DONETSK, UKRAINE —
Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region, Serhiy Taruta, is among those forced out by the protesters.
Taruta’s former office is now occupied by heavily armed pro-Russian protestors. It is covered in signs saying "No Fascism" and "EU and USA, Hands Off Ukraine."
Taruta is trying to govern Donetsk from a nearby hotel.
"The biggest shock is that among those people who have taken up arms are gunmen from Russia. They don't even try to hide this fact," he said in interview with VOA, in which he blamed Russia for the protests.
Moscow denies that Russian agents are involved.
On the barricades there are many women, working men and even children. Governor Taruta accepts that a big part of the population has legitimate concerns.
"The events that have been happening in Maidan and afterwards have been taken offensively by the people in Donetsk," he admitted. " From the former president at the top down to the ministers, the government was made up of people from the Donetsk region. And in their understanding, the fight against the old powers was a fight against them."
Ukraine's military has begun what it calls an "anti-terror operation" against the protesters. Serhiy Taruta said it will be a delicate operation.
"Of course the ones who are not armed shouldn't be approached by army tanks," he said. "You need to talk to those people. But they also need to be willing to participate in dialogue. Because if they don't want dialogue, that means they are working for a different scenario."
A steel magnate worth an estimated $2 billion, Serhiy Taruta was installed as governor in March by the new powers in Kyiv.
He owns a Donetsk football club. He said he knows the people, and thinks the majority do not want Donetsk to become part of Russia.
"They really want people in the Donetsk region to live a better life," Taruta said. "We are establishing a dialogue with them and we are meeting them in this hotel to persuade them that we are unified in this opinion. We also want to have a referendum on the important questions about our territory. But this does not include the unity of the country."
He insists the armed separatists who are refusing dialogue with the government must be taken on with force.
"There are no other options when they are seizing the security institutions of the country. I don't think any other nation would allow its military to be attacked," he noted. "And in this case the military is showing great restraint to avoid an even bigger mess."
From a hotel room in Donetsk, Governor Taruta is faced with the challenge of preventing the break-up of Ukraine -- but his first task is to try to reclaim his office - which is currently flying the colors of Russia.