Ukrainian tycoon’s call for rally against separatists goes largely unheeded

A plea by Ukraine’s richest man for demonstrations against Russian-backed separatists met with a mixed response Tuesday as many of his own workers stayed on their jobs.

But many Ukrainians still saw the gesture by billionaire Rinat Akhmetov as a welcome, if symbolic, attempt to end the country’s fraternal strife while European leaders searched for diplomatic solutions to the crisis before Sunday’s presidential election.

Akhmetov, whose coal, steel and other holdings are the industrial might of the Donets Basin in eastern Ukraine, asked his 300,000 employees to join a noon peace rally against the separatist movement that, he said, could wreck the region’s economy. The call followed Akhmetov’s decision last week to form worker patrols to help police restore order on the streets of Mariupol, an industrial port city in southeastern Ukraine.

In Donetsk, several hundred pro-Ukrainian residents rallied just before noon at Donbas Arena. Organizers played the noise of a deafening factory whistle and urged the crowd to download a version of it that they could sound at noon every day as a show of unity.

But at the entrance to Akhmetov’s Ilyich steel plant in this city on the Sea of Azov, nobody stepped outside the factory gate when the plant whistle sounded at noon.

With less than a week before elections in Ukraine, a U.N. envoy warns that the eastern region of Donetsk could fail if nothing is done to stem the lawlessness there. (Reuters)

“You see for yourself,” said a bus driver in a red and gray uniform of Akhmetov’s Metinvest company, pointing to routine traffic at the factory gate. “The main thing is nobody’s shooting.”

Minutes after the sirens sounded, Denis Pushilin, a leader of the separatists’ self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, sent out a tweet saying rebels would begin nationalizing the properties of “regional oligarchs” for their refusal to pay taxes to the Donetsk People’s Republic.

“Akhmetov made his choice,” the rebel leader said. “Unfortunately, it is a choice against the people of Donbas.”

Meanwhile, with the first round of the presidential election fast approaching, Ukraine’s leaders arranged another session of roundtable talks, this time in the southern part of the country. The meeting, which would be the third in two weeks, will be held Wednesday in the city of Mykolaiv on the Black Sea.

Ukraine’s acting foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsia, said the locale outside Kiev demonstrated the interim government’s interest in building better relationships with regional representatives on their home turf.

Ukraine’s parliament passed a “memorandum of mutual understanding and peace” that gave assurances about the status of the Russian language and lent support to a decentralization of power in the country, two key demands from eastern Ukrainians.

In Moscow, the Russian Defense Ministry said Tuesday that its military forces near Ukraine’s border were returning to their bases in line with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order Monday. But NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance has seen no signs of any withdrawal.

But it was Akhmetov’s decision to use his clout to intervene that attracted the most attention Tuesday, even if support for it seemed thin.

Alexei Primenko, 63, a locksmith in the steel plant’s main office, was one of those who shrugged off the demonstration. He said workers pay lip service to Akhmetov’s calls for pro-Ukrainian support because they owe their salaries to him. But Primenko said their hearts are not in it.

“What’s the demonstration going to give me?” he said.

Some said they did not heed the steel magnate’s call for a demonstration Tuesday because they blame him and other oligarchs as much as the separatists for dividing Ukraine.

Yet they have no interest in seeing Donbas, as the Donets Basin is known, split off to join Russia, even if they also agree with separatist grievances against Kiev.

At the burned-out city council building that pro-Russian separatists had previously seized, a dozen supporters of the Donetsk People’s Republic expressed contempt for Akhmetov’s demonstrations. Milling in the square, they said that Akhmetov’s workforce was a captive audience that had no choice but to participate in the demonstrations.

“They don’t support Akhmetov, but they’re afraid,” said Igor Grydin, 51, a businessman who helped to organize a self-rule referendum this month.

A few blocks away, where separatists were building fortifications around a school building, Aleksandr Kyselev said he was not sure what to make of Akhmetov’s call to demonstrate. Kyselev said Akhmetov signed an agreement with the separatists, the elected mayor and the municipal police to restore order, possibly indicating that the tycoon might be willing to recognize and do business with the Donetsk People’s Republic. But the situation remains fluid, he said, and Akhmetov’s recent shifts have made it hard to see where the magnate stands.

“This man is trying to do something,” Kyselev said. “He’s trying to solve the situation peacefully, but everything’s unclear.”

Birnbaum reported from Kiev. Abigail Hauslohner in Moscow, Daniela Deane in London and Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed to this report.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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