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Second day of Ukraine protests brings calls for referendum

| Sunday, March 23, 2014, 5:45 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Bus riders could watch several thousand pro-Russia demonstrators march past from a rally on Sunday, March 23, 2014, in Lenin Square toward Donetsk’s regional administration building in Ukraine.

DONETSK, Ukraine — Pro-Russia protesters rallied for a second day in Lenin Square here on Sunday, demanding a referendum on joining the Russian Federation and blasting Western influence on the region.

A week earlier, Ukraine's southern Crimea region voted to secede and to join Russia, igniting minor clashes between the two countries and Western sanctions against Moscow.

Thousands in the square waved Russian and regional flags. They demanded that ousted pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych be returned to office, denounced the country's interim leaders as Nazis, and accused the West and the European Union of causing unrest.

“U.S. and EU out of the Ukraine,” read one sign. “They sponsor terrorism.”

“Why did the U.S. and the EU pay for the Maidan?” asked protester Vasili Michailak, referring to the uprising in Kiev's central square that prompted Yanukovych to flee to Russia.

“We don't want war, and we don't want fascists here,” said Michailak, 57. “The occupation taking place in Ukraine was paid for by the U.S. The people of eastern Ukraine don't want to be part of NATO.”

Although protesters hope to rejoin Russia — and to end Ukrainian independence that followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union — others fear a Russian invasion.

NATO's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, expressed concern about Russia's military buildup on Ukraine's eastern border.

That Russian force “is very, very sizable and very, very ready,” Breedlove told an event hosted by the German Marshall Fund, a Washington-based think tank.

A February study by Ukraine's Democratic Initiatives Foundation found that 33.2 percent of Donetsk residents favor joining Russia, a sentiment second in size only to Crimea's.

One woman in the crowd said she moved to Donetsk two years ago to find a school with Russian language classes for her daughter. She refused to give her name, saying she fears persecution.

She echoed familiar themes, dismissing anti-Yanukovych forces as “paid … pseudo-patriots” and “Nazis.”

“I just feel like if we stayed under one big yellow-and-blue flag” — Ukraine's national banner — “we will continue to be second-class citizens … deprived of speaking Russian,” the 35-year-old advertising worker said.

“My love for Ukraine is supposed to be equated with my hatred of Russia. It shouldn't be like that.”

Svetlana Lemeanska, 44, wore an English-language sign on her back: “Stop Ukrainian Nazism.” A lecturer at Donetsk Technical University, she wants “to join Russia, but I don't see how. I don't want a war. Maybe if we could have a referendum, we would be closer.”

Protesters marched on the regional government building, chanting for Russian President Vladimir Putin to “save us and Yanukovych, protect us.”

They quickly moved to City Hall, where young men pulled down Ukraine's flag and hoisted Russian and Donetsk regional flags to cheers, whistles and chants of “Russia!”

An hour after they left, Russia's flag came down and Ukraine's fluttered overhead again.

Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent.

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