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Ukraine Protesters Urge Yanukovych’s Return at Rally in Donetsk

Ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych
Viktor Yanukovych stands in the Presidential Palace in Kiev before his ouster, February 21, 2014. Photographer: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

Supporters of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych rallied in the eastern city of Donetsk today, urging the Kremlin-backed leader’s return and a referendum to give the country’s regions wider powers.

More than 2,000 people gathered in central Donetsk, a city of almost 1 million people, according to the Interfax-Ukraine news service. Demonstrators carrying Russian flags chanted “Russia” and “Yanukovych is our elected president.”

“I’m for an integrated Ukraine, but with a federal form of governance,” said Mykola, 58, a retired mining engineer, who declined to give his last name for fear of reprisal. “The East and West of Ukraine for sure should have a common defense, common science, common culture, but most of the region’s revenues should be kept within this region.”

Yanukovych left the country last month, saying his life was under threat after three months of anti-government protests. He fled to Russia and asked President Vladimir Putin to help restore order in his country. Russia has since annexed the Crimea region from Ukraine, while the Kremlin has massed troops on its western border, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Donetsk.

Ukraine’s government, which signed an agreement on closer cooperation with the European Union yesterday, has accused Russia of instigating unrest in the country’s east. Earlier rallies in Donetsk and Kharkiv turned deadly this week.

While Putin in a March 18 speech said he wasn’t seeking to “split up Ukraine,” he reserved the right to intervene if Russian speakers are at risk.

Moscow Demand

The government in Moscow is demanding that its neighbor adopt a federal constitution that guarantees political and military neutrality, grants powers to the regions, and make Russian a second official language. There’s no indication it would be acceptable to the Ukrainian government, which took power after Yanukovych was toppled amid protests last month, or to its Western supporters.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will send its mission to Ukraine to monitor the situation in the east, south and west, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters today in Kiev before leaving for Donetsk.

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