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Friday 22 August 2014

Miners join ranks of anti-Kiev separatists

'It's hard to a them – but if you do, there will be trouble'

Alec Luhn in Donetsk

Published 13/04/2014 | 02:30

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A member of Ukraine's now-defunct riot police officers stand in their uniforms, as they guard in front of regional police building in Donetsk, Ukraine, Saturday, April 12, 2014. Men in the uniforms of Ukraine's now-defunct riot police on Saturday occupied police headquarters in Donetsk, the eastern city that is one of the flashpoints of a wave of pro-Russia protests, hours after armed men seized local police headquarters and local branch of the Security Service in a nearby city.(AP Photo/Alexander Ermochenko)
A member of Ukraine's now-defunct riot police officers stand in their uniforms, as they guard in front of regional police building in Donetsk, Ukraine

WORD spread quickly through the few hundred pro-Russian protesters in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine: "The miners are coming!"

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The crowd parted as a group of a dozen or so burly men in orange work helmets marched past barbed-wire and tyre barricades into the 11-storey administration building, which protesters seized last weekend as they demanded greater independence from Kiev.

"Glory to the miners!" the crowd began chanting. "Glory to Donbass!"they shouted, much as protesters at Kiev's Euromaidan demonstrations had shouted "Glory to Ukraine!" before they ousted the president, Viktor Yanukovych, in February.

Donetsk is the heart of eastern Ukraine's coalmining country, historically known as the Donbass, and its football club is called the Miners. Cultural and economic ties to Russia – about three-quarters of people in the Donetsk region speak Russian as their native language – have put the Donbass on a collision course with the new government in Kiev, which plans to sign an association agreement with the EU.

Mr Yanukovych is from Donetsk and many here still call him the legitimate president.

The hundreds of supporters who have gathered at the Donetsk occupation each day are a small number of the city's nearly one million residents. But if the 100,000-plus employees of coalmining enterprises were to rise en masse, that would change the political picture drastically, in a similar fashion to the Donbass miners' strikes that helped bring about the break-up of the Soviet Union.

"It's hard to arouse the miners, but when you do, there will be trouble," said Artyom, a former miner who was guarding the administration building on Friday night.

"If the miners all rise up, it will be an economic, physical and moral blow. It will be hard for everyone."

In the neighbouring coalmining region of Luhansk, the "army of the south-east", a group of armed men including former Berkut riot police who fought protesters in Kiev, has occupied the security service headquarters and demanded a referendum. The protesters want economic and political independence from Kiev and many support a federalisation of the country.

But they have also called on Russia to send in peacekeeping forces.

Yesterday, armed men seized a police station in the city of Sloviansk in the Donetsk region and demanded a local referendum, reportedly firing shots and throwing stun grenades. In the morning, men, armed mainly with clubs, briefly took over a regional prosecutor's office in Donetsk.

A local miner who identified himself as Andrei said: "We need to fight for our rights and protect the Donbass from Bandera supporters," he said, referring to Stepan Bandera, a second world war nationalist leader who is commemorated with dozens of monuments in western Ukraine but widely reviled as a Nazi collaborator in the east. Many protesters see the new Kiev government as dominated by nationalists from western Ukraine, which has a largely agrarian economy.

A tenth of Ukraine's coal production is sold to Russia, the country's largest trading partner. Another third goes to power metalworking plants, which also sell much of their product to Russia. But as the new Kiev regime has turned towards Europe, Russia has disrupted trade at the border, and orders from Russian companies have fallen off, miners reported.

Oleg Obolents, a retired miner said many in the industry had not come out to support the protests, for fear of losing their jobs. "When they haven't received their pay for two or three months, they'll come out, or if there is a storming [of the occupied building]," he added. "The hungry have nothing to lose."

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