Just after a deadline set by Kiev for protesters in eastern Ukraine to vacate seized buildings expired, Parliament-appointed PM Arseny Yatsenyuk pledged to push through a law allowing regional referendums in the country.
Holding referendums on the status of their respective regions was among the main demands posed by anti-Maidan activists, who have taken over a number of governmental buildings in eastern Ukraine this week.
Ukrainian law currently does not allow regions to hold referendums separately from the rest of the country. It was one of the main arguments Kiev voiced in declaring illegal last month’s referendum in Crimea, which ended with the peninsula’s seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia.
Speaking in Donetsk, one of the regions engulfed by the anti-Kiev protests, Yatsenyuk said his government wants greater autonomy for Ukrainian regions, including the abolition of the offices of capital-appointed governors.
He was speaking just as a 48-hour deadline, which Kiev gave to protesters to liberate the seized buildings, expired. Previously the central authorities threatened to use force, including that of the military and even threatened their opponents as terrorists, unless they withdrew from the buildings.
The U-turn comes after Ukraine’s elite Alpha unit reportedly refused to obey an order to besiege protester-held buildings. At a session of law enforcement officials in Donetsk, one of the Alpha commanders said that he and his men are a force intended for rescuing hostages and fighting terrorism and will only act in accordance with the law, local media reported.
The unconfirmed act of defiance comes days after the siege by police of a protesters-seized building in Kharkov, which ended with dozens of activists being arrested. On Thursday, a local police lieutenant-colonel spoke to the media, claiming that he and other officers had been deceived by the Kiev authorities. He claimed that they were sent to take over the building under the pretext that it was held by dangerous armed bandits. In fact the protesters had only improvised clubs and offered no resistance to the storming troops.
The officer, Andrey Chuikov, said he would no longer take “criminal” orders and announced his resignation from the police, adding that he would be sacked anyway by his superiors for speaking to the press.
Discontent with the new authorities in Kiev, which has been brewing in eastern and southern Ukraine for weeks, escalated on Monday, as protesters in several cities started to take over governmental buildings. Protests took place in the cities of Donetsk, Kharkov and Lugansk, while smaller protest actions and some clashes were reported in Odessa and Nikolayev.
Donetsk activists remain in control of the regional administration building and have built three lines of barricades to defend themselves from a possible siege. They have declared the Donetsk region, which is home to about one-tenth of the population of Ukraine, a “people’s republic” and have demanded a referendum on its future status. They also declared forming a “people’s army” in response to threats from violence form Kiev.
Negotiations between the activists and the Kiev-appointed authorities of the region were held on Thursday and into Friday morning. They are trying to hammer out a deal to deescalate the tension, which includes some sort of joint patrols formed by police and the activists of Donetsk and a possible relocation of the protesters to a nearby building.
In Lugansk, activists are maintaining their hold on a Ukrainian Security Service office. They also cordoned off a base of the Interior Ministry’s troops on Thursday night, saying this would prevent their deployment for a crackdown on the protest, although later the blockade was lifted.
After the deadline passed to leave the occupied buildings or face a crackdown, the anti-Kiev protesters have given an ultimatum to the post-coup government. They demand a referendum to be held within 10 days on whether to break away and join Russia.
Meanwhile, in Kharkov, where police on Tuesday captured a regional administration building and took more than 50 activists into custody, the protests do not seem to be calming down. On Thursday evening several hundred people picketed the building, despite a court ban on doing so. A mass protest rally is scheduled for Sunday.