Serhiy Taruta, one of the oligarchs appointed as governor to bring restive eastern Ukraine more firmly under the control of the Kiev government, tried on Thursday to stamp his authority on the crucial industrial region.
In a pre-dawn raid, police removed pro-Russian demonstrators who had been occupying the Donetsk’s regional administration building. The Russian flag that had been hanging over the building was replaced by the blue and yellow Ukrainian banner.
On Thursday afternoon, riot police swooped in to arrest Pavel Gubarev, a businessman who had proclaimed himself governor and was demanding a referendum on the future status of the region.
Mr Taruta has also removed the local police chief, complaining in a meeting on Thursday with the foreign ministers of Denmark and Sweden, that the police had become “demoralised”.
Following the ousting of president Viktor Yanukovich and the installation of a new government in Kiev, police in eastern centres such as Donetsk and Kharkiv had proved unable to restrain demonstrations of only a few hundred people from taking control of government buildings. The regional government building in Donetsk was stormed twice, with riot police giving way to pro-Russian demonstrators.
However, Kiev has appointed local oligarchs such as Mr Taruta or political loyalists as regional governors, and demonstrations have been quickly brought under control.
“It was a very clever step to appoint the oligarchs,” said Aleksey Ryabchyn, an economic analyst in Donetsk. “It’s a bit like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, but they can be consolidating figures in the region.”
Mr Taruta , who holds a stake in the Industrial Union of the Donbass, a coal and steel conglomerate with interests in Ukraine, Hungary and Poland, is closely tied to former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. He was sidelined under Mr Yanukovich, who was allied with Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest oligarch and a Donetsk rival of Mr Taruta.
Mr Taruta has long been seen as a Ukrainian patriot. Unlike most other east Ukrainian companies, the spoken language at the Industrial Union headquarters is Ukrainian, not Russian, and his co-workers said he had made appearances at the demonstrations against Mr Yanukovich in central Kiev.
The more forceful policy apparent across eastern Ukraine in recent days aims to end disarray in the region and dispel worries that pro-Russian sentiment could be seized on by Moscow as a pretext for military intervention – similar to the way Russia has justified its invasion of Crimea.
“Vladimir Putin himself realises that it is impossible to split the country, but given our economic weakness, you can create a problem and then be a peacemaker,” Mr Taruta said, according to local news reports.
Although pro-Russian demonstrations have garnered attention in recent days, most local people have not taken part. There seems to be little support for seceding and joining Russia, even among anti-government protesters, but support for the government in Kiev is also lukewarm. Many in eastern Ukraine see it as being too closely linked to nationalists from western Ukraine, and not reflective of the interests of the culturally and linguistically Russian east.
“We want to stay in Ukraine but we want to become a federation,” said Elizaveta Verlamova, a retired academic standing with among protesters in front of riot police guarding the Donetsk administration building. “The Kiev government is illegitimate, they took power in a coup.”
When a student named Alexander broke in to say that as a Ukrainian he was glad the Russian flag had been taken down from the building, the crowd, largely made up of pensioners, bristled. However, he quickly admitted: “I don’t like the demonstration that stormed the building here in Donetsk, but I don’t like what happened in Kiev either.”