A woman walks past a concrete depiction of the yellow blue Ukrainian flag painted over with the flag of the Donetsk republic in Artemovsk, eastern Ukraine, Monday, May 19, 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered troops deployed near Ukraine to return to their home bases and praised the launch of a dialogue between the Ukrainian government and its opponents even as fighting continued in the eastern parts of the country.(AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
The Ukrainian flag is painted over with the flag of the Donetsk republic in eastern Ukraine © AP

An appeal by Ukraine’s richest man for hundreds of thousands of workers to protest against pro-Russian militants was largely ignored on Tuesday, in a setback for authorities in Kiev who hoped to build support for the presidential election on Sunday.

Rinat Akhmetov, the owner of coal mines, steel works and power stations in Donetsk, accused pro-Russia separatists of committing “the genocide of Donbass” in an unscheduled TV address on Monday. He called on his 300,000 employees to demonstrate against militants in rallies organised for Tuesday afternoon.

Kiev authorities had seized on Mr Akhmetov’s comments as evidence of a shift in tone by the billionaire. He has made few public statements on the crisis in Ukraine and had been reluctant to criticise pro-Russia insurgents who began seizing government buildings last month and creating the so-called Donetsk’s People’s Republic.

“Finally some energy,” Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s interior minister, wrote on Facebook on Tuesday. “The strength and energy of the people will sweep the terrorist filth better than any antiterrorist operation.”

However, turnout at the rallies was low and a number of workers in attendance said they supported the insurgents, a sign of the difficulties Kiev faces in Ukraine’s east.

At Enakievo Metallurgical Works, a factory outside Donetsk that employs 6,000, only a few hundred workers went to the ordered rally, which took the form of a team meeting and lasted less than 10 minutes.

Addressing the crowd, Alexander Podkorytov, the factory’s general director, told the workers that a certain group of people had managed to shut down an industrial railway line the day before, a move that could disrupt the plant’s output.

“Factory production is easy to stop but it’s hard to start it again,” he said stoically. “Everything is connected with the railroad.”

But he refrained from blaming the disruption on pro-Russia forces or tying the event to the political situation.

Afterwards, workers milling around said they had come to the meeting voluntarily but most said they did not share their boss Mr Akhmetov’s views on the militants.

“Akhemtov is a businessman. He is looking after his business interests, it’s natural,” Stas, a worker said. But he added that Mr Podkorytov had been wise to steer away from putting a “political accent” on the rally.

“Ninety-nine per cent of the workers are against the Kiev authorities,” said Vladimir Sadovoy, the head of the factory’s workers’ union, noting that at least one of the men in his 600-person-unit had taken voluntary leave to work with the pro-Russia militiamen.

“Some want to be part of Russia, others want to be part of Ukraine, others want to be independent. But everyone is against the Kiev authorities, absolutely.”

Mr Sadovoy said the factory’s managers had been holding meetings regularly with the insurgents and their people’s mayor who had taken control of Yenakiieve, the town where the plant is based.

Mr Sadovoy said the factory workers had been alarmed by the new Kiev authorities’ initial announcement that they would remove Russian as one of Ukraine’s two official languages. Workers were also concerned at the economic direction the country was taking, he added.

The price of petrol, he noted, had also risen sharply, while a $500m credit facility that Mr Akhmetov had planned extending to the plant was now being delayed, Mr Sadovoy noted.

“When Yanukovich was in power it was eight hryvnia to the dollar. Now it’s twelve.”

Additional reporting by Roman Olearchyk in Kiev

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