Mon | Oct 14, 2019

Protesters rally against election in rebel east

Published:Monday | October 7, 2019 | 12:21 AM
Protesters hold posters reading: ‘What did we spill our blood for?’, ‘No capitulation’, ‘Crimea, Donbas, Ukraine’ as they gather in Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Sunday, October 6, 2019.

KYIV (AP):

Thousands rallied in Ukraine’s capital Sunday against the president’s plan to hold a local election in the country’s rebel-held east, a move seen by some as a major concession to Russia.

Ukraine, Russia and Russia-backed separatists on Tuesday signed a tentative agreement on guidelines for holding a local election in eastern Ukraine, where a five-year conflict between the rebels and Ukrainian troops has killed more than 13,000 people. France and Germany, which help broker the talks, hailed the agreement.

Ukraine’s newly elected President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has cast the deal as an intermediate step needed to organise a summit with the leaders of Russia, France and Germany to push for a peaceful settlement.

But participants in Sunday’s rally denounced the move as a capitulation to Russia, which has backed the separatists.

“Our soldiers have given their lives for a united Ukraine, and we don’t want peace at any cost on Russia’s conditions,” said one of the demonstrators, Andriy Gnapko.

About 15,000, including veterans of fighting in the east, gathered on the Maidan, the main square in central Kyiv, under placards ‘Shame!’ and “No to capitulation!” Some of the participants later marched to the parliament building and presidential headquarters.

“Ukraine has been at war for five years, and I lost several of my friends, and they are now telling us that all of it was in vain,” said Ihor Roshchenko, a soldier. “One man can rob us of our country with his ill-considered steps.”

Zelenskiy, a comedian with no political experience, was elected by a landslide in April on promises to combat the country’s endemic corruption and end the spiralling war in the east. He remains widely popular, even though his image has been dented by a July 25 phone call in which US President Donald Trump urged the Ukrainian leader to investigate the son of his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, a demand that has triggered a US impeachment inquiry.

In an interview with Kyodo news agency published Sunday, Zelenskiy reaffirmed his denial that he was pushed by Trump.

ELECTION IN THE EAST

Zelenskiy strongly defended a plan for an election in the east, vowing that the vote will follow Ukrainian laws and include candidates from Ukrainian political parties. He emphasised that the election should be preceded by a lasting ceasefire and an exchange of all prisoners.

Last month, Zelenskiy initiated a prisoner exchange in which Ukraine and Russia freed 35 prisoners each – the biggest swap in years. He is now pushing for a pullback of Ukrainian and separatist forces from the front line to end continuing skirmishes. A 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany provided for such withdrawal to set up a safe buffer zone, but both warring parties have failed to honour the demand.

Russia, hoping that the implementation of the Minsk agreement could open the door to easing the European sanctions, welcomed Zelenskiy’s moves.