Could Donetsk go in the same way as Crimea?

Story highlights

  • Protesters mainly pro-Russian in Donetsk, city in eastern Ukraine
  • At Lenin Square, one pro-Ukrainian protester was killed Thursday
  • Tension remain between pro-Russian and pro-Ukraine demonstrators

"Donetsk is a Russian city." The chant rang out in the eastern Ukrainian city on Saturday, as thousands of pro-Russia demonstrators rallied beneath a towering statue of Soviet revolutionary Vladimir Lenin in the city's main square.

They waved Russian flags and red flags emblazoned with the iconic image of Argentinian Marxist Che Guevara.

There was not a single Ukrainian flag to be seen.

"They are frightened," said local journalist Denis Kazansky of pro-Ukraine protestors. "They will not come out and demonstrate."

That's because just three days earlier, Lenin Square was the scene of violent clashes that left a 22-year-old, pro-Ukrainian activist dead.

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A floral tribute is the only evidence that remains of the bloodshed that unfolded Thursday night when a police cordon that stood between rival groups was breached.

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The tribute appeared a lonely site on Saturday as thousands of pro-Russia protesters stood with their backs to it. Their focus turned to a platform beneath the Lenin statue, where men and women took turns making their case for a referendum on the right to self-determination.

Among the demonstrators was Vladimir Kosolapov, a local leader for the Communist Party in Ukraine. He told us that people in this eastern pocket of Ukraine supported the idea of federalism.

"We need more independence from Kiev for our region. Most people here don't think that power in Kiev is legitimate."

In the region, 48% are ethnic Russians and 46% are ethnic Ukrainian. Most speak Russian as their first language and feel closer historic ties to Moscow than Kiev.

"I am a citizen of Ukraine," said Kosolapov. "I have the opportunity to leave Ukraine and go to Russia to my friends and relations but I don't want to go. I will not leave here because this is my home. My family is here. This is my parents' native land."

While those who support the new government in Kiev have only been holding sporadic rallies in Donetsk, pro-Russian demonstrators have a more permanent presence in Lenin Square. They have set up red tents from where they call for volunteers to join self-defense units and invite people to sign a petition and answer three questions.

People queue to have their say beneath the Russian flags.

Do you support a Customs Union? Yes. This is a trade agreement between Russia and some of the former Soviet republics.

Do you want Russian to be an official language? Yes.

Should Ukraine be a member of NATO? No.

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The local council had tried to ban any further demonstrations this weekend following the bloodshed on Thursday, but the Donetsk District Court rejected the request, saying there was no evidence of any danger to the public.

Indeed, the rally in Lenin Square was peaceful on Saturday, though the demonstrators did bring traffic to a standstill when they decided to march through the streets and take their protest to the offices of the SBU, the Ukraine Security Services, which is loyal to Kiev.

As riot police stood guard at the building entrance, the demonstrators called for the release of Pavel Gubarev, one of the leaders of the pro-Moscow protest movement who was arrested by the SBU on March 6, for leading a blockade at the regional administration building.

There were reports of some property damage, but the demonstration did not escalate further.

But it won't be an end to the pro-Russian fervor in Donetsk. Police were poised for more of the same with another major rally planned on Sunday in a show of support for the referendum in Crimea.

Many in Donetsk want the same.