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Miners, steelworkers, and other laborers have begun patrolling the streets in several cities in Ukraine’s troubled east, news reports said Friday, in what appears to be coordinated pushback against armed pro-Russian insurgents.
In Mariupol, which sits on the Sea of Azov, thousands of laborers began walking the streets on Thursday, The New York Times reports, and similar patrols were occurring in five other cities, including Donetsk, the epicenter of the crisis in eastern Ukraine.
On Friday, several dozen workers, wearing overalls and safety helmets, were seen clearing away the barricades outside the government building, which the insurgents had abandoned, the Associated Press said. The workers were employed by Rinat Akhmetov, a billionaire industrialist who is one of Ukraine’s richest men and whose sprawling investments in the east employ tens of thousands of people. Mr. Akhmetov’s Metinvest holding company initiated the agreement on Thursday, along with police officials and community leaders, AP reported.
Mariupol was the scene of fierce clashes between insurgents and police forces.
It was unclear if the “citizens’ patrols,” which were largest in Mariupol, signaled the beginning of a larger campaign by workers in Ukraine’s industrial heartland to defy the insurgents who have seized government buildings, built barricades, and fought skirmishes with Ukrainian army units in recent weeks.
But Mr. Akhmetov, who was the main financial backer of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, has called for eastern regions to remain part of a "united Ukraine.” According to the Times, the metals and mining subsidiaries of Akhmetov’s company, System Capital Management, together employ 280,000 people in eastern Ukraine.
The insurgents proclaimed independence from Ukraine following a referendum vote on Sunday that was widely viewed as a sham. Separatist leaders in Donetsk announced Thursday they were setting up their own parliament and were planning to open the border with Russia shortly, the BBC reported.
On Thursday, Ukrainian government troops eliminated two rebel bases near the towns of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov was quoted by Bloomberg as saying. Slovyansk is a small town located at a strategic crossroads, north of Donetsk, while Kramatorsk is home to a military airfield.
Also Friday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report warning about growing human rights abuses in eastern Ukraine and on the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in March. Navi Pillay, the commissioner, called on “those with influence on the armed groups responsible for much of the violence in eastern Ukraine to do their utmost to rein in these men who seem bent on tearing the country apart.”
The appearance of workers’ patrols comes just days before Ukraine is scheduled to hold a national election to choose a new president. The May 25 vote would be the first since President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted following months of often violent protests in the capital, Kiev. The interim authorities in Kiev are hoping the vote will yield a new leader with a clear mandate and help unite the country.
Earlier this week, the interim government, along with representatives from the United States, Britain, Russia, and others, held talks on calming the situation in Ukraine.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague called the talks “clearly successful,” though The Washington Post notes that they ended in accusations and grandstanding after one session. The British diplomat also warned Russia of “wider economic and trade sanctions” if it interferes in the May 25 elections.
With Russian newscasts filled with incendiary and misleading reports about Ukraine and an estimated 40,000 Russian personnel stationed just over the Ukrainian border, analysts have tried to determine exactly what Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long-term goal in Ukraine and elsewhere is.
Maxim Trudolyubov, the opinion page editor of the Russian business newspaper Vedomosti, said in an op-ed published Friday in The International New York Times that the Kremlin’s policies of late appear to be aimed at distracting Russians from the country’s growing economic problems, and the increasingly autocratic government.
As a result of Mr. Putin’s adventure, Russians can expect higher borrowing costs and a decrease in the value of the ruble, and along with that, a decrease in the value of their savings. Mr. Putin is risking a severe economic downturn and even a regional war.
The president must understand that he won’t be able to avoid economic realities: We can’t race ahead without fundamental improvements in Russia’s global competitiveness. The economy is in recession, and though the effects have not yet trickled down to most Russians, tougher economic times lie ahead. That will bring a day of reckoning.