After Eastern Ukrainian Steel Magnate Flexes Muscle, Barricades Fall

May 16, 2014
Originally published on May 16, 2014 3:00 pm

Barricades in the eastern Ukrainian town of Mariupol have been dismantled, following a deal between separatist leaders, police and steelworkers from the city's biggest steel mill. The deal came after steel mill owner, billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, issued a statement saying the region's economic future depended on staying united with Ukraine.

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Steel workers have taken over the streets in an eastern Ukrainian city. They've managed to wrest control from pro-Moscow separatists who had seized public buildings in Mariupol. The workers took down the barricades that blocked the city hall and the separatists agreed to withdraw from the building. The change came after the country's richest man issued a statement of support of keeping the region united with Ukraine. He's also the region's largest employer. NPR's Corey Flintoff has more from Mariupol.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Several hundred supporters of the pro-Russian separatists gathered outside the partially burned city hall building this afternoon, shouting down separatist leaders who were trying to placate them. They were angry that their leaders had made a deal with the local Ukrainian authorities to take down their barricades and withdraw from the building. Separatist leader Dmitriy Kuzmenko, the self-proclaimed people's mayor of Mariupol, tried to make himself heard over the din. He said a continued occupation would have led to a breakdown in municipal services that people depend on.

DMITRIY KUZMENKO: (Through translator) Who gets the blame when we don't get pensions and salaries on time? Would you show me? It's us you are going to blame.

FLINTOFF: The crowd wasn't buying it. Just the day before, teams of steelworkers moved in and dismantled the barricades the separatists used to fortify their positions. The steelworkers came from a company called Metinvest, owned by Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov. Akhmetov had been straddling the fence between the separatists and people who want the region to remain part of Ukraine. He finally issued a video statement, putting his weight solidly behind Ukrainian unity.

RINAT AKHMETOV: (Through translator) The People's Republic of Donetsk? Nobody is going to acknowledge it. Huge sanctions will be put on us. We won't be able to sell or to produce. It means unemployment and it means poverty.

FLINTOFF: Akhmetov's opinion carries a lot of weight in this industrial town, where his firm employs tens of thousands of people. But the tycoon also deployed those workers, encouraging them to join volunteer patrols to help keep the town secure. The patrols can be seen walking in groups of eight or ten with city police. Separatist leader Ivan Kolesnikov acknowledged that the insurgents had made a deal with the authorities.

IVAN KOLESNIKOV: (Through translator) The barricades were taken down because they were affecting traffic and because the government troops have left the city. And, because we had negotiations with local authorities that remained in the city.

FLINTOFF: In fact, the separatist leaders say, their people's mayor signed an agreement with the official mayor to withdraw from occupied buildings. Since Mariupol separatists didn't hold a referendum like those carried out over the weekend in neighboring Donetsk and Luhansk, it's unclear how much support they have in this port city. This young salesman says it isn't as strong as the separatists proclaim. He gave his name only as Yaroslav, saying he feared that his family might be targeted for revenge. He says many people believe there's no future in becoming independent or uniting with Russia.

YAROSLAV: But other people, they watch Russian TV, they watches propaganda and they don't understand what will happen. Most people that want to live in Russia and they don't understand, they think that Mr. Putin will give the money and for nothing.

FLINTOFF: It's not clear yet whether the change in Mariupol will spread to other cities where separatists hold sway, but all those cities have big populations of industrial workers who may take their cue from the factory owners. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Mariupol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.