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Ukrainian businessman takes a stand against pro-Russian separatists

May 21, 2014 at 6:28 PM EST
In Mariupol, the local police have been joined by thousands of steel workers in patrolling the streets. This is the brainchild of Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, who after sitting on the fence for many months in the struggle between Moscow and Kiev, has begun to take action to keep the lid on hostilities in Eastern Ukraine. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports.
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GWEN IFILL: The Russian Defense Ministry claimed today that troops on the Ukrainian border were heading to train stations and airfields, returning to their home bases. But NATO said it saw no sign of a pullout.

In troubled Eastern Ukraine, the nation’s wealthiest man is trying to bring stability to one city by opening his pocketbook.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: Smokestacks dominate the horizon of Mariupol, belching acrid plumes from the heavy industries that are the economic lifeblood of this seaside Southeast Ukrainian city near the Russian border.

But it was real blood spilled 11 days ago in a gun battle at a police station, killing 20 under still disputed circumstances, that made Mariupol the latest flash point in the standoff between Russian-backed eastern separatists and the central government in Kiev. Kiev had sent elite forces here to reassert control, and they and their tanks still maintain checkpoints on the city’s outskirts.

But now there’s a new security game in town. The overwhelmed local police, some who’ve been forced to this new precinct across town, have been joined by thousands of steelworkers on their street patrols. yesterday morning, they were lining up in their new standard formations: two blue hats with six hardhats.

Forty-six-year-old Sergiy Boev, a former Red Army soldier, is one of the plant workers now walking the beat. His day job is with Metinvest, a huge metals firm. And he remains on salary, but he has volunteered.

MAN (through interpreter): I served in Afghanistan long ago, and I don’t want war here. I have three kids, and I don’t them to die.

MARGARET WARNER: The political tensions over whether the eastern Donetsk region should break away from Ukraine was ruining daily life, he said, with growing crime, stealing, looting, disorder. Now, he says, it’s better.

MAN (through interpreter): People are positive towards us. They are greeting us and are calmer.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you mean the local people trust you more because you’re a local person, you’re one of them?

MAN (through interpreter): Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Twenty-five-year-old police lieutenant Igor Lysenko, on the same patrol, agreed, saying the crime rate has already dropped.

MAN (through interpreter): With the extra help, we can send out more patrols.

MARGARET WARNER: All this is the brainchild of Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, the country’s Bill Gates, except he made his billions in iron and steel, not software. With deep business interests in Ukraine and Russia, he sat on the fence for months, but last week he jumped in with this new plan, and Monday made an impassioned televised speech, denouncing the separatists’ effect on his beloved Donbass industrial region.

RINAT AKHMETOV, Industrialist (through interpreter): You will not intimidate us. Nobody will intimidate us, including those who call themselves the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic. Tell me please, does anyone in Donbass know at least one representative of this DPR? What have they done for our region?

MARGARET WARNER: He said he would pay his plant workers to help restore order, and urged local citizens to stand up too.

U.S. and European officials are totally behind what Akhmetov has launched in Mariupol, and would like to see the model spread to other East Ukrainian cities where armed separatists have taken hold. In their view, given the mutual hostilities now infecting the East, this the oligarch’s unconventional approach, with a little behind-the-scenes help from Kiev, may offer the best chance to keep the lid on here until Sunday’s crucial presidential election.

Akhmetov’s power was on display yesterday at Metinvest Ilyich metalworks. At a partly made-for-TV event, 1,000 of its workers gathered at noon for the sort of people’s warning protest Akhmetov had been calling for. This plant manager told his workers the company had always avoided politics, but now felt compelled to act for economic reasons.

If Ukraine gets caught in a gray zone between Europe and Russia, he said, it will be hit with sanctions, see its markets dry up and have to lay workers off.

Plant employee Irina Shevchuk was convinced. She’s seen men with guns in streets, she said, and heard gunshots in the night. Her motive isn’t political, she said, but about quality of her life.

WOMAN (through interpreter): I was born in Russia, but have always been for an independent Ukraine.

MARGARET WARNER: But despite Akhmetov’s power, we found the Donetsk People’s Republic alive and well in Mariupol near the city center, barricaded in a controlled zone of their own.

Political leader Aleksandr Kiselev boasted of organizing the recent referendum endorsing independence for Donetsk.

ALEKSANDR KISELEV, Mariupol Representative, Donetsk People’s Republic (through interpreter): Our goal is the welfare of our people. We don’t want to follow Kiev and join the E.U. we want to join the former Soviet states’ custom union, the union of Slavic peoples.

MARGARET WARNER: Just up the street, Kiselev’s military counterpart, Commander Andrey Borisov, was receiving worried family members looking for their lost son.

But, in private, the chain-smoking 30-year-old, while boasting of commanding 1,000 men, seemed exhausted.

Who are you defending the city against?

ANDREY BORISOV, Military Commander, Donetsk People’s Republic (through interpreter): We are protecting all the people of Mariupol against the junta in Kiev.

MARGARET WARNER: Today, Akhmetov lashed out again with another televised statement, accusing the separatist leaders of deception and urging the people of the entire eastern Donbass region to push back against them.

RINAT AKHMETOV (through interpreter): Many ask, what is next? Fight, fight and fight again for your happiness, your present and your future.

MARGARET WARNER: And the best way to fight back, he’s been saying, is to vote in Sunday’s presidential election.

And what of the ordinary people of Mariupol? Do they feel safer? Are they going to vote?

Shuttered in his kiosk a short distance away, Yula said yes to both.

WOMAN (through interpreter): It’s much calmer since the tanks were taken away from the city. The joint patrols are helping keep the city safe.

MARGARET WARNER: She doesn’t like any of the presidential candidates, she said, but no matter. Yula just yearns for a return to normal life, as so many others here told us they do too.