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Confrontation between police and pro-Russian separatists underlines who’s in control in Donetsk

May 1, 2014 at 6:22 PM EDT
Amid escalating violence in Ukraine’s east, armed demonstrators ransacked the prosecutor’s office and humiliated police in the city of Donetsk. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s acting president has conceded that Kiev is losing control over the southeast. Judy Woodruff get an update from Simon Denyer of The Washington Post, who is covering the unrest in Donetsk.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Washington Post correspondent Simon Denyer is also covering the unrest in Donetsk. He was there when I spoke to him a short while ago.

Simon Denyer, thank you for talking with us.

You wrote today that the city you’re in took another step toward mob rule today. What did you see?

SIMON DENYER, The Washington Post: I saw a crowd of people chanting “fascists” as their leading activists went and stormed a police station with rocks in their hands, with sticks in their hands, and absolutely humiliated the riot police, who made a brave attempt to defend the building, the state prosecutor’s office, but ultimately surrendered and were forced to surrender their riot gear, their helmets, their jackets, and were led away cowed as people tried to punch them and spat on them.

So it was a pretty humiliating experience for the police and really underlined — it was meant to underline, I think, who is in control here. And the people who are in control are — well, they’re men with guns, with sticks, with whatever they can lay their hands on. And they are using the language of violence to get their way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how large and how well-organized are those pro-Russian separatist crowds?

SIMON DENYER: Well, you know, there was about 2,000 people, I would say, at a rally that kicked off the event today. It was a Labor Day rally. And so there was Soviet flags there, there were Russian flags there, there were flags of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

By the time the prosecutor’s office was stormed, the crowd had dwindled a little bit, maybe half that number. But in the front of that there is a few dozen, I guess you can call them thugs who are leading the sort of violent assault on the police station — I’m sorry — on the prosecutor’s office.

So — but, you know, they’re very much supported by this crowd. I mean, that’s still a tiny percentage of the population of Donetsk, let’s not forget that. So there is a huge silent majority of people here who — who are not taking part in rallies for either side.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what — I do want to ask you about that, but first I want — we heard in this report that this was the last, I guess, major government building in Donetsk that is not under the control of these separatists. So it sounds like they pretty much have taken over the city.

SIMON DENYER: Well, they have, except that the city’s kind of running a parallel administration, not necessarily from these buildings. So they haven’t taken over, if you like, the sort of financial control of the city. They haven’t taken over refuse collection, for example, or running the hospitals.

They have taken over the symbols of power here. So they’re telling people who is in control, but there are still bureaucrats and officials who are doing their jobs. But what they are telling the police is, you have to answer to us. And what they said — they were outside the police station today, and they said, we’re holding a referendum on the 11th. And after that referendum, you the police, you have to answer to us. You have to take orders from us. And if you don’t, we will remember this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you were starting to reflect the views of ordinary folks. What are they saying, the people you talk to?

SIMON DENYER: Well, I mean, there’s a whole spectrum of views.

There are people who are — who want — there are many pro-Russian, Russian-speaking Ukrainians who want to remain in Ukraine. They want to remain in a country that has European values of human rights and freedom of speech. They don’t necessarily want to be in the E.U. But they do want to be in Ukraine which is part of Europe, with links to Russia.

You know they don’t really want to have to choose. They want to get the best of both worlds. There are others who are saying that they’re being forced to choose, that they feel devalued by the people in Kiev. And they’re obviously listening to a lot of Russia propaganda. And they say well, you know, we’re Russian-speaking Ukrainians, but we’re being asked — one man said to me today: I’m having to choose what’s in my soul, whether to be a Ukrainian or a Russian, and I have chosen a Russian, because that’s what I am in my soul.

So people are taking — having to take sides, where they didn’t have to before.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And are they expressing fear?

SIMON DENYER: There is fear, yes.

I mean, I think, you know, there’s fear particularly among the people who want to remain part of Ukraine. Let’s not forget two days ago they held a rally here. They were beaten up by pro-Russian activists, whatever you — separatists, whatever you want to call them. And the police stood and watched. One or two policemen did try to stop it, but most of the police stood and watched.

So those people feel that they can’t — they can’t fly Ukrainian flags, they can’t speak the Ukrainian language, if they are Ukrainian speakers. But even if they are Russian-speaking Ukrainians, they can’t now express a view to say that they want to remain part of Ukraine. So they’re the ones who are feeling most intimidated and scared.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it certainly seems like a fast-moving situation.

Simon Denyer with The Washington Post in Donetsk, thank you.

SIMON DENYER: Pleasure. Thank you, Judy.