luhansk voted for sovereignty.
The insurgents said turnout Sunday topped 70 percent, but with no international election monitors around, the claim was impossible to confirm.
“The farce, which terrorists call the referendum, will have no legal consequences except the criminal responsibility for its organizers,” Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said in a statement.