DONETSK, UKRAINE – Staff working for Serhiy Taruta, the steel baron appointed by Kiev as governor of the restive Donetsk region, say he is hard at work in the regional capital, but cannot disclose where, exactly, for security reasons.
The governor is in an “operational headquarters suitable for wartime,” said Taruta’s spokesman, Alexander Omelchuk.
Those unusual working arrangements reveal an uncomfortable truth for the Western-backed government in the capital, Kiev: Its control over the Russian-speaking Donetsk region in the east of the country is so fragile it is almost nonexistent.
The point was driven home over the weekend when a series of insurrections by pro-Russian protesters spread like wildfire through the region.
In one town after another, the officials and security forces who are nominally loyal to Kiev and supposed to uphold its rule over the country melted away or, in some places, swapped sides and joined the protesters.
Kiev and its Western backers say this state of affairs is the result of cynical manipulation by Russian agents, an allegation Moscow denies.
Whatever the reason, the fact is that Kiev’s writ does not run in large parts of the territory, raising questions about whether the country can keep functioning in its current form, or ever realize Kiev’s ambitions of joining the European Union.
Acting President Oleksandr Turchinov rejects the notion that Ukraine is split.
He said Monday difficulties with governance are nationwide and stem from the fact pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych concentrated power before fleeing in February.
“We did not expect that the whole system of central and regional power would fall to pieces so quickly,” Turchinov said.
The Donetsk region is Ukraine’s coal mining heartland, has much of the country’s heavy industry, and is home to 4.3 million people — or about one-tenth Ukraine’s population as it stood at the start of this year.
A spokeswoman for Turchinov said the authorities in Kiev remain in control of the east of the country, where Taruta is one of several business billionaires they have put in charge, but declined to elaborate.
“The government is making every effort to restore confidence in the authorities,” Deputy Foreign Minister Danylo Lubkivsky told a news conference. “Ukraine is fighting back,” he said.
Anecdotal evidence of Kiev’s crumbling hold can be seen throughout the Donetsk region. Many feel an affinity with people across the border in Russia.
Andrei Anosov’s predecessor as head of the regional police was forced out by pro-Russian protesters who picketed the police headquarters in Donetsk.
When Anosov took over the job — which is officially subordinate to the authorities in Kiev — he appeared with a black and orange ribbon attached to his jacket. That is the symbol adopted by pro-Russian militias in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
“I take on the command,” Anosov told people gathered outside his headquarters Saturday, saying he will work “in support of the people.”
A young, rank-and-file police officer on duty at a pro-Russian rally in front of the regional administration building in Donetsk had an ambivalent view on upholding Kiev’s rule.
“What are we supposed to do? Fire a volley at the grannies, veterans, mothers with children and other locals who come here? It’s not the police role to fire at its people,” he said.