SLAVIANSK/DONETSK: Armed pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine said yesterday that they were not bound by an international deal ordering them to disarm and would not move out of public buildings they have seized until the Kiev government stepped down.
The agreement, brokered by the United States, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union in Geneva on Thursday, seemed to be the best hope of defusing a stand-off in Ukraine that has dragged East-West relations to their lowest level since the Cold War.
Ukraine said the drive to root the separatists out would continue and warned it could take “more concrete actions” next week if they do not back down.
The Geneva agreement requires all illegal armed groups to disarm and end occupations of public buildings, streets and squares, but with the separatists staying put in the east and Ukrainian nationalist protesters showing no sign of leaving their unarmed camps in the capital’s Maidan Square, it was not clear that either side would be willing to move first.
Enacting the agreement on the ground will be difficult, because of the deep mistrust between the pro-Russian groups and the Western-backed government in Kiev. This week has already seen several people killed in violent clashes.
The fact any deal was reached at all in Geneva came as a surprise, and it was not clear what had happened behind the scenes to persuade the Kremlin, which had shown little sign of compromise, to join calls on the militias to disarm. It rejects Ukrainian and Western accusations of orchestrating the gunmen.
Russian President Vladimir Putin overturned decades of post-Cold War diplomacy last month by declaring Russia had a right to intervene in neighbouring countries and by annexing Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.
That move followed the overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovich after months of street protests prompted by his rejection of a trade deal with the EU.
In Slaviansk, a city that has become a flashpoint in the crisis after men with Kalashnikovs took control last weekend, leaders of the pro-Russian groups met inside one of the seized buildings to decide how to respond to the Geneva agreement.
Anatoly, one of the armed separatists who have taken over police headquarters, said: “We are not leaving the building, regardless of what statements are made, because we know what is the real situation in the country and we will not leave until our commander tells us to.” Two Ukrainian military aircraft circled Slaviansk several times yesterday. In front of the mayor’s office, men armed with automatic rifles peered over sandbags that had been piled higher overnight. Separatists remained in control of the city’s main streets, searching cars at checkpoints.
The self-declared leader of all the region’s separatists said he did not consider his men to be bound by the agreement.
Denis Pushilin, head of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, told journalists in Donetsk, the regional capital, that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov “did not sign anything for us, he signed on behalf of the Russian Federation”.
First, he said, the prime minister and acting president who took power in February should quit their offices, as they took them over “illegally”.
But Alexei, another separatist in Slaviansk, acknowledged that the Geneva talks had changed the situation: “It turns out Vova doesn’t love us as much as we thought,” he said, using a diminutive term for Putin, who is viewed by many of the separatist militias as their champion and protector.
In the capital, Kiev, people on the Maidan, the local name given to Independence Square, which was the centre of protests that eventually toppled Yanukovich, said the barricades would not come down until after the May 25 presidential election.
“People will not leave the Maidan. The people gave their word to stay until the presidential elections so that nobody will be able to rig the result. Then after the election we’ll go of our own accord,” said 56-year-old Viktor Palamaryuk from the western town of Chernivtsi.
“Nobody will take down our tents and barricades,” said 34-year-old Volodymyr Shevchenko from the southern Kherson region. “If the authorities try to do that by force, thousands and thousands of people will come on to the Maidan and stop them.”
Right Sector, a far-right nationalist group whose violent street tactics in support of the Maidan helped bring down Yanukovich in February, saw the Geneva accord as being directed only at pro-Russian separatists in the east.