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Ukraine's Richest Man Pushes Back Against Pro-Moscow Separatists

May 20, 2014
Originally published on May 21, 2014 7:20 am

There are increasing signs of friction between pro-Moscow separatists and local residents in eastern Ukraine, as some local people demand an end to the violence and lawlessness in the region. Meanwhile, one of Ukraine's richest men has repeated his call for a return to stability, calling on workers to show their support for a unified country.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. We begin this hour in Ukraine, where the political upheaval is unrelenting - from the past protests in central Kiev to Russia's annexation of Crimea and now to the conflict in the eastern part of the country. That's where pro-Russian separatists are vowing to prevent people from voting in Sunday's presidential election. They've seized the offices of local election commissions trying to disrupt the balloting. Today, Ukraine's richest man made a fiery speech denouncing the separatist-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk. He called on the people to oppose it. NPR's Corey Flintoff is in Donetsk.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: After sitting on the fence through much of the crisis in Ukraine, billionaire Rinat Akhmetov came out last week in favor of Ukrainian unity. He organized steelworkers from one of his biggest plants to take down separatist barricades in the port city of Mariupol. Yesterday, he issued a video statement that was even stronger, asking what is the People's Republic of Donetsk? What have they done for our region? What jobs have they created?

RINAT AKHMETOV: (Through translator) Does walking around the cities of our region with machine guns mean asserting the rights of the people before the central government? No. It's fighting against the region. It's genocide against the region.

FLINTOFF: Akhmetov then called on citizens to show their opposition to the separatists by honking their car horns at noon. His words produced this result on the main streets of Donetsk today.


FLINTOFF: Donetsk resident Inna Brainina welcomed Akhmetov's stand.

INNA BRAININA: (Through translator) I really like that he made a statement against the Donetsk People's Republic, and I completely support him on this issue.

FLINTOFF: Separatist leaders quickly condemned Akhmetov's move and threatened to nationalize his businesses for failure to pay taxes to the separatist government. Separatist supporters also rejected the opposition protest. This woman gave only her first name, Yelena, saying she was afraid of retaliation. She says Akhmetov is just trying to protect his business interests.

YELENA: (Through translator) I think most people here won't take part in the presidential elections because we already had a referendum here and it automatically excludes the possibility of having an election.

FLINTOFF: She's referring to the unofficial referendum that the separatists held to bolster their claim to represent the majority of people. But Inna Brainina says she plans to vote in the election, if it's at all possible, and she credits Akhmetov's statement.

BRAININA: (Through translator) I think many people were just waiting for that support, and financial support as well, and I think more people will come to vote.

FLINTOFF: Election observers say the election is likely to be a difficult one but Ukrainian officials say they plan to open as many polling places as possible. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Donetsk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.