KIEV/SLOVYANSK/DONETSK, UKRAINE – Ukraine’s interim president on Monday signaled support for a national referendum on turning the ex-Soviet republic into a federation with broader rights for its heavily Russified east.
Pro-Kremlin militias who have seized government buildings in regions such as Donetsk are demanding local referendums on either broader local rights or an option to join the Russian Federation.
Acting President Oleksandr Turchinov stopped well short of giving in to these demands by signaling support for a national referendum on Ukraine’s future status — a vote whose outcome is far less certain because most in Kiev and the Ukrainian-speaking west reject the idea of federalization.
Turchinov suggested that the national vote could coincide with snap presidential polls that Ukraine is set to hold on May 25 following the February ouster of Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych.
“In recent days, there has been a lot of talk about a national referendum,” Turchinov told leading lawmakers in nationally televised remarks.
“We are not against holding a national referendum that — if parliament adopts the corresponding decision — could be held together with the presidential elections,” Turchinov said.
“I am certain that a majority of Ukrainians will support an indivisible, independent, democratic and united Ukraine,” he added. “This is my conviction, and I think that all those present share my view.”
Pro-Kremlin protesters in the region fear a loss of their right to speak Russian and the collapse of an already depressed economy if their government cuts ties with their close historical ally, Moscow.
Ukraine’s new leaders have already struck a political partnership deal with the European Union and are expected to sign an economic relations and trade agreement later this year.
Meanwhile, separatists on Monday seized a police building in yet another city in the east, defying government warnings that it was preparing to act against the insurgents.
Dozens of angry men hurled rocks, smashed the windows and broke into a police station in the city of Horlivka, not far from the border with Russia, while hundreds of onlookers cheered them on. Thick white smoke rose from the entrance to the building.
Towns in the country’s east were bracing for military action from government forces as a deadline passed for pro-Russian separatists to disarm and end their occupation of state buildings or face a major “anti-terrorist” operation.
As the 9 a.m. deadline issued by authorities in Kiev expired, a reporter in the flash point city of Slovyansk, where armed men had seized two government buildings, said there was no outward sign there that the rebels were complying with the ultimatum.
Angered by the death of a State Security officer and the wounding of two comrades near Slovyansk, Turchinov warned rebels Sunday that a full-scale security operation, including the army, would be unleashed unless they met the deadline.
Turchinov and other leaders blame Russia, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region when Yanukovych fled after months of pro-Western protests, for inspiring and organizing a rash of rebellions in Slovyansk and other Russian-speaking towns in eastern Ukraine.
“We will not allow Russia to repeat the Crimean scenario in the eastern regions of Ukraine,” Turchinov said on Sunday night.