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23 Mar, 2014 21:10

Massive anti-Maidan rallies grip eastern Ukraine as residents demand referendum

Rallies have swept eastern Ukraine, with residents protesting against Kiev’s coup-imposed government and demanding a referendum to decide on the future of the region. Thousands took to the streets in Kharkov, Donetsk, Lugansk, and Odessa on Sunday.

About 5,000 protesters gathered in the city of Kharkov on Sunday to rally in favor of federalizing the country and holding people’s referendums in eastern Ukraine.

The demonstrators also demanded to make Russian the official language of the Kharkov region. Russian is the most common first language in the eastern regions.

Furthermore, the residents of Kharkov proclaimed illegitimate the political part of the EU-Ukraine association agreement signed by coup-installed Prime Minister Yatsenyuk. Some of the protesters headed to the Russian embassy, asking Moscow to investigate the legality of the presence of NATO troops in Ukraine and addressed Crimeans, asking to help the region.

The rally in Kharkov was also dedicated to two protesters who were killed last week by members of the ultra-nationalist Right Sector movement, which played an active role in the Maidan protests. The demonstrators chanted slogans such as “Glory to Kharkov defendants!” and “We won’t live under Bandera!”

Pro-Russian protesters hold a banner reading "Odessa for referendum!" stage a rally in the center of the Ukrainian city of Odessa on March 23, 2014 (AFP Photo / Alexey Kravtsov)

Stepan Bandera was the head of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). Bandera's nationalist movement collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II and was involved in the ethnic cleansing of Poles, Jews, and Russians. OUN was also responsible for the massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia, which resulted in about 100,000 murders.

Meanwhile in the eastern Ukrainian city of Lugansk, preliminary results of an improvised referendum were announced to a several thousands-strong rally.

According to the results, over 100,000 people voted in favor of joining Russia in a people’s referendum that was carried out in the form of a poll in Lugansk.

The poll was initiated last Sunday and will continue for another week.

Another 1,000 people gathered near the building of the regional security service, protesting against the current authorities in Kiev.

The city of Donetsk, also located in the Donbass region, also witnessed protests on Sunday, as more than 2,000 people took to the streets. They demanded that a referendum be held to decide the future of the region and handed out ballot papers.

Pro-Russian protesters shout slogans during a rally in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on March 23, 2014 (AFP Photo / Alexandr Khudoteply)

The protesters hoisted a Russian flag near the city council building, chanting “Russia” and “Berkut” while the building was surrounded by police.

Thousands also gathered for a rally in the Black Sea coastal city of Odessa on Sunday, protesting against the coup-imposed government in Kiev. They carried Ukranian, Russian, and Crimean flags and chanted slogans such as “Ukraine and Russia are together” and “Odessa is against Nazis and tycoons,” as well as “Referendum!”

The peaceful demonstrators urged authorities to release Anton Davidchenko, the arrested leader of People's Alternative, a council that coordinates the work of regional public organizations. They demanded an end to the persecution of activists accused of separatism.

Davidchenko’s mother, Lubov, who participated in the rally, urged all mothers in Ukraine to “prevent their sons from going to the criminal war, which the West-backed far-right authorities and tycoons in Kiev are trying to unleash between the fraternal Slavic peoples in the interests of their Western sponsors,” Itar-Tass reported.

“The authorities in Kiev are speaking about war with Russia, but in fact they are at war with their own people. The majority of Ukrainians do not support [Kiev’s] policy, but Kiev prefers not to pay attention to the people’s opinion, retaliating with repressions,” stated city council deputy Sergey Bovbolan.

Pro-Russian protesters wave Russian flags along with the flags of the Donetsk region during a rally in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on March 23, 2014 (AFP Photo / Alexander Khudoteply)

Speakers at the rally called for an end to the disinformation campaign waged by local media, and for authorities to stop putting pressure on TV channels.

A crowd comprised of thousands of Odessa residents walked through the central streets, visiting the Polish embassy to remind them of Bandera’s crimes.

Poland, Ukraine's western neighbor, has been very vocal during the crisis, supporting the current far-right Kiev authorities. The country also hosts the US military. The Pentagon dispatched 12 warplanes and hundreds of troops to Poland following the Crimean referendum.

The decision to hold a referendum in Crimea was sparked by the bloody Maidan protests that resulted in the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovich. Crimea refused to recognize the coup-imposed government. The referendum held last Sunday resulted in over 96 percent of voters answering in favor of the autonomous republic joining Russia. In turn, Russia accepted the people’s will and welcomed Crimea’s integration on Monday.

People in the eastern regions of Ukraine fear that the far-right Kiev authorities will not represent their interests. Residents of the Donbass region – the majority of whom are Russian speakers – were particularly unhappy over parliament's decision to revoke the law allowing the use of minority languages, including Russian.