By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times
The Kremlin’s top diplomat signaled Tuesday that Russia won’t recognize the results of Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election unless it is preceded by a “national dialogue” on redistributing power to the regions and an end to Ukrainian troops’ efforts to retake eastern territory seized by pro-Russia rebels.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also accused Ukraine’s interim government in Kiev of “fascism” and pointed to Friday’s deadly confrontation in the Black Sea port of Odessa as evidence of the Western-allied leadership’s brutal intentions toward Russians and other minorities.
Lavrov spoke in Vienna during a gathering of the Council of Europe as fighting between Ukrainian government troops and Russia-allied separatists in eastern Ukraine ground to a tense standoff.
An “anti-terrorist operation” launched weeks ago has made only limited progress in containing the pro-Russian gunmen, said to number about 800 in Slovyansk, the main battleground in an arc of towns and cities along Ukraine’s Russian border where militants man roadblocks to repel the Ukrainian forces.
Ukrainian officials blamed the slow progress in quelling the Slovyansk insurgency on the separatist gunmen’s use of women and other civilians as human shields to deter forceful moves by the Ukrainian troops to retake the town of 125,000 in the Donetsk region.
Ukrainian acting defense minister Mykhailo Koval told a Reuters news agency reporter in Slovyansk that the presence of civilians compelled the government to erect “a gradual blockade, destroying provocateurs and sabotage to prevent injuries among the population.”
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov on Tuesday gave updated casualty figures to journalists covering the escalating conflict in the eastern regions. He said 30 pro-Russia militants had been killed in two days of fighting and that four Ukrainian soldiers died in the sporadic battles.
The Ukrainian troops managed to overrun one checkpoint near Slovyansk, breaking the rebels’ lines of communication, The Associated Press reported.
But other reports from the roiling region said the separatists had surrounded an Interior Ministry base in Donetsk and were preventing security forces from reinforcing the government mission to recover control of the militant-occupied towns and cities.
Lavrov’s speech in Vienna suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin will persist with what Kiev’s interim authorities say is a grand scheme to destabilize the east and south of Ukraine and cast doubts on the legitimacy of the presidential election.
Putin has denounced the acting Ukrainian government ministers as “coup-installed” and lacking any authority to make decisions on behalf of the divided country.
Ukraine’s Interim President Oleksandr Turchinov and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk took power after Kremlin-allied President Viktor Yanukovich was toppled in late February after a three-month rebellion spurred by his decision to abandon an association agreement between Ukraine and the European Union. Yanukovich, rewarded for his loyalty to the Kremlin with a lucrative natural gas discount deal, fled Kiev after agreeing to a power-sharing agreement with the political opposition, which included Turchinov and Yatsenyuk.
Putin sent Russian troops into Ukraine’s Crimea territory days after Yanukovich fled and took refuge in Russia. After the Kremlin forces occupied the Crimean parliament, communications centers and military bases, they backed local nationalists in staging a hastily organized referendum on secession from Ukraine and annexation with Russia.
The Kiev interim government and its Western allies suspect the Kremlin has armed and instigated the pro-Russia rebels occupying about a dozen towns and cities in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and has provoked confrontations elsewhere. On Friday, 46 people were killed in Odessa when rival protest marches for and against Ukrainian unity erupted in street fighting and the firebombing of a multistory building where pro-Russia gunmen had taken up positions on the upper floors.
Accounts in Russia’s state-controlled media have portrayed the Odessa violence as evidence of the Kiev government’s threat to Russians and other minorities in Ukraine, a country of 46 million in which about a quarter of the population is Russian or Russian-speaking.
In his address in Vienna, Lavrov branded the Odessa tragedy “a blatant manifestation of fascism.”
“Defenseless people, including women, were burnt alive in the House of Trade Unions in the city of Odessa,” Lavrov said. “Fire was opened at those who tried to survive by jumping out from the windows. They (unity supporters) were scoffing at corpses.”
Russian officials have also described the government’s ongoing operation to rout separatists from Ukrainian government buildings and communications centers as a campaign targeting minority civilians.
“Holding elections at a time when the army is deployed against part of the population is quite unusual,” Lavrov told a news conference, calling on the Kiev leadership to rescind its orders for retaking the occupied eastern and southern venues.
“We are convinced that there is a way out of the crisis,” Lavrov said. “It can be found exclusively on the basis of a national dialogue” between the Kiev government and the pro-Russia rebels.
Yatsenyuk has spoken in favor of constitutional reforms that would cede power from the central government in Kiev to the regions, allowing them to decide their own economic and foreign policies. But Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroisman told journalists in Kiev on Tuesday that the complicated redrafting of Ukraine’s governing structure won’t be completed and ready for a public vote until late fall at the earliest.
©afp.com / Alexander Khudoteply