DONETSK, Ukraine — The new billionaire governor of the Donetsk region has no intention of allowing Moscow to carry out another Crimean-style annexation here in coal-mining, steel-making eastern Ukraine, which lies temptingly along the Russian border.
Serhiy Taruta, a steel magnate appointed just a month ago by the Kiev government, intends to hold this Russian-speaking ground for Ukraine by keeping order and improving people’s lives in the poverty-strapped steppe.
Donetsk was roiling with fear and violence as he took over. Russian television propaganda persuaded many here that fascists from western Ukraine were on the way to rampage through the east. Suddenly protesters in the city of Donetsk were shouting under the Lenin statue for a referendum that would allow them to join Russia. On March 13, a pro-Russian crowd set upon pro-Ukrainians. A 22-year-old pro-Ukrainian was knifed. He died on the way to the hospital.
Provocateurs, Taruta said, were preparing the circumstances for Moscow to announce it must intervene to protect fellow Russian-speakers, as it did in Crimea.
The annexation of Crimea, however, stirred latent pro-Ukrainian sentiment. Public officials began speaking out against the rumors. Last weekend was quiet. Now the guards at Taruta’s government office are down to a handful of riot police, with only a few strands of barbed wire strung near the front door.
Taruta fired the police and security officials who failed to prevent a pro-Russian mob from storming government buildings on March 16, the day Crimeans voted to leave Ukraine. Pavel Gubarev, the Russian sympathizer who brought the crowd to fever pitch and declared himself the “people’s governor,” has been arrested and sent to Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, for investigation.
In a torrent of local news conferences and international interviews, Taruta has been trying to rouse the region’s 4.5 million people and foreign powers alike. “Everyone must unite at this point,” he tells his constituents.
With perhaps 40,000 Russian troops massed on the nearby border and making him uneasy, he had a special message for Washington, which in 1994 persuaded Ukraine to relinquish its nuclear weapons in exchange for a promise to protect its territorial integrity. “There have been guarantees,” he said, “and they need to be carried out.”
And this for the International Monetary Fund: “We are in a dangerous, critical situation. The previous leaders escaped, leaving the treasury empty. We need money to pay salaries and pensions. We need direct humanitarian support.”
Yes, he said, the IMF is right in stipulating that money must be used effectively, but financial reform should come after passions have cooled here. Deposed president Viktor Yanukovych — a Donetsk native — and top officials fled the country Feb. 22, leaving the treasury empty. Right now, Taruta needs to keep up payments to 270,000 disabled citizens, 40,000 poor children and thousands of pensioners and veterans.
“People are concerned with one thing,” he said in his office over a cup of ginger tea. “Their lives have worsened because of the previous authorities. If we show we can provide help and support, we will calm the situation down. Three to four months from now is the time to talk about financial reform in Ukraine.”
Some are suspicious of Taruta because he is an oligarch who made his fortune in the no-holds-barred 1990s, when state assets were bought up cheaply, laying the foundations for huge fortunes. Others say his appointment was a good move by a Kiev government that so far has inspired little confidence in the east.
“Appointing Taruta was their one clever step,” said Aleksey Ryabchyn, who has a doctorate in international economics and returned home five months ago from studying abroad to find the country imploding. Taruta and other businessmen are motivated to protect local interests from Russian takeover, he said. “He’s a crisis manager. I think he’ll leave the office when the time comes.”
Taruta, 58, and his brother, a construction mogul, created a trench along the 90-mile Donetsk-Russia border to fend off invasion. Officials in Kiev have begun watching the border more carefully, and Andriy Parubiy, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, says that hundreds of Russians with suspect intentions are being turned away every day.
A recent poll found that 75 percent of Donetsk respondents support a unified Ukraine, said Oleksiy Matsuka, a journalist with the online News of Donbas, and only 10 percent favored joining Russia, a marked shift from 33 percent only a few weeks ago.
“People saw Russian aggression,” he said, “and it frightened them.”
The governor has issued an eight-point plan designed to improve the investment climate and fight corruption, which is even worse than in Russia. Ukraine comes in 144th place out of 177 countries on Transparency International’s index of perception of corruption, nestled alongside Nigeria and Iran. Russia is at 127. People here pay bribes for everything — from the professors presiding over the defense of a doctoral dissertation to the city hall bureaucrats issuing the permits needed to start and run a business.
Each topic in Taruta’s program has supporting subpoints, such as invigorating civil society by developing independent media. Taruta donated his first month’s salary to help set up a public television station and promote access to objective information. He laughs uproariously when asked about this largess.
The gubernatorial salary equals $500 a month, provoking laughter not because it is pocket change to Ukraine’s 16th richest man but because it’s ridiculous pay for a public official, an unambiguous invitation to steal.
“How can a person who is supposed to make decisions regarding hundreds of millions of dollars earn $500 a month?” he asked.
Taruta, a slender man crisply attired in a dark-blue suit and tieless dress shirt, insists he can bring the region out of corruption and failure, where so many have gone before with empty promises.
“My team has started reforms that have never been successful in the history of Ukraine,” he said. “We will do it quickly. We know how to do it, and we will do it.”