DONETSK— Businessmen in eastern Ukraine are pressuring separatist leaders to enter into talks with Kyiv and to control their gunmen who have taken over key buildings, several businessmen told VOA.
“We are trying to get them to understand that the strong-arm tactics on businesses and demands for money and the abductions of opponents has to stop,” said an owner of a large events business in Donetsk that relies on international business conferences and sporting fixtures.
The businessman asked for his name to be withheld from this article for safety reasons.
The troubled Donetsk region lies in a province with 4.3 million people and is home to some of Ukraine’s heaviest industries.
“The business community is worried and while we have a lot of commercial ties with Russia, we also have a lot of commerce with Europe: we don’t want to be forced to choose between them,” he said.
Businessmen say since Sunday’s referendum on self-rule – separatist’s claim 89 percent voted in favor – separatist gunmen have been demanding “tax” money from factories and large stores.
“It doesn’t seem to be systematic,” said the owner of a chain of clothes stores. “But it is happening increasingly.”
Separatist gunmen raided a yogurt and ice cream factory in the town of Horlivka, half-an-hour’s drive from the city of Donetsk recently and told the owner that he had to start paying them a regular weekly contribution.
“The factory employs a lot of workers and they told the gunmen to go away and not to return,” said an employee at the factory.
Election is next target
Pro-Russian rebels appear to be honing in on election officials in a bid to disrupt the Ukraine’s presidential elections slated for May 25.
On Wednesday, the head of the local election commission in the town of Kramatorsk, a hundred kilometers north of Donetsk, was kidnapped. He is at least the third election official abducted this month in Donetsk oblast.
The lawlessness across the region is hurting business, say aides to the Kiev-appointed regional governor Serhiy Taruta.
The towns in Donetsk oblast where the separatists hold sway are trapped in a twilight world, where stores function and businesses try to get on with trading but where government doesn’t really function.
Courts have stopped working in some towns and capricious leaders and unpredictable camouflaged gunmen, or club-wielding unemployed youths eager for status, arbitrarily enforce what passes for order in separatist flashpoints.
Ukraine’s richest oligarch takes a stand
In televised remarks on Wednesday, Ukraine’s richest oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, whose empire is headquartered in Donetsk, said the region “can be happy only in [a] united Ukraine.”
The multi-billionaire who controls a huge industrial empire of mines, steel works and power stations, also said that neither Russia nor eastern Ukraine would benefit, if Russia annexed parts of eastern Ukraine.
As the crisis unfolded, Akhmetov appeared to be hedging his bets, according to analysts, and he had declined an offer from the interim government in Kyiv to become the governor of the Donetsk region.
He had been holding talks with separatists but reacted angrily earlier in the week when one of their leaders claimed publicly that the billionaire had helped to fund them – a claim Akhmetov denied.
Akhmetov, whose net worth has been estimated by the English-language newspaper the Kyiv Post at nearly $12 billion, said the crisis engulfing the region is a “disaster.”
“The region has been gripped by fear,” he said. “People are closing stores and offices and leaving cities. People are being shot and killed in streets.”