MARIUPOL, UKRAINE — Smoke billows from Azovstal steel works here, one of the many gargantuan industrial assets in this southeastern port city owned by Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov.
Akhmetov employs more than 300,000 people across the region. This plant alone produces four million to five million tons of steel each year for markets around the world.
But vital export markets in Europe and elsewhere would be cut off to local industry if the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic were to secede from Ukraine, a move supported in last week’s unofficial referenda there and in Luhansk. Only a handful of countries would recognize the two republics’ sovereignty.
In a potentially seismic shift in the power dynamics of eastern Ukraine, business leaders — claiming that secession would be economically disastrous for the region — this week began mobilizing industrial workers to rise up against armed separatists here and in a handful of other cities.
The workers have formed patrols, removing armed groups from checkpoints and occupied buildings around Mariupol. Some 100 groups are patrolling Mariupol, each consisting of six to eight workers and two policemen.
On Friday, businessmen such as Akhmetov signed a memorandum with police, union leaders and some separatists, renouncing political violence and calling for armed groups to lay down their weapons. But on Friday night, the Ukrainian military still controlled access in and out of Mariupol.
The workers recently forced separatists to abandon the Mariupol administration building. But as they patrolled before the cameras Friday, tensions were high.
The directors of two steel plants owned by Akhmetov have been leading patrols themselves.
Yuriy Zinchenko said it was important to take the separatists’ views into account, but not at the risk of jeopardizing jobs or the regional economy.
“All of us have good brains and we don't want to turn Donetsk into a war zone,” said Zinchenko, who heads Illich Steel Works. “All of us understand that this is just destruction. This is the road to nowhere.”
Skeptical of motivations
Many observers said they were skeptical of the patrols, suggesting the oligarchs are only looking out for their own interests.
“Patrolling is a good thing, but you must understand, this is not a patrol, it is just a PR stunt from comrade Akhmetov,” said Aleksander Sukhovsky, an unemployed machinist. “Akhmetov is trying to show all of us that he is the real boss of the entire region.”
Separatists who had met with the steel companies tried to win over the crowd, with mixed results.
An unidentified separatist leader addressed the crowd, saying, “The sense of this memorandum is to request the authorities in Kyiv to pull their troops back from the borders of Mariupol and to dismantle the roadblocks."
“Don't lie to people, don't try to trick us,” a female observer shouted back in Russian.
“Resign! Resign!" the crowd chanted to the separatist leader.