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In Ukraine, Two Men Claim To Be The Leader Of Donetsk


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine say they are going ahead with an independence referendum on Sunday. The pro-Western government in the capital, Kiev, argues this vote would be illegal. And this all has many Ukrainians worried about what happens next. This next story shows how far apart the two sides are. Two men each claim to be the leader of the region called Donetsk.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports on both.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: One of the men claiming to represent the people of Donetsk does so from the main administration building. It's been occupied by pro-Russian activists since April.


NELSON: The weeks they've spent here have taken their toll on the high rise, which is filthy and reeks of rotting food, cigarettes and worse. Offices have been ransacked and equipment and files that haven't been taken away are piled high in hallways.

But the scene doesn't bother Denis Pushilin, a self-proclaimed chairman of the Donetsk People's Republic, who once worked as a croupier and ran a Ponzi scheme for the Russian version of Bernie Madoff.

DENIS PUSHILIN: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: During a news conference announcing the referendum, he praises Russian President Vladimir Putin for his commitment to resolving the crisis here in Eastern Ukraine peacefully.

PUSHILIN: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: But the bearded Pushilin says he can't follow the recent advice given by Russia's leader to delay the referendum because he won't deviate from what the people of Donetsk want. We are just the voice of the people, says the 32-year-old, who recently ran for parliament, but got less than 80 votes.

A short drive away inside the regional capital's most opulent hotel, a man in an expensive suit, who bears a resemblance to Woody Allen, also claims to speak for the people of Donetsk. His name is Serhiy Taruta and he is the governor of this industrial and mining region. It's a post he was appointed to by Ukraine's interim president in March. Taruta also happens to be a business tycoon worth nearly $3 billion, according to Forbes magazine. He credits his business savvy with helping him hold the province together.

The governor tells reporters that masked pro-Russian gunmen may be in charge of government buildings but it's his administration that is running Donetsk and is doing so rather well given the circumstances.

GOV. SERHIY TARUTA: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Taruta says that pensioners are receiving their checks on time, the government is paying its bills, and schools are open everywhere except in nearby Slavyansk where a military operation is under way. He says the only real problem is that banks are having a hard time keeping ATMs filled, mainly because there aren't enough armored cars to move the money around.

TARUTA: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: The governor predicts the unofficial referendum will be a flop, despite claims by his separatist counterpart that three million ballots are ready and election plans are finalized.

Which one of these men people here listen to should become clearer on Sunday.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Donetsk.

INSKEEP: Now, two months after Russia seized another part of Ukraine, Crimea, Russian president Vladimir Putin is visiting there. The stated reason for this visit is a celebration of Victory Day, the day the Soviet Union claimed victory over Nazi Germany at the end of World War II. The fighting between the Soviet Union and Germany included battle of the Crimean Peninsula, along with almost all the rest of Eastern Europe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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