WATCH ABOVE: Gunfire was heard through the night and on Saturday near the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk, a stronghold of pro-Russia fighters.
KYIV, Ukraine – Lawmakers and officials from eastern Ukraine on Saturday poured criticism on the fledging central government for ignoring the grievances of the regions, which have been overrun for pro-Russian protesters.
The criticism came during the second round of the European-brokered talks intended to resolve the country’s worst crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Politicians from the east implored the government to believe that – apart from the pro-Russia gunmen – a large portion of population are desperate for the government to listen.
Separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions held hastily arranged referenda last weekend and declared independence following the vote that favoured the region’s sovereignty.
The round-table talks in the eastern city of Kharkiv did not feature any of the insurgents, whom Kyiv describes as terrorists. The insurgents say they are willing to discuss only the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops and the recognition of their independence.
“The referendum doesn’t have any legal consequences,” said Valery Holenko, chairman of the Luhansk regional government. “But it has expressed the will of the people, which cannot be discounted. People genuinely went en masse to the referendum. This was a protest vote.”
Holenko said the devolution of powers that the government is offering is no longer enough and that as a first step in appeasing eastern Ukrainians the government has to stop the “anti-terrorist operation” in the east.
Gunfire rattles east Ukraine
Sustained gunfire was heard throughout the night near the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk, the stronghold of pro-Russia fighters, ahead of a second round of European-brokered talks on Saturday aimed at resolving the crisis.
The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning what it described as a sharp escalation in the violence in eastern Ukraine, accusing the Ukrainian government of using the talks as cover for military operations against its citizens.
The fighting began when forces loyal to the Kyiv government moved in to protect a television tower near the small village of Andriyivka. Residents said it went on through the night.
Debris from the shooting was visible Saturday morning, including a badly damaged train and craters caused by mortar bombs or other heavy artillery.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said some people were wounded, but gave no specifics.
Government forces in recent weeks have achieved only limited results in quashing the pro-Russia groups that have declared independence for Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Polls have shown, however, that a majority of eastern Ukrainians support a united country, although most are too fearful of the armed separatists to say so publicly.
In one southeastern city, Mariupol, steelworkers retook government buildings from pro-Russia fighters and cleared away their barricades. Mariupol is a major industrial city in the Donetsk region, lying on the main road between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in March.
And in the eastern village of Velyka Novosilka, armed backers of Ukrainian unity dressed in black seized control of a police station and vowed to expel the separatists in Donetsk through force if necessary.
Other similar and apparently unaccountable groups look to be emerging elsewhere in the chaotic east. Should they make substantial incursions, it is unclear whether they will be perceived as liberators or attackers working for the little-liked central government in Kyiv. The latter could precipitate civil conflict.
The first round of talks on Ukraine’s future was held Wednesday in Kyiv, but brought few visible results since those who declared independence in the east were not invited.
Russia has pushed for Ukraine to give more power to its regions, since that would allow Moscow to retain influence over areas in Ukraine dominated by Russian-speakers. Many in western Ukraine, including in the capital, favour closer ties to Europe and fear being pulled back into Moscow’s orbit.
© The Canadian Press, 2014