DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) – The Donetsk People’s Republic is starting to smell.
Rotting garbage is piling up in the hallways of the government office building seized by separatists in eastern Ukraine. Telephones ripped from the walls are piled atop broken furniture and mounds of old files. The stench of sweat and stale cigarettes is everywhere. The guards, slouching men with pistols shoved in their pockets or flapping loosely in holsters, look increasingly bored.
It’s been six weeks since they took over the building, a week since they declared independence from Ukraine. But the authority of the alleged nation barely extends beyond their ten-story office tower and a few heavily armed checkpoints on roads leading into this industrial city 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the Russian border.
In the streets of Donetsk, the separatist leaders and their followers are increasingly derided as a collection of heavily armed, barely employed misfits. Outside of the rebels’ headquarters, it can be difficult to find anyone who agrees with their calls to secede from Ukraine and link this part of the country – with its generations of ethnic and linguistic ties to Russia – to Moscow.
“All this shouting about us being a republic. What kind of a republic is this?” asked Leonid Krivonos, a 75-year-old retired miner, angry that the separatists are refusing to allow Ukraine’s upcoming presidential election. “The young ones still have a future to look forward to, and they risk seeing that all destroyed.”
The interim Ukrainian government hopes Sunday’s presidential election will unite the country behind a new leader, but separatists across the east have vowed to block the vote.
Donetsk’s separatist leader waves away any prospect of an election. After all, insists Denis Pushilin, chairman of the self-declared Supreme Council, Donetsk is not in Ukraine anymore.
“How can we hold an election of a neighboring country on our territory?” said the 32-year-old Pushilin, smiling in an interview in his tenth-floor office.
A few feet away, his bodyguard fell asleep in a desk chair, one hand clutching a holstered pistol.