Friday, May 30, 2014 3:54 pm
by Nicolas MILETITCH
DONETSK (AFP) – With rebel leaders accused of looting supermarkets and car showrooms being robbed by “revolutionaries”, the pro-Russian stronghold of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine is slipping into anarchy.
“A few days ago, armed men in hooded tops arrived at two car showrooms. They demanded a dozen cars ‘for the revolution’,” said Tikhon, a friend of one of the targeted showrooms’ owners.
“Who are these people? No one knows anything about them. But what can you do when you have a Kalashnikov pointed at you?”
With the town under the control of pro-Russian militants and many of the police switching allegiance to support the insurgents, Donetsk has become a lawless city.
Police have kept a low profile for weeks. They are nowhere to be seen on the streets, and seemingly unable to stop the spate of looting that has hit the city of one million.
On Monday, the sports complex belonging to the Donbass ice hockey team was targeted in an armed attack.
“Armed men tied up the guards and seized computers, flat-screen televisions, a safe and a car, before setting fire to the building,” the club said in a statement.
Some attacks have a more political edge, such as the looting of a warehouse belonging to chocolate tycoon and newly elected Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko in the nearby town of Makiivka.
But one incident of criminality seems to have driven a wedge between rebel factions.
At some point during fierce fighting between separatists and Ukrainian forces for control of Donetsk International Airport, armed men spent several hours ransacking a supermarket.
On Thursday afternoon, men from the rebel Vostok Battalion, comprising irregular soldiers from Chechnya and other Russian regions, stormed into the city’s regional administration offices toting machine guns and grenade launchers, saying they were looking for the supermarket looters.
They reportedly demanded that activists from the People’s Republic of Donetsk leave the building they had controlled. Some of their flags were removed from nearby checkpoints.
Rebel leader Denis Pushilin admitted at a news conference that some of the merchandise stolen from the supermarket had been found in the offices. “Many people have been arrested,” he said.
– Banks and restaurants closed –
A few kilometres (miles) from the airport, the road is blocked by a new checkpoint. More than 40 rebels died in a failed attempt to seize control of the airport.
An armoured van drove up, painted with the insignia of the Ukrainian Savings Bank. A group of pro-Russian fighters get out of the vehicle.
“Numerous armoured vans used to transport banks’ money have been seized by the pro-Russians. That’s why it is getting harder and harder to get cash in the city,” said Roman, a retired man who had tried to enter a branch of DeltaBank but found it closed.
“Many banks have stopped sending cash into Donetsk, judging that it is too risky.”
A poster on the door of the bank curtly tells customers that it is closed “due to the instability in the region”. Two other nearby banks have similar signs.
Most shops and restaurants are still functioning normally. But others, including McDonalds, are shuttered.
The pro-Russian authorities in Donetsk seem unable to control the armed groups, sometimes feuding rivals, which roam the streets.
Official announcements only create more confusion among residents.
“We don’t know what is happening: on Tuesday, the new authorities announced that there was a curfew from 10pm to 6am. The next day, the same authorities told us that this wasn’t true,” said Tatyana Nikolayevna, a 58-year-old lawyer.
On Tuesday, Pushilin announced that the region was adopting Russian law, but the reality is far from clear.
“We ask our bosses what law we need to use: Ukrainian law or Russian law? No one knows,” she said.
The uncertainty is also affecting the city’s students.
“My daughter is in her final year at university. Will she get a degree certificate saying Ukraine or one saying the Republic of Donetsk, which isn’t recognised by any one?” asked 45-year-old Roman.
Having been born and raised in Donetsk, he is now seriously considering leaving the city.