In Ukraine's rival camps, Putin's words fall on deaf ears

The prime minister called Putin's signal for a diplomatic resolution to the country's crisis 'hot air.' And separatists in Donetsk declined his request to delay their independence referendum.

Marko Djurica/Reuters
Pro-Russian separatists applaud during a media conference inside a regional government building in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine today. The separatists voted unanimously on Thursday in favor of holding a referendum on independence, defying calls by Russian President Vladimir Putin to postpone the vote to open the way for talks with the Kiev authorities.

If Russian President Vladimir Putin’s call for pro-Russia separatists to postpone a regional referendum on sovereignty was meant to be an olive branch to Kiev, Ukraine’s interim leadership isn't rushing to grab it – nor are the separatists.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk brushed Mr. Putin’s comments aside on Thursday, saying that the Russian president was trying to sell “hot air.” And after “considering” Putin's request, the rebels of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic said they would go ahead with a May 11 referendum on whether the region should seek independence.

Putin’s remarks came Wednesday after he met in Moscow with the Swiss president and current chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He also called for Ukraine to withdraw its troops in the eastern part of the country in order to deescalate the situation. He said Russian troops were already pulling back from their stations on his country’s border with Ukraine.

Ukraine’s interim government has accused Russia of orchestrating unrest in the eastern half of the country, where dozens have died in violent clashes between Ukrainian military forces and armed separatists. Kiev says Putin is trying to implement a “Crimea scenario” in the eastern part of Ukraine. In March, Crimea held a snap referendum that resulted in its annexation by Russia, angering the US and unnerving Europe, particularly former Soviet bloc countries. 

The central government in Kiev has said it would not recognize the referendum in the east, just as it did not recognize the Crimea referendum two months ago.

Mr. Yatsenyuk did say that Kiev is working to defuse the crisis by organizing an all-Ukrainian, national dialogue. Government officials have floated the idea of such a forum in recent days but given few concrete details.

Yatsenyuk said the dialogue would gather representatives from across the country, including those demanding federalization in the east, to discuss regional reforms and demands. On Thursday, he said the parliament was drafting constitutional reforms that would address regional demands, including language and decentralization. The status of the Russian language, which is favored in eastern and southern regions, has become an increasingly divisive issue in Ukraine since an uprising in February that removed President Viktor Yanukovych. 

Some analysts in Kiev said the government was not likely to change course in response to Putin’s comments because, they argue, Russia had already failed to meet its obligations from the April 17 talks in Geneva. At the conference, Russia, Kiev, the US, and the EU agreed to a series of steps to deescalate the conflict, including the disarming of militant groups.

“What we’ve learned is that we can’t trust what Putin says when it comes to Ukraine,” said Vera Nanivska, the honorary president of the International Center for Policy Studies in Kiev. “When he seems to say something that make sense, he ends up doing exactly the opposite the next day.”

A recent poll conducted in mid-April by the Pew Research Center showed that 77 percent of the country supported a unified Ukrainian state, but only 41 percent of Ukrainians had a favorable opinion of the interim government. Most of the discontent was noted in the eastern regions, where 67 percent said they thought the Kiev government had a negative influence on the country.

Still, in the city of Donetsk, where rebels have their headquarters for the Donetsk People’s Republic, “the attitude to the referendum is neither negative, nor positive,” says Tatyana Nagornyak, a professor of political science at the Donetsk National University.  “People treat it as any other illegitimate act. It has no legal power.”

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