Lawmakers and officials from eastern Ukraine on Saturday poured criticism on the fledging central government, accusing it of ignoring legitimate grievances of the regions, which have been overrun by pro-Russia militia fighting for independence.
One eastern leader said last weekend’s unofficial referendum in favor of independence “expressed the will of the people.”
The criticism came in the second round of European-brokered talks intended to resolve the country’s worst crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
On Saturday, politicians from the east implored the Ukrainian government to believe that — apart from the pro-Russia gunmen — a large sector of the population had lost hope in the interim administration in Kiev.
The round-table talks in the eastern city of Kharkiv did not feature any of the insurgents, whom Kiev describes as terrorists. The insurgents say they are willing to discuss only the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops and the recognition of the independence of the regions.
Valery Holenko, chairman of the Luhansk regional government, said that the devolution of powers that the government is offering was no longer enough and that as a first step toward appeasing eastern Ukrainians, the government has to stop its “anti-terrorist operation” in the east.
Ukrainian Acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who was often busy with his iPad while some of the eastern lawmakers were making passionate speeches, called on the eastern leaders to resist the armed men and support the government’s efforts to devolve powers to the regions.
“You have got in your home, in Luhansk and Donetsk, armed terrorists who are funded by Russians and those who fled Ukraine and want to seize our land,” Yatsenyuk told the gathering. “We’re not going [to] talk to robbers and terrorists. They will not be telling the Ukrainian people how to live in our country.”
Yatsenyuk urged the eastern leaders to disarm the insurgents, “regain the power and start a political dialogue.”
Reacting to calls to make Russian a second official language, Yatsenyuk said the Ukrainian government will support the equal status of Ukrainian and Russia in Russian-speaking regions, but sees no need for other legal protection.
Reacting to the fighting overnight near Slovyansk, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement condemning what it described as a sharp escalation of violence in eastern Ukraine, and accused Kiev of using the talks as cover for military operations against its citizens.
The ministry said some people were wounded, but gave no specifics.
Debris from the shooting was visible on Saturday morning, including a badly damaged train and craters caused by mortar bombs or other heavy artillery.
As on Wednesday, Saturday’s talks included officials, lawmakers, businesspeople and religious leaders from across the country, but no representatives of the separatists from Donetsk and Luhansk.