MARIUPOL/DONETSK: Factories sounded their sirens in two cities of eastern Ukraine yesterday and steel workers held a peace rally in support of a call by Ukraine’s richest man for protests against armed separatists who plan to disrupt a May 25 presidential election.
In his strongest condemnation yet of rebels who have seized strategic points in towns in the heavily industrialised Russian-speaking east, Rinat Akhmetov urged people to unite “for Donbass without weapons! For Donbass without masks!”
Akhmetov, a coal and steel magnate who has an estimated 300,000 employees on his payroll and enjoys huge authority in the region, said Ukrainians should stage a “peaceful warning protest” at their companies from noon yesterday when sirens would sound across the region.
The initial response to his call, however, was modest.
Kiev’s pro-Western authorities hailed Akhmetov’s move, hoping it would trigger a groundswell of support from ordinary workers to change the dynamics on the ground ahead of Sunday’s election.
Separatist rebellions, fuelled by cross-border propaganda from Russia, erupted in the east after Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich was toppled by mass street protests in Kiev in February.
Separatists, who have set up checkpoints and barricades in major towns and have held referendums of their own, have indicated they will do all they can to prevent the election taking place.
Election workers in the east and a senior UN official have said separatists are carrying out intimidation and harassment, including abducting election officials to block the poll.
In response to Akhmetov’s call, sirens sounded from factories in Donetsk and the Sea of Azov port city of Mariupol, where the oligarch operates two of Ukraine’s biggest steel mills.
About 300 workers in white hard hats and the red and grey overalls of Akhmetov’s Metinvest company were first bussed to a football stadium from the Ilyich steel factory where they heard speeches calling for Donbass to be rid of weapons and then taken on to Azovstal, also owned by the oligarch.
In some parts of the region, cars slowed in cities to show their support for Akhmetov’s call.
He said the action should continue daily “until peace is established” and he also urged motorists to join in the protest by sounding their horns.
The sharpness of Akhmetov’s attack on the separatists, whom he accused of waging a “genocide of the Donbass”, confirmed he was now committed to supporting the government after months of hesitation.
Akhmetov, whose fortune is estimated by Forbes magazine at $11.4bn, zeroed in on those separatists who have proclaimed an independent Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and have called for it to be absorbed into Russia.
“Does anyone in Donbass know at least one representative of this DPR? What have they done for our region? What jobs have they created?
“Does walking around Donbass towns with guns in hands defend the rights of Donetsk residents in front of the central government? Is looting in cities and taking peaceful citizens hostages a fight for the happiness of our region? No, it is not! It is genocide of Donbass!,” he said.